Why Your Client Hates You Right Now (and How to Prevent It in the Future)

This time last year, I was working in client services as a project manager with a great digital agency I loved. I originally got into project management because I was tired of seeing creative professionals being taken advantage of by their managers, their clients, or both. Now I work in-house as a content strategist, and I have personal experience on why clients can come to truly loathe their vendors (often to their complete surprise). In the words of the infamous Ice Cube, check yourself before you wreck yourself. Here's why you might be hated.

  • You deliver sloppy work. Part of solid project management is making sure any deliverables you present for client acceptance meet quality requirements and generally using your noggin to look at them through a client's eyes. If you're simply passing on work from creator to client, you're not doing your job (full disclosure: I learned this lesson early on from a great client who was so detail oriented he could catch something that was one pixel off.)
  • You miss deadlines (especially early on). Do not be the first to miss a deadline in a project; it sets awful expectations and does the opposite of building trust. Set reasonable deadlines that you can hit—and if things get tight, double down to make it happen on time. When you go above and beyond to keep your word, your client will be encouraged to do the same.
  • You don't help the client understand what they don't know. Part of your job as a hired hand is to help your client understand something that is not their everyday. Help them think through their choices (focusing on defining a problem rather than specifying a solution, for example), and let them know what to expect during your specific process.
  • You don't negotiate. Scope changes, budgets get blown, and deadlines are missed—and usually this isn't the fault of one side alone. If you've been part of the problem, be part of the solution. It's okay to acknowledge when you're doing more than you may be contractually obligated to do, but use this as a "we're on the same team" opportunity to keep the relationship positive and professional.
  • You make the client look bad to their team. There's nothing more frustrating than having to explain to your boss (or the people who work with and for you, for that matter) why a project went off the rails. Don't make your client go on the defense—help them look good to the people that matter to them.
None of these issues means we should abandon project management. In fact, I'd argue that excellent project management can absolutely make the difference between a project I can't wait to get done with and one that I rave about for months.
It's totally possible to build a love-love relationship.
  • Deliver excellent work, especially early on. Prove that you know how to listen to the core of what a client is saying and that you can bring your smart expertise to the table. Show this early on and you'll build trust for the rest of the project.
  • Talk about scope at the right level. They say children love limits, and it's true for clients as well (although neither would likely ever say that). Clients don't hate scope restrictions—they hate running up against restrictions they didn't see coming. Set a scope that is broad enough for them to actually understand but distinct enough for them to see for themselves when they're butting up against scope creep.
  • Set them up to manage their stakeholders internally. Everyone has an opinion, and nothing brings out ego like creative projects (we've all heard "well my wife thinks this font is too small" kind of comments). Help your client manage their internal stakeholders by giving them ample time to collect feedback and a clear process for presenting it (e.g., ask them to provide one document with cohesive feedback within 5 business days of presenting a draft).
  • Have a contingency plan. Even the best laid plans can go haywire with one weird stakeholder jumping in last minute or a ship date change out of the blue. Be ready for this by providing a contingency budget you can draw from if your client needs one more round of changes or a rush on this version. You'll all hope to never use it, but you'll be so happy that it's there if you need it.
When you manage a project well, you'll have a team that feels good about the work they've done and a client that's eager to work with you again—that's how you'll know you did your job well.

How to Be My Favorite Client

Some days, when the projects are tough and the deadlines are looming, I fantasize about the elusive perfect client: smart yet sensitive, makes me laugh, understanding, passionate, hardworking.

One day, I realized that the form of my professional fantasies closely resembled something a little closer to home—dating profiles.

I'm a millennial who’s never been married, so I've been on countless first dates made possible by the wonders of the web. In honor of all things close to my project manager’s heart, I decided to create a very special online dating profile.

OkCupid profile

OkCupid profile

Of course, as all of us online daters know, a good profile gives more details about you than it does about who you’re looking for. So what do I want in a professional relationship? Well, I’ll tell you.


I want to work with clients who are relentlessly committed to their projects as an important part of their business. While most clients we work with are also busy simply running their company, it’s important for clients to understand that without their participation, the project simply cannot succeed. We bring creative expertise to the table, but we need your unique insight about your business in order to fully use our skills and talents.


