Dean Schuster is a big-picture guy. Vision, high-level solutions, blue skies, those things come easily to Dean. Details, not so much. A self-proclaimed “reluctant detailed guy,” Dean is Founder and Partner at Truematter. Truematter is a UX consultancy that helps create digital products including apps, websites and wearable software.
As Dean says, you can’t let a big-picture person loose in a project management scenario and expect good things to happen. Unless you have some processes in place. Dean joins us to talk about project management at Truematter, the qualities they look for in a DPM and how managing client relationships is really about setting up processes to rein yourself in.
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Carl Smith: Hey everybody and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. It's Carl and with us today hailing from Columbia, South Carolina, we've got the founder and partner and co-owner of Truematter, Mr. Dean Schuster. How's it going, Dean?
Dean Schuster: It's going great, Carl. Thanks for having me.
Carl Smith: I'm glad that you're here. Now, you're going to be joining us at the Digital PM Summit, and I was excited to see that your talk was all about client management because that is one of my favorite conversations, not for the war stories but for the salvation stories; the ways that we get through things.
Carl Smith: Tell everybody, listening a little bit about your background and how you got into your current role.
Dean Schuster: Okay, great. Well, as you said, I'm a owner of Truematter. We're a UX consultancy. All we do is user experience, we define, we build through the front end, all sorts of things like apps, websites, wearable software. We're not an agency, we're not an SEO firm, we're not a web design firm. We're not a lot of things, but UX we are. And because we do a lot of projects related to the web, there's a ton of management that's course needed to happen for each of those projects over time.
Dean Schuster: Now, I am not a detail's person. It's not in my nature. My business partner, Rusty will tell you that. He is great with details. There isn't a spreadsheet, he can't master or love, and for me, thinking of vision, thinking of where to go, thinking of the types of things we should do, thinking of big picture things are easy, details are hard.
Dean Schuster: However, when you're in a relatively small company, you have to deal with details at some point. As we're growing... We've been in business for 18 years now, and early on of course you have to deal with all sorts of details and then as you grow and you get project managers and things like that, they take some of that detail way, but you never lose it. And also, we're not a huge corporate firm. So if we lose a key employee, that's not a problem, it's just we're very careful about the next hire and we'd rather wait for the right person than settle for the mediocre person.
Dean Schuster: And so sometimes that means details are still part of what I do from time to time. That's my long way of saying I'm reluctant detailed guy. And over my career, I've had to deal and project management a good bit. I've had to learn to do things that I don't like to do and I'm not naturally good at and that feel very much like work to me. Much like digging ditches feels like work. Seriously.
Dean Schuster: And then as I got into product management, and I'll get into some philosophy there in a minute, but as I got into project management and learned what made it tick, because there's certain things you simply have to do to get it right, I learned a little bit more about the other side, which is managing clients. And ultimately my position is if you are managing a client well, your internal project management is always, always much easier.
Dean Schuster: That revelation, which may for many people on the PM side be obvious came to me more slowly and more difficult. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, I've learned many things the hard way. Things that other people seem to know endemically.
Carl Smith: Well, I'll say that I could not agree more when it comes to client management. I remember at my shop about four people and on our 20th project, we started seeing that we were having the same issues. I was like, "Only one thing has changed and that's the client. We're having the same issues each time. It's obviously us. No client is giving us a chunk of cash and then trying to derail us. That's not what they want. They don't want to drive, they just want to know that we are."
Carl Smith: So when you sit down, like you talk about that mediocre person versus that new person, I mean the right person and obviously the part of that was because you jump in and you do these things, but how do you onboard somebody to be client-facing? Like what are some of the tips and tricks or processes that you share with them about managing the client?
Dean Schuster: Well, there's a couple of things we do first, and one is we separate managing projects from managing accounts. At our company, we really want a project manager to dig deep into the details of OPS. Managing utilization, who's doing what, when, and how projects are going and how things are being communicated. That person doesn't necessarily need to sort of walk a client through a whole process of business value and strategic value necessarily, if that makes sense.
Dean Schuster: So I'm going to stick on the project management side to answer that question.
Carl Smith: Sure.
Dean Schuster: And the first answer is the type of person we're looking for is, I think someone who has an entrepreneurial drive because you need that when you're managing clients. And not everyone has that. You have to have this mentality that you will get through a problem any way possible.
Dean Schuster: If they're the mountains, I'm going to get an elephant and we're going to go over. There is no option to just let something not work. And once you've got that, a lot of the other things tend to fall into place. The other thing that we do to find the right people is something that you can't really put a specific word on. But we try our best to have a culture or a vibe that attracts people who are serious.
