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How I Do It: Stakeholder Communication

Stakeholder communication

Communication is about 80% of my job. I don’t profess to get it right all the time, but over the years I’ve built up a few solid techniques that work in most situations.

Today I’m letting you in on how I do it. These are the tips and tricks I use to communicate with my stakeholders and project customers.

The tools I use

I rely heavily on paper and pens for my personal note-taking. I’m a writer; I can’t help it. I have a notebook which I use for my daily task list and a planner for the big picture monthly planning. I even have special pens for special occasions.

This spills over into how I work with and communicate with clients. I sent a whole bunch of handwritten cards over the holidays. Two of them came back ‘addressee unknown’ as I had relied on their company details online – rookie error! Even corporate websites need updating from time to time or there are other offices that don’t have the addresses published. Doh.

And, of course, email…

I send a lot of emails. That’s partly because a lot of my clients are in the U.S. which means I’m at my desk before they’re even awake. I do love email. I have an inbox per client or per project, depending on the sort of work it is, and that makes it easy to file things away. I would be lost without the search functionality though.

I am trying to do more work over Skype or the phone because it’s a more collaborative and friendly approach to doing business.

Communicating project status

I use a variety of methods to share the project status with the stakeholders. I think it’s important to tailor the way you communicate to the people receiving the message.

My immediate team will get more detail and we’ll chat in the jargon of the project. That makes sense to us, and we need that level of detailed status updates from each other to keep the work moving forward.

Information at that level wouldn’t make sense to senior managers or executives. They need a different level of information, often just as detailed but with a different focus. I spend a fair bit of time stripping out the jargon, paring back the updates and making sure they reflect what the senior leaders need to see.

In terms of tools, I use email, Word documents, spreadsheets and formal and informal templates. I use these for weekly and monthly reporting.

There’s only one project that I’m working on where I rely on a software tool to do the communicating for me. I know that my stakeholders have access to it and it sends email alerts. When I complete a task, upload an assignment or make changes to something, they know. If you have confidence in your system, that could work for you too.

Personally I wouldn’t rely on a project management software tool to communicate with stakeholders who are not used to logging in and checking the status. In my experience they don’t know what they are looking for and they can’t be bothered sifting through the information to get the data they are looking for.

Confidence and credibility

Communicating problems

The trick here is to communicate quickly. It’s not really a trick, it’s a good practice – sponsors don’t like surprises. It doesn’t matter whether it’s good news or bad news, it really is better to keep them in the loop.

I do that through weekly or fortnightly meetings with some of my key stakeholders and sponsors on the projects I am working on. In the past I’ve done that on the phone; right now I’m doing it in person and over Skype (that’s two different projects).

Weekly meetings provide an informal opportunity to raise problems, perhaps before they’ve even made it on to the issue log. It’s also an opportunity to remind stakeholders about what is coming up and to set their expectations. Meeting people regularly builds confidence and credibility – two things that can be in short supply at the beginning of a project with a new team, so anything I can do to get those quickly is good.

The flaws

Like I say, I’m not perfect. I think my preferred communication style is less collaborative than I’d like and it doesn’t have as many feedback loops as I’d like. Sending out status information via email doesn’t give you great data in terms of whether the process is effective or whether people have understood your message.

I’d like to be better at including that feedback loop.

The thing with communication is that as long as you do it, and as long as it’s effective, it doesn’t really matter how. Email, fax, pigeon post…whatever works for you and your team. This has been an insight into what works for me but to be honest it feels like a natural style I have developed over time rather than a deliberate set of tools and techniques.

I’m sure I’ll continue to evolve my style as I work with different people and have to adapt to suit their needs. One thing that probably won’t change is the need to do status reporting. You can use the status report template that I use by downloading it below. It’s free!

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.

Comments

  1. Shirley says

    Hello Elizabeth,

    I work with internal stakeholders. Most of my communications are through email but if I am ever in their area, I make it a point to visit with them and find out how our system is working (or not working) for them. By spending a few minutes with my customers, I remind them that our partnership is important. I find they engage me earlier on their plans, are more understanding when problems arise, and respond more quickly to requests as compared to my peers.

