Being a good Project Manager (PM) can mean different things in different agencies. It depends on the culture and the working environment of the agency, the type of services offered, as well as the size and industry of the clients. At 90 Digital, because we are a remote working team, being a PM can be pretty challenging. Instead of having the whole team in an office on a 9 to 5 schedule, you have to organise meetings over Skype that fit 4 different time zones.
After 4 years as a PM for 90 Digital, I’ve identified 7 main characteristics a good Project Manager should have in order to make it work in a remote culture.
Being organised is one of the most important things you have to master, both internally (with your team) and externally (with your clients). Trust me, there is nothing more helpful for a client than an organised PM. Some of the marketing managers we collaborate with have three or four agencies they work with at the same time (each specialised in one area: a creative agency for offline advertising, PPC agency, social agency, SEO agency, etc.) and it can be difficult for them to keep up with all of them.
Here are some things that work for us and our clients for you to try:
Send organised status emails: Use bullet points, bolding or colours to split the email into projects, number each task, mention the status of the tasks and mark the things that request the immediate attention of the client.
Keep the calendar updated: Use the calendar to schedule calls with the clients so you can both have the meeting in your agenda, especially if you work on different time zones. An updated calendar is useful for the internal team too, this way they know when you are not available.
Recap tasks at the end of a meeting: If it is a weekly Skype update call with the client, verbally recap the conclusions from the call, who is responsible for each task in the coming week. If it’s a longer meeting, it is better to send a recap email with everything that was agreed upon, organised as suggested in the first bullet point.
Keep your documents organised: Test different tools and ways to organise and keep track of tasks until you find the perfect one for you. At 90, we use Google Docs to organise all the documents and proposals we work on, Asana for keeping track of tasks and deadlines, and Slack and Skype for communicating with the team.
Working remotely has a lot of perks for the agency, but it could create some uncertainty for our clients. Some people imagine that remote workers always work from the beach with a lot of distractions around them, so we need to make sure our clients know their business is in good hands. They will have our full dedication no matter where we work from which, most of the time, is from home or from the coffee shop around the block.
Some things you can do to let clients know you are available for them:
Be prompt with replies: Don’t let 48 hours pass without replying to a client. Even if you don’t have an answer to their request, reply by saying you are working on that and you will get back asap. This way you assure them you are on top of things.
Have regular video calls: For bigger clients, we organise weekly Skype calls to update them on the status of the projects. For the ones where the volume of work is not that high, we plan monthly calls where we present reports and discuss the strategy for the next month. It’s important for the calls to happen on a platform that allows video (like Skype or Google Hangouts) in order to create some sort of connection with the client. Of course, for bigger meetings, we fly over to meet them in person.
Let clients know when you are off: At 90, we can take time off whenever we need as long as we make sure the work is done on time. But we always make sure the clients know beforehand and that a colleague will take over as PM during that time.
When it comes to trust, the situation is the same for any kind of Project Manager, remote or not. It’s about the relationship you build with the client, which should be based on trust, before anything else.
Ways to build trust:
Set and manage expectations correctly: Be clear from the beginning what the deliverables will be for the project. Explain the context and mention to the client any risks that may arise.
Be clear about deadlines: Make sure you have confirmed in writing any deadlines you decide upon together. If you think the deadline is too short, try to negotiate this with the client by explaining why the task takes longer instead of making promises that you know you won’t be able to keep.
Send intermediate emails: In case something unexpected arises and you cannot deliver everything you promised, let the client know what the status of the project is, how much has been done up to that moment, and explain to them that you will need an extension on the deadline. Don’t wait until the deadline has passed to tell them that you didn’t finish everything.
Be honest when you make mistakes: We are all human and even the best PM out there makes mistakes. Be honest when it happens, communicate it to the client as soon as possible and come up with solutions to fix the problem or make up for it.
Usually, a client hires an agency because it lacks the expertise to do the work internally. Positioning yourself as knowledgeable or an expert is not only about delivering good work and achieving KPIs. You should also:
Send detailed reports: At the end of each month or project, we send very detailed reports to our clients. We don’t stick to reporting only on organic search (even if our expertise is SEO), we look at other channels too in order to have the bigger picture of all the online marketing efforts our clients run and to help the client understand how channels influence each other.
Educate the client: We are a digital agency with SEO at its core, so a lot of our work revolves around search marketing. SEO can get pretty technical, so we need to make sure we explain everything clearly for the client to understand how search engines work. We sometimes organise short workshops for our clients on different SEO topics.
Let them know it’s a whole team: In a lot of cases, the Project Manager is the face of the agency, the person the client interacts with most or even the only person they see. Make sure they understand it is not just you, there is a whole team behind them working on their projects. Tell them which team member worked on specific tasks; this way they understand we have experts for different areas and also takes the pressure off the PM to know everything.
From time to time it is ok to go the extra mile for your clients. Be proactive and ask yourself if there is anything else we could do to help the client achieve their goals. If you genuinely care about the client’s business, this question will come to your mind naturally. This often results in extra projects, while upselling is always good for the agency.
Other ways to show your clients that you are proactive:
Send follow up emails: Clients have a lot on their plate so sometimes it is helpful to send them follow-up emails if there are items pending their approval.
Ask about the context: See if there is something that puts pressure on them, like their boss. Find out what plans they have for other channels and what KPIs they have on marketing so you can align your goals with these.
Negotiate to make your clients the priority: An agency has to deal with many clients and projects simultaneously, and it is the PM’s responsibility to make sure their clients are prioritised. Therefore, you need to negotiate with the other PMs, to see what tasks are more important and what can be pushed for later.
6. People Manager
As a Project Manager, you have to also manage your people, not just your documentation and tasks. Make sure you know the expertise of each person that works for the projects you manage, understand how they work and their rhythm.
Some of the lessons I’ve learned about working with my colleagues are:
Nourish the internal relationships too: As a Project Manager, your job is not only to create a good relationship with clients but also with the internal team that works on the project. Not to mention that a good team relationship is usually reflected in the relationship with and work produced for the client.
Dealing with pressure: A Project Manager has to deal with pressure on a daily basis, either from a client, to deliver on short deadline, or from the agency management to upsell and increase budgets. The challenge here is to make sure you don’t transfer this pressure onto the team.
Give constructive feedback: You are a filter for all the work that gets out of the agency, you have to double check everything before sending it to the client. That’s why there are times when you have to ask team members to rework things if you consider they are not what the client expects. Giving feedback can be tricky because people can take it personally, but I always mention I’m criticising the work, not the person, and I explain clearly how the work can be improved.
Keep the team updated: Update the team on progress for your clients constantly. We have a Slack channel for each client where we can send daily updates, and every Monday we have a team meeting with the whole agency where each Project Manager shares what happened the previous week.
By now you should have a clear understanding that being a Project Manager is not a piece of cake. You have to deal with a lot of situations, both internally and externally. Project management is not something you learn from a book, just from hands-on experience, so you have to give it time. The best PMs have years of working with different teams and clients.
If you want to become a better Project Manager with each new project, stop from time to time to reflect on what you learned:
Organise follow-up meetings: After you finish a project, organise a follow-up meeting with the team to find out what worked and what did not.
Ask for feedback: Not only from the team but also from the clients.