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Project Management or Client Services: Semantics?

The other day, I was meeting with a customer looking for a Chief Operating Officer role to be created in a Life Sciences contract services small-medium sized enterprise. The job description was that of a typical Head of Project Management with a few unrelated tasks, but as often in smaller organizations eventually you’re expected to juggle differently shaped objects at the same time. Further in our discussion, I was highlighting the need for a Client Services group to be built instead of a Project Management team using the following practical arguments: (1) Project Management is a set of trainable skills, of competencies using different tools primarily geared at delivering a project on time, in full and complaint with the agreed specs, (2) Client Services on the other hand is the overarching process of guiding a customer through the entire project life cycle, navigating ups and downs while making her/his journey as pleasant as possible, it is an attitude which can and should become a culture. In simple words, while Project Management is the Science, the expectation, Client Services remains the Art of managing a relationship. It is the wow-effect which is achievable even if the project wasn’t the expected smooth ride.

In times when highlighting the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) of a product requires an army of marketing professionals, it is becoming increasingly crucial to pay attention to other factors that are not directly linked to the product itself. Interestingly, in the area of Apps, Machine Learning and the Operationalization of (every)Things, the Human-to-Human side of business is becoming prominent again. Why? Partly because with the approaches taken to make a business more efficient we sometimes leave the focus for too long on how to go from 95% to 96% and lose sight of the “Blue Ocean Strategy” (W. Cham King, Insead), where we still operate at maybe 50% and have a lot more improvement space to eventually differentiate. Focusing for too long on inadequate KPIs and not spending enough time on what really matters for the client can lead to a commoditization and the need to rush through launching “new” products within a shorter period of time. While the WHAT we offer remains at the core of a business, the HOW we offer a service and HOW the product is perceived are as key for making sure that a customer is truly happy. It is not a coincidence that less tangible product features can drive entire industries eg. Design, Music, Words, etc while the core specifications remain comparable between products, if not very similar, the unit prices can hugely vary.

But back to our topic and aside the obvious differences between CS and PM, what is the impact at the company level? First of all, not all Project Managers will have the adequate skills to work in a Client Services environment. It is hard enough to find talented PMs that persevere in a dynamic and challenging Life Sciences, Supply Chain environment and it is even harder to find talented PMs who also master the art of managing and expanding client relationships (up-/cross-sell). With this in mind the first change to happen should be in recruitment. While the job descriptions might only vary in a few bullet points, typically around the soft skills, it is key to ask the right questions and take a closer look at the communicative/social talents and how they’d behave under stressful situations. Since it often proves difficult to find these skills in one individual some larger organizations operate with an external PM team and an internal Project Coordinator back-office structure. Another key component of creating a Client Services department is related to processes.

A mature company has to ensure that it has efficient and ideally seamless processes internally, but must pay as much attention to the processes it exposes the client to. The tools and ways of communicating with a customer may be very different, more elaborative, customized and subtle in many occasions, than the usually more direct, structured, unified processes used with internal teams. Following analogy: as a frequent flyer, I acknowledge the amount of procedures a pilot must follow and cross-check with the co-pilot in order to operate an aircraft and bring us safely “in full and on time” to the destination. As a passenger, I do not want to be made aware when and why switch A has to be pushed otherwise lever B could not be activated and that would lead to a potential failure of C, D and E … I think you get the point. Such a journey would be highly informative, but leading to a most unpleasant and nerve wracking flight. So, there’s always an internal process to be followed and an adequate approach to externalize information, at the right time and in the right dosage.

For the sake of this article, the last important point I’d like to highlight is the positive impact on an organization when CS becomes an attitude of always going the extra mile and making sure the client is satisfied. In this way, we go beyond a simple transactional project delivery, from beginning to end, wrap-up and on to the next project, and into an overarching approach to delivering the service, the art of customizing / personalizing communication, consultative vs transactional tasks ie. time spent with the client explaining various options and suggesting solutions, the qualitative personal time talking about hobbies, weekend activities, etc.

Eventually, it is the ultimate personal inter-connection and bonding between two business partners that makes the business so much more attractive and fulfilling that we want to repeat the journey, hopefully guided again by the same Client Services team.

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