As web developers and marketers one of the most important things we do, however large or small the job, is project management. All the brilliant ideas and forward thinking strategies in the world will fall apart without a well-prepared plan. And even a well-prepared plan will fall apart without effective communication between team members.
It’s our job to make sure our clients know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and when it’s happening. It’s our job to ensure that everyone hits their milestones – and that includes both our team and the client’s. It’s our job to share, track or acquire appropriate documentation, files, and other information.
It’s also our job to put the processes in place that make it all happen and to bring the client along with us so everyone is communicating and sharing effectively.
And although email is a quick, simple, accessible and pervasive method of communication, when it comes to effective project management we have only one piece of advice: don’t use it. It may seem counterintuitive; after all, the first thing you do when you want to send a file, ask a question, request help or get in touch with someone on your team is reach for the keyboard and shoot off an email. But I’m about to tell you why that’s the worst idea you’ve had today.
“When Did You Send That Email?” And Other Complications.
Have you ever sent an important file to someone only to be asked a week later for the file you already sent? Maybe you send it again, and another week goes by until you get a second request for the file you sent twice now. Only after all deadlines are completely shot do you learn that the file was too big to send via email and never reached its destination. So the information you thought had been received never was, and the project got derailed because of an email mishap.
Have you ever shared an idea with your entire team, gotten nods all around, then asked your developer to put it into production only to realize you never copied the company president on your email, and the company president hates the idea? But you’ve already spent money on production so your choice is to go ahead with a bad idea or spend more money on a new one.
At least once in your life you’ve probably meant to attach a file to an email but forgotten to do so. And at least once, you’ve probably been asked to resend a file that someone accidentally lost, deleted or left in the office and needs to access from home.
How many times have you been lost in an email thread because someone replied to a forward of a forward of a reply of a forward? And how many times have you hit the delete button because you’re too busy to parse through pages of conversations to get to the one thing you may or may not need to know?
Email is not a linear method of communication. If you’re working with a team, it’s especially difficult to follow a conversation from end to end and important points can often be lost in the endless forwards and replies.
Email can easily be the thing that starts a project unraveling without anyone really noticing until it’s too late. But you’re lost without email, so what can you do?
Centralization, Centralization And… Centralization
There are plenty of tools available for project management. Some are simple. Some are complex. None are universal. But the one thing that a good tool does is centralize communication.
During our twelve years in business we’ve experimented with different tools at different times. Some have been too simple and didn’t give us the control we needed. Some were too complex and required a project manager just to manage the project management software. Some worked for their time but as we refined our process we outgrew the software.
The task for us has always been to find a tool that fits the way we work, meshes with our process, is accessible to our clients and is easy enough to use so that we can get everyone on board.
Right now for us, that tool is Zendesk. We find it to be elegant in its simplicity and the right balance for letting us control the process while being easy for our customers to use.
A couple of years ago we tried a particular tool that had a slew of great features that really let us get granular control over the details of a project. What happened? It was too cumbersome for our clients and ultimately they just didn’t use it. What we love about Zendesk is that it’s super straightforward for our clients, and our goal is to make our clients’ lives easier, not to burden them with our process.
We pulled more clients on board within a few weeks of trialing Zendesk than we did in the several years that we insisted on the “round-peg-in-square-hole” methodology that had (on paper) seemed like such a good idea with our previous software.
But most importantly, Zendesk centralizes all of our communications and eliminates the perpetual Battle Of The Forwarded/Lost/Deleted/Missing Email. Whenever we need to share a document, we publish it to a “ticket” online and our clients are not only notified that it’s been published, but they can access it immediately from anywhere they have an internet connection.
When we’re working on a project with an entire team, every team member can be part of a ticket, so each team member is notified when something changes, when someone comments, when a file is updated, when a question is asked – and no one is left out.
It makes the excuses harder to come by (“I never got that email…”, “The file didn’t come through…”) but it makes us and our clients much more efficient (and much more likely to hit those milestones).
Unlike email, it’s also linear, which means that if a discussion is going on between multiple team members, it’s threaded from first comment to last in readable format. If a file is submitted, then updated, then updated again, each iteration is available so anyone included on the project can review its history.
Probably best of all for us, we don’t have to answer any more requests to “Please send that file again…” because the file is always there.
One of our clients has two retail locations with a different email address at each location. There have been too many times to count that we’ve sent information to one address, then been asked to send it to the other. Or we’ve replied to one email address, only to find out our client never received the reply because he went to his other location where that email wasn’t accessible.
Now whenever he asks a question or needs information we tell him, “Go to Zendesk.” And because it’s so easy to use… he does.
It’s not only about the files, but whatever information or resources that anyone on our team needs. It could be a link to a website (how many time have we answered a request to “send the link, I lost it again”?) or an answer to a common question (how many times have we repeated ourselves because “I forgot how to access my CMS”?). It could even be as simple as having a historical record of a work request.
Yes, sometimes clients actually do forget what they asked us to do, or how much it will cost, or when it will be done. Going back through possibly hundreds or thousands of emails to find the information you need is time that could better be spent on something productive.
Teach Them And They Will Come… Kicking And Screaming Perhaps, But They Will Come.
Many times our clients are so used to email that it’s an entire reeducation to get them using another method. It’s more natural and habitual for them to shoot off an email with a support issue or a request for new work.
I’d be lying if I said it was easy to transition every client to a whole new paradigm. Sometimes, even when they buy into our method of centralized communication, they lapse back into the email habit and need to be redirected.
But it’s time well spent, and to date, I haven’t had a single client – no matter how they may claw and scratch in resistance at first – tell me that they don’t like the centralized methodology. Sure, we’ve had bumps where clients have stopped using our software, but that wasn’t a function of the method, rather the choice of software. Now that we’ve got software that actually simplifies our clients’ lives, they like the idea and the execution.
Of course, we don’t use Zendesk for every project. Sometimes we’ve got bigger projects, or more complex details to manage, and there is other software for that. But the concept is still the same: keep everything centralized with universal access and everyone’s life will be simpler – and the projects will get done on time and on budget.