Working With External Clients

Product Development gets really interesting when the basic setup is complex. There’s one setup which regularly takes the top on the complexity scale in my experience: External stakeholders and sponsors. Key decisions are then made outside of the frame of work you are used to. You need information from people who seem to work on a different planet and sometimes from departments where no one seems to work at all.

This article will give some hints on recurring issues when working with external sponsors and what your team and you can do about it. For this article it doesn’t matter if the external party is a in the classical sense, a product-management peer, an external superior or a subordinate. The details of communication might change but the goal will stay the same: Get the product out of the door above quality expectations, faster and below budget – while staying focused on the end users needs of course.

Working with your (new) contact smoothly is not only critical for your product. It will have a tremendous impact on your teams motivation as well. To foster this relationship is time and energy well spent.

A Brief Summary of Issues

Over my last couple of projects several factors emerged nearly every time: Challenges could have been prevented if the contract would have been worded more specifically. Or if the development team would’ve been consulted for key decisions. Or any other thing that did (not) happen, because hindsight makes it easy to talk about those things as if they’d be obvious. Our task is not to complain about what went wrong. It is to figure out how to make the best out of the situation and learn from it for the next time.

Because you can’t have everything under control it is worthwhile to think about the leverages, decision power and influence you have while analyzing your issues with the external party. With this in mind, let’s think about the topics which might go wrong. Some examples which I came across frequently in different companies were:

  • Decision-Making structure is not as it is required for your project or key questions could not be answered because you hit a brick wall. This causes a change in plans at best – fights between different sponsors and delays at worst. Make sure to stay aware of all dependencies you have to sponsors or departments – especially the external ones.
  • Goals are misaligned which causes miscommunication. This is caused by a lack of transparency in the projects beginning and can occur on all levels – from distributed development teams to C-level negotiations. Whenever an argument comes up, make sure to learn the cause before acting on it. Preventing this issue is out of your control. If you know the cause for the misalignment you have a strong lever to resolve it fast and permanently (e.g. management discussions can be sped up by rephrasing questions).
  • Sometimes, Business Questions (and politics) interfere with the operational, productive work. When this happens the product managers job is to help both sides to clean up the mess. You can start by creating transparency on which questions have an impact on your development team. Help both sides by showing the decisions that are needed to be made to keep on working and what the impact of the various options are.
  • Responsibilities are often not clearly distributed. Although this sounds purely like a contractual topic, there will be details which need time to be figured out. This is mainly caused by the issues mentioned above, but needs to be taken care of on its own. Keep an eye on decisions where the person in charge is not absolutely clear. Examples for critical areas in the past were:
    • The decisions which the development team can take on the fly
    • The design direction you can take which might reflect the corporate brand or other products
    • The depth of (automated) testing.
  • Culture is different between two companies – and sometimes even between two teams within the same one. What is perceived as appropriate, how to react to urgency, basics in communication – all of this will differ and as the one responsible for the product, you are the one who should take the responsibility to learn the foreign language and translate.

How To Get Things Started Smoothly

As always, there is no template which you can apply in all cases and you have insta-success. To give a reference here are some factors that have proven to be worthwhile keeping in mind when establishing a new relationship:

  • Your colleagues have experience which you can and should leverage. If you’re not working on the very first project with an external partner then you will find someone who can give you a different perspective. No matter if they have worked with the same sponsors, the same company or on a similar product – an internal colleague can serve as a work partner as well as a mentor, depending on your setup and how much time you can pull from that person.
  • Excessively communicate with your new sponsors and contacts. The first thing to figure out is how you can place your questions. In the beginning, it is often a good idea to just use a similar tone and the same channel as your contact. As soon as you have a basis for communication, figure out how to wrap your questions as welcoming as possible. For example: If they are very insecure or “micromanagy”, provide fresh information with each question. If they like to stay passive, provide them an option which allows them to not react.

    Hey , I just want to let you know that we’ll have our reviews on Tuesdays from next sprint onwards. Please drop me a note if this is inconvenient for you – I’ll send you an invite end of week otherwise.

  • Adapt to the culture of your contact to make your own life easier. In a perfect world, both sides are equally aware of communication and culture. Often reality isn’t perfect though. Instead of spending a lot of energy explaining your situation or trying to push change, it might be a good idea to try to adapt for the first few weeks. Once you are know how to communicate without causing misunderstandings you can help all people involved to learn more about each others culture. The advantages of you becoming the communication hub are twofold:
    • You get a different perspective and expand your experience.
    • It puts you in a stronger position for further negotiations as you are now the one knowing both sides best.
  • Use common sense and your experience. Recall from time to time the fact that this is just another new relationship. Your work relationship differs less from private ones than you might expect. You’ll argue, you’ll have good and bad days and so on. In the end, you’re working with another human who’s been put in a situation similar to your own. Keep in mind that your partner has their own needs and dependencies, so don’t overthink every mail and call. Instead figure out what their intention was. If they are highly emotional and needed to vent then you have a very different issue at hand as if they’d forward pressure they receive from their boss. If you can’t figure it out on your own, don’t hesitate to talk with the external on a meta level. Tell them what action you’d take from their communication and if that is correct – just try to keep it culture appropriate (see above).
    Purely knowing more will put you in a strong position. You’re now capable of tying the products needs into the needs of your partner which will give you a strong lever on pursuing what is best for the product.

Keep in mind that you can easily create and expand this list for yourself. Give yourself a mental head start. Create a list similar to the one above:

  • What are things you know went wrong in similar situations in the past?
  • What are issues that might occur due to the nature of your product or the partner company/team/people?
  • What can you do to prevent issues?
  • What can you do once an issue does have an impact?

In short, treat external communication like a risk and opportunity assessment. Once you have a plan, you have an easier time to (re)act and adapt. But keep in mind to change your plan once you learn more!

How Bad Is It, Really?

Of course the answer to this question is highly subjective. Personally, despite all the issues, I love working with external companies and teams. Every new contact encourages a change in perspective, helps to learn something new. Sure, there are a lot of (artificial) limitations due to the various interests and setups – but this is countered by the opportunity to get odd (because unfamiliar) input on the product from people who have a strong interest in seeing the product succeed.

Of course there are bad times as well. It’s never fun to argue about scope, contracts and company politics. But, in my experience, even those talks can be shaped and become productive, once the foundation for an effective, goal oriented communication is set.

After so much talk about the importance of the external partner and communication it all comes down to one simple question:
What can I do to make this work relationship more enjoyable for all people involved?

If you find an answer to this question then you’re on the right track. Now it’s time again to measure the impact of your answer, adapt if it necessary and start looking for new things to improve. Soon, you will have a strong partner who helps you develop an awesome product instead of a hurdle you have to evade.



I love creating partnerships; I love not having to bear the entire burden of the creative storytelling, and when I have unions like with George Lucas and Peter Jackson, it’s really great; not only do I benefit, but the project is better for it. – Steven Spielberg

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