Why You Need a Single Decision Maker in Client Communication

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Problem: Your project has conflicting communication with the client

In some projects, I have found that the client will give instructions, clarifications, or information to individual project team members without the project manager being aware of this.

Client communication fails.

This can cause conflicting information being acted on, or can even cause your team to do work on scope without approval from the client. The result of this can be extra work being done for no extra budget, delays to your work schedule, and even mistakes being made in the project.

A client might ask your team to do some work, change something, or to not do some scope section. They may do this without realising that it could increase the costs or have flow on effects with the project schedule or scope. They may even do this intentionally, knowing that they might get some scope done for free, as it has not been formally approved (this is sometimes the cause of scope creep).

Most clients I have worked with require that any scope changes and any fee changes must have formal written approval from them before that work is done. Especially if it is going to cost them more. So if your team starts working on something that the client has informally asked for, without getting formal approval (including cost approval), then your project is  unlikely to get paid for that work.

If you have multiple points of contact for your project, you, as the project manager, will not be able to control the flow of information properly. Your client communication can fail.

The control of this communication can be challenging, especially for large projects with multiple client departments or multiple departments of your company involved.

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Solution: Have a single decision maker as the main point of contact for client communication

You should have a single decision maker as the main point of contact (both on your side and on the client side).

If your client wants to make a change, clarify something, etc, they should have one specific person to communicate with in your organisation. If it is a small project where the project manager has control of all the areas, the contact should be the project manager. If a larger project with design managers, construction managers etc, you could have communication segmented, but each of these areas should only have one decision maker who responds to the client.

On the other side, make sure you have one key person who you contact for all enquiries, clarification etc at the client organisation (their project manager for the project). Communication could then be directed from them to others, but you need key decisions processed (and essentially made or authorized) through that one person. The client may delegate decisions or approvals for certain areas, but you need that clearly in writing before you act on decisions or approvals (i.e. get it in the contract or a written amendment to the contract).

Without this being done, you could experience decisions being reversed because the information didn’t come from the authorized person.

It is also a good idea to have these “authorized” people to be listed (by title at least, preferably also by name) in the contract or at least in the approved communication plan. If a direction comes from the client from someone other than the authorized person, a copy of that direction (order) should be sent to the official person for them to authorize.

A single decision maker and point of contact saves the backwards and forwards of communication.

To be clear, I am talking here about scope approvals (or changes), financial approvals etc. You can and usually should be able to have your project team contact client staff directly for certain things (e.g. sending over standard drawings, manuals, permission to visit a site etc). However, at the start of the project, you need to get these communication paths agreed to by the client project manager, in writing. A communication plan (often part of the project management plan) should detail these communication channels. These should be updated as needed, again in writing, and into the communication plan.

Educate and inform your team

Good communication is critical between your project and the client and also within your project team. It is critical that you ensure your project team is aware of how they should communicate with the client (if at all). This should be part of defining clear project roles and responsibilities, including communication channels. This should of course be in the project management or project communication plan, but your team should also be reminded of this at intervals (as many will rarely or ever look at the project plans).

Options for client communication could be:

  • All communication should be through the project manager to the client (for small or simple projects perhaps).
  • All communication should be in writing (or copied to writing if initially by phone) and copied to the PM.
  • Communication can be between your project leads (e.g. design manager, construction manager etc) to client equivalent leads.
  • The team can contact the client at need (I would hesitate to allow this).

Whichever the above is used, anything that can affect scope, schedule or cost should be via the project manager or authorised by the project manager. This will help ensure the project is delivered within schedule and budget, or that variations are properly sought.

Regular project updates

Regular communication with the client (emails, phone calls and meetings) go a long way to remove the problems associated with clarifying scope and cost issues.

This should include regular progress updates on scope, cost, schedule. Something even as simple as a weekly email with dot points of schedule progress, scope completed so far, costs so far etc, can go a long way to removing problems. This is also an opportunity to list scope and cost changes that have been discussed (approved or pending approval).

The key here is no surprises. You keep your client project manager updated along the way, so they are not surprised later on by scope or cost changes.

Sam Barnes has a good article on this at Smashing Magazine “Guidelines for Successful Communication with Clients”.


Tough decisions should always be made by the project manager (or project director), with the full knowledge and agreement of both (i.e. someone with authority). Communication related to anything important, especially related to scope or cost changes) should always channel through the project manager (project side and client side). This will ensure the project manager is aware of these changes, approves of the changes, and so that they can communicate these changes effectively.

These changes and agreements should also be fully documented.

Of course for generally building company and industry contacts, I don’t recommend keeping your communication to just one person in a company. Building your visibility with multiple people (and also via social channels such as Linked In) can make a significant difference in your ability to win future projects.

Communication Tools

Common tools for communication with your client will probably include phone calls, email, meetings, and possibly a project management communication system.

All emails sent and received really should be filed within the project or against a project number, for future reference (not just by the sender or recipient).

I recommend that any phone call with the client is followed by an email stating whatever was agreed to , so that a permanent record is made.

Minutes of meetings should be kept. These should be stored accurately and should also be sent to all the attendees and the project manager.

A great way to keep all written communications together is to use the communication section in your project management tool. Most good project management systems allow project chat, project task chat, and client communication (to and from). Some clients won’t accept this for anything formal, so you may still need email for all formal communications with the client, but everything up to that point could be done within the pm system.

Most systems will allow comments (with name and time stamps) for each task, allowing team members (and the client if you allow) to discuss the task, and record agreements.

Some project management tools that feature internal communication systems include:

  • Monday – Popular within big organisations (and many small ones too). Full featured but more complex to use and set up than many others
  • Teamwork (and the teamwork chat addon for even extra chat capabilities)
  • Nifty – I find it very quick to get started in this tool. It has an easy learning curve.
  • Bloo – Very easy to use and learn. Focused on small businesses.

Lesson: Properly control project communication with your client

Good communication with your client project manager is important. It is critical that you define who is authorised to communicate with the client, especially regarding costs and scope. You need a single decision maker for final decisions, or specific delegations of these decisions.

Without clear client communication protocols, you run the risk of out of control scope and costs, as your project team may get asked to do things that are outside the project scope, which your project is unlikely to get paid for. Document project communication protocols clearly and if delegating, ensure this is clearly communicated to all relevant stakeholders.

Educate your team on this. Define specific authorities, and use good communication systems to keep records of what has been agreed.

Your project management plan or project communication plan should define all this.

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