Don’t downplay project management’s value

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Ah, the misunderstood role of the project manager. These poor souls live at the intersection between clients, management and the company’s implementation team. They take heat from all sides and are constantly torn between who is making the better point on any given day about the projects they run.

But they have a surprisingly strategic role that is often missed by the management and implementation teams. Managers think the PM is there to constrain hours on a project to make it more profitable. The implementation team thinks the PM’s objective is to manage clients’ expectations and keep clients from interfering in product development.

Here’s the disconnect: Your clients think that the PM is a strategic adviser, and the face (read: skill set) of your company. If clients get a wrong answer or a shallow, non-strategic answer from their PM, they assume the rest of the company doesn’t know the answer either. Interesting, right? Many clients start switching providers based on the level of advising and service they get from their PM.

And guess what? This client perception runs the gamut of industries — it’s not just tech. I’ve seen the same gap in advertising agency PMs, technical PMs, software development PMs, construction PMs, you name it.

PMs don’t get enough respect

So why is it, then, that the PM is often the whipping boy (or girl) of the organization? They don’t get training, they don’t necessarily get the answers they need to respond fully to client concerns, and if the budget goes awry they never hear the end of it. They’re not hired for their strategic thinking — rather they’re hired for their ability to manage multiple calendars, Gantt charts, and to provide a profitability breakout at the end of each project.

So, if you have a PM who’s really good at Gantt charts and profit spreadsheets but terrible at strategic thinking and doesn’t advise clients in a meaningful way, how much does this PM actually cost the company? You run risk of losing all the clients this PM comes in contact with.

Unfortunately, business owners and the sales team don’t have the luxury of telling clients how to think about their PMs, or how they approach their interaction through PMs. Instead it’s time to focus on the talent pool at this level of management. Do your PMs have a good grasp of your industry, where it’s headed and understand recent innovations? Can they speak intelligently about what’s happening with their projects at every level?

It would probably be a good idea to get your PMs out of the office from time to time so they can learn the same things your clients are learning. Send them to a few trade shows each year, let them interact with vendors and learn in seminars. You’ll be amazed at how this brings value to your customers, and improves your client retention rate.

As a side benefit, your PMs will probably also feel a little happier about their job too. Everybody wins.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a web consulting firm in Baltimore. Reach her at marci@mdvinteractive.com.