Commitment means a vested, deep-rooted interest in seeing a project succeed—with actions that reflect that interest. Practically speaking, commitment means time—time spent in design meetings, in reviewing items and providing thoughtful, prompt feedback, in meeting your deadlines and holding us to ours. These things matter because without that participation, projects end up slowing or even stopping, which isn’t good for anyone.


We hope that when you hire us, it means you trust that we do excellent work. Sometimes, however, that’s easier to feel at the beginning of a project and harder when it comes to significant decisions about your specific business choices. We want to work with clients who trust that when it comes to strategic design, content, and development work, we’re passionate professionals. We don’t present anything we don’t believe in (and we generally provide options), but more importantly, there’s always thought behind the work that we do. Sometimes we’ll ask you to trust us.


Striking the right level of communication can be a tricky thing—we want you to speak up with questions and opinions about our work on your project, but we also need dedicated time to simply make production progress. When in doubt, we tend to prefer over-communication with project managers. Our process does, however, provide specific channels for facilitating feedback that’s good for the work being done and the people doing that work.


We are, like everyone else, imperfect people, and while we always have the best of intentions, there will be unforeseen challenges in any project. Rising to the challenge requires a sense of understanding and patience from our clients. If we mess up, understand that it was unintentional and that we’ll make it right. If we need additional time on a specific aspect of your project, understand that we only ask for these extensions when we need more time to provide the best possible solution. If we have questions that seem elementary to you, understand that we simply want to be sure that we understand your business almost as well as you do.

I'm what I like to call a practical romantic, so I know the idea of perfection is entirely relative. I'm thankful for clients with the traits I long for and hopeful for the qualities I still seek (a combination of all these traits is understandably hard to find). At the end of the day, I want to do good work for every client; it's against my nature to do otherwise.

Pivotal Tracker vs Sprintly: A PM Perspective on Agile Tracking Tools

I've written before about the benefits of being an early adopter and generally willing to try new tools or methods, but I wanted to get tactical concerning a recent project management tool choice.

My team at Inovāt has been working on a really exciting project for a client in the education space. What we're building could make a huge difference for teachers by providing tools not currently available to them online. It's a sizable project with an aggressive deadline and plenty of unknowns—which is why we decided to use agile methodologies.

With this in mind, we went looking for the right tool for collaborating as a team. We wanted something that would help us:

  • Prioritize and track specific feature development and design.
  • Understand what was completed, what was currently being worked on and what was up next—and report that progress to our client in the least time-consuming way possible.
  • Recognize and quickly resolve roadblocks.
  • Make sure nothing got lost in the process of rapid iteration.
  • Determine if the project was on schedule for an on-time launch.

I had experience using Pivotal Tracker, but I wasn't married to it (nor was my team), so we looked around for comparable options. Serendipitously, one of our designers stumbled upon Sprintly while browsing an inspiration site, and I was immediately intrigued.

Since Sprintly is the new kid on the block, I wanted to do some research on how it stood up to what Pivotal offered. I had a hard time finding much in the way of comparisons from project managers, so now that I've used both,  I wanted to offer what insight I can.


Pros: What They Do Well


  • It's really, really ridiculously good looking. Seriously, Sprintly is easy on the eyes, and when you have to look at a tool all day, that's a plus.
  • Daily digests. Receiving one email at the end of the day summarizing what's happened provides a nice overview to stay in the loop.
  • Involving non-agile masters. Sprintly paid attention to detail when it comes to bringing in agile n00bs. Stories are structured to help anyone adding them to account for the three critical parts (who, what, why), though that can become awkward to write and repetitive to browse. They also allow bug reporting via email.
  • Assigning sub-tasks to individuals. Instead of ownership only at the card level, Sprintly lets you assign sub-tasks within a card to others.
Pivotal Tracker
  • Easy to self-orient. Pivotal has one view and only one view, so there isn't any confusion about where you are and what you're viewing. The downfall of this, of course, is losing the ability to fully limit/customize what you're looking at.
  • Epics. I thought we could live without epics, but I was wrong. Pivotal's epics allow us to upload a wireframe or comp that spans many stories in one place without any complicated linking.
  • Organizing by searching. The panel method allows me to search for a term, then drag that item to the top of the backlog/icebox quickly and easily. Sprintly's searches occur within their silos, making drag and drop... well, a drag.
  • Pricing. Pivotal has pricing tiers that charge by the month. For us, it was just $18/month for up to 7 users on 10 projects (more than enough for us).
  • Cancel at any time. 'Nough said.
  • Pinging others in comments. Being able to notify someone with a simple @ comment is really practical, and Tracker just added it as a feature. Now if only someone would create a log of my @ comments so I made sure to respond to all of them...

