Company Culture

To walk a mile in the client’s shoes…

Bojan Kovač


Jun 09, 2021

It was late one Wednesday evening, 8:30 pm. We were pulling long hours before the big date – the project deadline. Things weren’t going according to plan and to make things worse I had not been aware of it until a week or less before the deadline. Sure, I was partially responsible, I should have insisted on more detailed and hands-on updates and demonstrations of progress, however, what would later turn out to be a misrepresentation of progress sounded convincing at the time – “we had a few complications but the deadline is not at risk” the voice on the other side of the phone said. That was Friday, 5 days earlier. I recall looking out of the window of an office on the 16th floor of a Manhattan building – the first snow of the year. And it wasn’t romantic fluffy snow, that falls gently on the white streets, no. It was sleet – a mixture of rain and snow, the wet cold that gets through your coat and shoes. As I watched people rushing to and from yellow cabs and buildings, I had a feeling there was more to the problem than I was told. The trust between my vendor, software development company, and me was starting to fade. It was like an instinct, a gut feeling. Subtle and subconscious.

Flash forward to the following Wednesday, a reality slap – the project will not be completed in time for the planned date. My responsibility and my credibility were on the line. This wasn’t my first production roll-out in the last year I was employed as a Project Manager at this New York firm, but it surely was the biggest. A brand new analytics tool was supposed to be integrated into our e-commerce site and by the power of web services integration, automate some of our online marketing campaigns managed via third-party marketing automation platform (SaaS) that were directly linked to our CRM. Some pretty sophisticated technology and business logic back in 2009: A/B testing of the website content and design, event-based behavior-driven email campaigns, all kinds of useful website visitor behavior insights – a whole new level of BI and measurable marketing ROI.

As I heard the bad news over the phone I started feeling cold sweat break on my forehead, my neck and my back. The familiar, canyon-like view of New York City from the window was gloomy – gray snow remains outlined the streets, and it was raining outside. I’m talking freezing cold, December rain. And then it struck me. Like a flash of a recorded video, a moment from my career history that was already starting to fade away in my memory. I remembered the moment I was on the other side of that phone line. Some 3 years earlier, as a junior PM, I served a client and broke the bad news. This was back in Washington DC. The team in India that did our development had issues and despite our desperate tries to make up for lost time, we realized it wouldn’t work. And it was up to me to go in front of the client and tell them this.

Design meeting
Photo by Charles Deluvio / Unsplash

The voice on the other side of the line went silent waiting for my reaction. After a long pause, I said: “That’s bad news. Let’s do a post-mortem analysis later but for now, I’d like to know the revised timeline?” – I didn’t get upset at my vendor. I knew what it meant to be in his shoes. But now I finally understand how my client must have felt back then, three years ago. However, internally, I was mad. I was mad at myself primarily for not trusting my instincts 3 business days ago. I was upset that no one blew a whistle or raised a flag or sent an anonymous tip via a Post-It paper note. I should have done something different. Anything but this. A surprise!? I hate surprises. Everyone does. The only exception is when they turn out to be nice surprises and later you get to go “ah you got me” and laugh it off. Well, this wasn’t one of those.

And that evening I swore to myself that I would never let this happen to any of my future clients. The feeling of being unable to control the situation you’re responsible for, the outsourced responsibility that in the end still breaks on your shoulders… Not nice. Not nice at all. Then I started analyzing this phenomenon further… Why does it happen? Is it overly enthusiastic optimism or lack of information from the team, or was it perhaps a lack of courage to accept the truth earlier on, and failing to trust your instincts?

The answer is simple – communication. Communication in many of its forms. Communication within the project team, the quality of communication and level of comfort and trust in the business relationship with the client, the (lack of) confidence in your team and their skillset or dedication. To take it one level deeper – internal communication and honesty first and foremost with yourself, and then with your team, your boss, and your client – the human element of each project. This is why we at SmartCat are brutally honest. Honest with ourselves, with each other, and with our clients. This is easier said than done and it works only if you have the right people, which is exactly why choosing our team members and our clients is a long and careful process of evaluation, selection, and mutual respect. We build alliances, we walk the talk, and pave new paths together.

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