Management consulting projects often drive mission-critical initiatives within a client organization. They can also consume valuable client resources such as time and money. Developing project plans at the start of the project that clearly set client expectations regarding scope, timeline, and budget is critical to ensuring that efforts and hard work pay off, and that potential hardships are avoided later.
Have you ever experienced any or all of the following situations?
Hurry up and wait The client wants the project to begin as soon as possible, so you work overtime to get the scope document, budget, and timeline together. But when you are ready, the client fails to make its resources — information and people — available in a timely manner.
Scope creep You work overtime to meet the client's expectations, even though their expectations included deliverables that weren't part of the original scope discussion. This is especially problematic for fixed-price contracts.
Endless brainstorming Sometimes the client has an idea of what they want you to discover during the course of a project, and if you don't find it, they want you to try again.
Two departments, one project objective Sometimes, especially at larger companies, you get involved in a project and you find out that another department is working on a similar project.
Late or no payment Some consultants fail to set proper payment expectations with clients, resulting in an excessively delayed payment.
The following planning suggestions can help you better navigate the process of getting client buy-in at the start of a project.
Identify the project champion
There must be a clear project champion — someone at a high level within the client organization who supports your team. This individual must have enough clout in the organization to gain access to key people and resources, and to eventually help sell ideas to the decision-makers. The project champion can help:
- Ensure that you have access to client staff and information to prevent bottlenecks that could affect your project timeline.
- Gather feedback on project hypotheses by researching findings and status from within the organization as a litmus test for how other client executives might react.
- Identify any other projects within the organization that have similar objectives. You want to make sure that the client resources are being used effectively and that any complementary efforts are coordinated.
Establish clear project scope
Most likely, you participated in a thorough proposal and pitch process before being awarded the contract. Even if you reviewed the project scope during that discussion, it's a good idea to refine it at the beginning of the project. The following can help you establish a clear project scope:
- Discuss initial hypotheses to test as soon as possible. Some client executives don't like to be surprised by transformational ideas or assumptions in the final recommendations meeting with their peers. Gain an understanding of executive response early in the project.
- Outline the tasks and deliverables that are and are not covered in the project scope, in order to set client expectations. Sometimes the client will choose before the project begins to expand the scope after the out-of-scope issues are communicated.
- Clarify format of deliverables. Make sure that the client knows the format of the various deliverables so that they don't have unrealistic expectations about the level of detail. Also, make certain that the client has realistic expectations regarding your participation in training and follow-up meetings as well as how many iterations of a project you will complete before requiring a change order — especially in the case of fixed-price contracts.
- Have the client sign off on a scope document at the beginning of a project. Be careful not to make this process so formal as to put off the client.
- Consistently review the original scope as you work through various milestone meetings during the course of the project.
Clearly outline the project timeline
Consulting projects can take weeks or months to complete. Also, they are often at the front end of larger operational initiatives, such as technology implementations, product development, or process reengineering efforts. The following can help you establish a clear project timeline:
- Outline the due dates of key milestones and when you expect to have the project wrapped up. This way, your client can coordinate your deliverables with other important company events — board meetings, earnings releases, or national sales meetings — where they might want to present some of the project findings.
- Include deadlines in your schedule for items that the client must provide to you, so they know their responsibilities. If they miss deadlines and force your schedule to shift, it will have been clear from the beginning.
- Identify required client and consulting resources and when they will be needed along the project timeline. You can do this most effectively in terms of full-time equivalents (FTEs).
- Make sure there is enough time for your team to complete the necessary research and analysis to make solid recommendations, while still allowing the client sufficient time to implement those recommendations.
Define how to handle billing issues
Client budgets are often tight, and miscommunication regarding billing issues can sour an otherwise good client relationship. Up-front and honest communication regarding all billing-related issues can positively contribute to your client relationship. The following are some suggestions on how to handle billing issues:
- Provide assumptions as to how you arrived at your price, such as the estimated number of hours and hourly rates that you used as the basis for the project price.
- Establish a mechanism for dealing with out-of-scope issues. If your master services agreement allows for it, and the client wants you to perform additional work, issue change orders that follow an agreed-upon format.
- Gain a clear understanding of when invoices will be paid and if the client expects any discounts for early payment, so you aren't surprised when you get the checks.
- Clearly communicate how travel, meals, and other expenses will be billed. These expenses can add up, especially on out-of-town engagements.
- Ask for a down payment before the project begins. This shows that the client is committed to the project, and that it has cleared the appropriate decision-making process that allows you to get paid.
Present your project plan in a kickoff meeting
The relationship between consultant and client is critical to the ultimate success of the project. If your clients feel that they were not adequately communicated with, or are surprised or overwhelmed, they might not embrace your recommendations. Presenting your plan in a project kickoff meeting can earn their immediate trust, which can pay off later.
The following guidelines can help you plan a successful kickoff meeting:
- Get the right people in the room. Work with the project champion to ensure that the meeting includes all the relevant decision-makers so they clearly understand the project's scope, objectives, initial hypotheses, research plan, and the broader strategic context in which the project exists.
- Present the project timeline indicating when key meetings, interviews, and presentations will take place, as they include the participation of your audience.
- Distribute a hard-copy version outlining this timeline as well as the project scope and deliverables. You can later reference this copy in future conversations. Meeting attendees can also use the copy to communicate the project's objectives to their peers and subordinates.
Maintain clear communication
Even though consulting projects deal with high-level strategic and operational issues, at the end of the day they are just projects. As such, it is important for all consultants to have project management skills and clear communication methods in place. In general, the more information that can be openly and honestly communicated about the project's scope, budget, and timeline, the better off both you and your client will be.
About the author John Seasholtz is the founder and principal consultant of Seasholtz Consulting, Inc., in Seattle. Seasholtz Consulting provides strategic and operational planning services to clients in the consumer products, high-tech, financial services, and retail industries.