Cons: What Could Be Better


  • Search should be AND instead of OR. This is a big shortcoming of the product and one that you might not immediately pick up on. When looking for something tagged "adjective 1" and "adjective 2," you will get back results that have one of those tags attached to them—not results that have both associated with them. This became a problem for us when we wanted to look into a set of features for a phase of work ("administrator"+"phase 1"). You can use boolean search to get around this, but it's an unreliable hack. Unfortunately, this is a pretty big undertaking and might be a while before it's up and running. In Pivotal, you can do an AND search by just writing the two words you're looking for, but it's missing the predictive tag names that Sprintly offers.
  • Velocity and epics. Ironically enough, Sprintly doesn't advocate for the use of sprints and traditional agile (instead promoting a Kanban approach). For my needs, this became a problem pretty quickly. My team is blissfully self-motivated, so the notion of taking on next highest priority work once a sprint's work is complete (or stalled by a client) didn't need to be dictated. Sprints, however, help us communicate and plan with a client concerning expectations and made them more comfortable than a "we'll keep working as quickly as we can to get things done."
  • Finding the right view. At first I was excited to escape the confinement of the single-view Pivotal prescribes, but as it turns out, there are simply too many views and it can be difficult to figure out where I should be and what I'm looking at. I eventually figured things out for the most part, but my team was exasperated by the navigation issues.
  • Pricing. While projects are unlimited, Sprintly charges by the seat: $14/month. That was a $66 difference against Pivotal's price and just a little too rich for our small shop blood.

Pivotal Tracker

  • Auto-saving. I have to click "save" on everything. While I do get a warning if I try to close my tab without saving, I don't get a warning when I navigate over to another card or panel. I desperately want auto-saving.
  • Multi-tag searches. These three searches all return a different number of results: "foundation baseline," "foundation and baseline," "foundation, baseline." If searches leveraged existing labels (like Sprintly does), results might be more predictable.
  • Epic checklists. I use epics to manage design work since this effort isn't at the story-level but rather a user path level. I can upload files to an epic, but I'd really like to have checklists at the epic level for managing design and manual, pre-release QA tasks.
  • Aesthetic. Usability is (mostly) there, but I just wish Tracker was a little more sophisticated.


  • User communities could be better. Sprintly is using UserVoice as their community and while they're actively responding there (and via Twitter), UserVoice isn't necessarily the best community on the market.Pivotal Tracker has a Get Satisfaction community, but sadly it's not super active and it's fairly hidden—instead of using the typical Get Sat "Feedback" tab that persists across a site/app, you have to click on "Help," then "Got a feature request or suggestion?" It's really too bad they're not leveraging the full power of Get Sat and their customer community.
  • Need responsive design to leverage views. As a product owner, I want to fill a giant screen with my stories to organize cards. Sprintly currently has a maximum 1000 px width and it's just not enough. Pivotal leverages panels within a single dashboard view, but this tends to get a bit cumbersome.
  • Curating client views. I'd love to loop in my clients directly to our workspace—but I want to have a good amount of control over what they can see and interact with. Sprintly allows observer seats, but these users can see everything a full user can, just not interact with it. I want to dictate what a client can see.
  • Easy imports/exports. Sprintly's export was something I needed my dev to help out with and it wasn't simple to scrape everything we needed into a single file. Importing was only available by following a strict format via email (and you weren't notified if it wasn't right; the stories just didn't show up). In Pivotal, I can easily export and import, but they limit imports to 100 items, presumably for speed concerns (but a huge pain in the neck at the beginning of a project).
  • Cross-checking card repetition. It would be ideal if as I'm creating a card, I could be prompted with "Hey, looks like that might already exist. Is this it?" In a tight-knit team, it's not essential, but it would definitely be nice to have.

Four weeks into using Sprintly, my team decided to switch to Pivotal Tracker. It's not sexy but it is simple, and we think epics in particular will help us balance design and development.