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Project Managing External vs. Internal Clients

The world of project management is vast.

Whether you are a technical project manager with a deep understanding of technical subject matter or a non-technical PM, the duties are ultimately the same. We are the expert organizers, the calmers of chaos, the ones who keep projects moving forward and the ones who sound the alarm when there are potential risks.

When it comes to managing a project, PMs usually approach them using the same methodologies or practices that have proven to be effective time and again, regardless of the type of project. However, if you work in the vendor space, it may be necessary to change your approach. For me, the way I manage an internal project with my colleagues and team members looks a little different than how I manage our external clients. If you are a PM who is looking into a more consultative role or looking to move into the vendor space, let’s dig into a few things to think about.


Internal vs. External Relationships

First, let’s just call out the biggest difference in these two types of projects – an internal project includes people within your company. Although you may have never worked together previously, you work for the same company and share the same business goals.

In contrast, an external project usually involves a paying client and stakeholders you’ve never met before. Obviously, this can change the way you approach things for many reasons, the first and most obvious being that you already have an existing relationship with your internal project team. You may need to work on building and maintaining new relationships but, for the most part, you have the luxury of skipping the “getting to know you & your company” stage.

For external projects, the relationship building step is imperative. It quite literally lays the foundation and overall tone of the project and can even be detrimental to the success of it if trust and respect are not established from the beginning.


Effectively Building New Relationships

A great example of how we like to make sure rapport and good relationships are forged from the very beginning is the experience we create for our project kick-offs. This is a great way for the project team to get to know each other. Use this time to set expectations and discuss the overall project objectives. Give your stakeholders an idea of the time commitment you’ll need from them. Someone not able to join the kick-off? Reach out to those stakeholders and try to set up some 1:1 time so you can cover anything they missed. I promise you; this step is so important if you want your project team to meet deadlines and provide their expertise & insights, which is a great segue into my next point… Accountability.


Navigating Accountability Discrepancies

Everyone has priorities established and in place when I come into a new company and start a project, and usually me and my project aren’t one of them. I can’t be mad about this, but I can be aware of what it means – if my project isn’t a priority, then accountability levels may not be that high either. The difference with PMing an internal project is that my colleagues who respect me and share the same business goals as I do are more likely to have a higher level of accountability.

If I tell my Instructional Designer that a deliverable is due by a certain date, they are likely going to meet that due date for me.  If I assign a task with a due date to a stakeholder on an external project, there is a stronger chance that my request is going to fall off their radar, therefore showing a lower level of accountability. It is just human nature to prioritize the things and people that are important to us and until I can establish the same level of trust and respect (which takes time), I can anticipate that an external client may not share the same level of accountability as my internal colleague whom I work with every day.

I like to solve for this by building in as much buffer into my project plan as possible and being very clear with my project team on the outcomes of things like missed due dates and failed action items.

This doesn’t always mean that project managing external clients is going to be harder, however.  They are paying for your services, after all, and hiring a company to perform a task, paying them good money for it, and then not holding up your end of the bargain is counterproductive.


Managing Relationships for Success

In my experience, the good news is that where accountability may fall short because of less established relationships, it is often made up by the fact that companies don’t like spending money for no reason. As the Project Manager, this also gives me a high level of accountability because if I do a poor job, this could impact whether the client hires me or spends their money with me again.

Most of the time there is going to be differences when managing an internal vs. external project, but one thing remains certain —one of the most important parts of successful project management is building and fostering the relationships with your stakeholders and project team. Knowing how to plan for and what to expect with managing external clients will also increase your chances of a successful project and hopefully keep your clients coming back.

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