    Although I am not able to physically visit global partners, I send emails periodically or setup phone meetings to allow them time to share pain points. This method only works if you can provide remedies. It is impossible to gain trust without any actions/results.

    • Elizabeth Harrin says

      I certainly agree with your point there, Shirley. Listening is all well and good, but you’ll build trust and credibility more quickly if you can actually do something about the concerns that your customers/suppliers/partners have. Sounds like your approach is working well for you!

  2. Barry Hodge says

    Hello Elizabeth,
    I am finding this with one of my projects at the moment. I have taken over a project which has a bad reputation. Usually story of taking too long due to massive scope. My approach has been to meet frequently with various stakeholders in an informal setting. Rather than meetings around a table it is comfy chairs over coffee. This regular approach has certainly helped me build trust and credibility.
    Regards
    Barry

    • Elizabeth Harrin says

      There’s a lot to be said for the informal way of getting work done. It helps build your reputation as approachable and as you say, adds to your credibility and trust in you and the team. Sounds like your approach is working really well Barry.

  3. Teresa says

    Hello Elizabeth,
    I am enjoying reading your articles on your site! I work for a small telecom company and try to manage our “projects” as best I can. Our situation is unique though, which has made it hard to communicate and also hard to decide what type of software management system we want – customer related or project related. Let me give you a little insight.

    We receive 90% of our work from big wireless carriers (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T). We are what they call a prefered supplier. They basically contract us to go to various jobsite and install telecom equipment to better the cellular signal. So, in all actuality, those carriers are really our customers, our stakeholders. However, we define our customers as those companies we install equipment for.

    We are not out trying to drum up sales or trying to meet a quota. We ar not making note of leads and folllowing up on them. We receive invitations from those carriers to bid on a job and are either awarded the purchase order or our bid is declined. Then it’s onto the next. From the very beginning states of receiving the invitation to the end stages of a final walk through and closing documentation, there are many, many steps that we need to make sure we cover and of course, with any projects, there are always a lot of hiccups along the way!

    If we went with a customer based system, I feel it will be too heavy on the sales side of things, but if we go with strictly a project based system, I may be the only one using it (as I am the only one that tracks activity on an excel spreadsheet today).

    Do you have any thoughts or input that may help me here?

    Thanks!

    • Elizabeth Harrin says

      Hello Teresa. I think it’s more important at this point to get scalable processes in place rather than to talk about IT systems and tools. I agree with you though – a CRM-type system wouldn’t give you the oversight and control and a PM software solution might not be used by everyone. Why not focus on the steps involved in getting a project through from idea to completion (with checklists, templates etc) and then let people find the right tools for their own needs? You can always build in project management apps later, and you can find some “lite” ones that would work better for the non-project-y people in your organisation.

  4. Michelle says

    I am new to project management, and so I’m pretty much learning on the job.

    After reading this post I reviewed my communication methods. Aside from status updates and project meetings, I wasn’t really providing an informal setting with my key stakeholders to communicate key information quickly. So starting this week, I set up some individual meetings. I took the time to review the project plan in detail with them and communicate our current issues & risks, I also provided the opportunity for new issues or risks to be raised. My key stakeholders found the meetings really useful and now feel like they have a clear view of the projects next steps and understand where they and their teams feed into this.
    You could argue this method takes up more of my time, however I have identified that some of my stakeholders are more comfortable speaking in smaller groups.

    This is definitely something I am going to continue on a weekly basis.

    • Elizabeth Harrin says

      Hi Michelle
      I’m glad the informal, individual meetings are getting you results. It definitely takes up more time but it will pay off in the long term with better stakeholder relationships and they’ll feel as if you have their back when there are problems. Once you’ve got over the initial discussions you might find you can drop them down to fortnightly or even monthly, and still get the same engagement.

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