Dean Schuster: And by serious, I mean people who are serious about doing great digital product work, but also who might be tired of other types of companies. A lot of people who get into UX or small UX shops like us, under 15 people, well, they might be burned out by an agency or burned out by a commodity web firm or whatever and they want to move toward this sort of high end expertise UX five that we've got, but so it's somewhat culture.
Dean Schuster: And then the other thing is we really look for people who are massively detailed oriented and you can ferret some of that out in interviews, yes. But for us the best way to find people tends to be from recommendation, more so than cold interviews or even head hunters.
Carl Smith: Yeah. I think that's dead on. We used to always say, "We need somebody who's organized, who cares about people and who gives a shit about their life."
Carl Smith: They don't want to waste time. They want to make sure they're doing great things.
Dean Schuster: Yeah. And honestly, in any company, but in particular, in a company that's not huge, a principal doesn't have time to deal in all the details of a client relationship issue like the project management level. That stuff needs to just be done. That needs to be done well and I need to simply hear, for instance, "A problem occurred, this is how it was fixed," and that's it. That's what I want.
Dean Schuster: And when you find a person who has that mentality, you do everything you can to keep them. Other than that, we inculcate our values simply through a very loose set of standards by which we manage projects. Because we're not mega-big, we don't have big hierarchies and don't need them. We have processes that are strong but they're not inflexible. We'll say things like, when interact with clients for instance, the way we communicate to them in writing is something that's established and something that we do all the time.
Dean Schuster: I'd love to show you one of these, and maybe I'll show at the conference. We have a pretty stellar simple document from a project management level that we bring to clients every week that helps us manage them and manage their expectations.
Carl Smith: Now, is that something that you would adjust for each client based on who they are, their hopes, fears, limitations, that sort of thing? Or is it kind of custom across the board?
Dean Schuster: It's pretty standard because most clients care about the same stuff. They care deeply about whether everything is on track, both in terms of finances and in terms of quality and timeline. "Is it on track? Are we in danger of not being on track in some way, shape or form? And if so, what are the issues?"
Dean Schuster: Our templates cover where we are on money every week, where we are on time, we even code our documents really simple for people. Like if you didn't want to read it all, you can just read the headings and look at the color. It's green. That's good and here are the things that are the highlights and you could look at it in a minute or you could delve in and see exactly where we are.
Dean Schuster: When we implemented that, it seems silly, but when we implemented that, our client relationships instantly got better because we put ourselves in a position to identify problems before they became problems. And we found that most clients are incredibly reasonable if they are put in a position to respond to a problem early in the project.
Dean Schuster: We have this maxim as well that a client will know before they're a quarter into the project whether we think the project is going to go over, and when you tell a client, "Hey, we're 20% in, this is what we're projecting. We think because of these things we're doing, it could have an effect this way or that," first of all, they're happy to hear it because they know how bad it could be later. And it's amazing what kind of flexibility people offer when they're in a really good mood and they see that you have their best interest at heart.
Dean Schuster: It's when later in the project, when you're 85% done and you tell them it's going to go over, well, they don't like it so much and I don't blame them one bit.
Carl Smith: No. And I wouldn't either. And I think that your approach is great. I really like that you said money and not hours. A budget's important too, but anytime you disguise what's the ultimate, which is money, you end up in a problem especially... And I won't go off on it. People who listen to show have heard me go off on it. But the idea of story points, I appreciate them for developmental purposes, but not for client communication because its tokens are Chuck E. Cheese.
Carl Smith: They have no idea what's going on, how does that relate. I thought just thinking about the way that you're communicating weekly. And the other part of that is silence is always the enemy. If a client doesn't hear from you for a while, they fill that void with something bad. If you're constantly communicating with them about the key important things to them, they key metrics to them, then everything gets smoother.
Dean Schuster: Yes, it does without a doubt. And you're correct about silence. And I would say it goes both ways. If we're not hearing from the client for one reason or the other, there are also bad things happening usually. Even if our check-ins with a client are extraordinarily brief, we have them all the time because a lot of our clients, like many people out there are remote. I mean, we have clients all over, so we can't always go and sit with them physically all the time.
Dean Schuster: We try to do that. I'm the guy who travels around a good bit, but they need to hear from us. We like to expand on that communication by using tools like Slack and using email, but not killing them with it. And we use project management tools, digital tools like everyone does. But we like to keep a close tab and open communication on a project.
Carl Smith: Given that clients are humans, and sometimes you have to explain this to the team, that they are humans, they can smell fear like a dog. But how do yo... When you're first meeting with a prospect, what are some of the questions, what are some of the things you try to find out about them to determine if they're going to be a good fit?
Carl Smith: Because I get the sense, just the brief time that I got to talk with you when we were in Saint Pete earlier and just looking at Truematter, I get the sense you're fairly selective for you to bring in. So what are some of those triggers that make you say, "I want this client or I don't want this client?"
Dean Schuster: Yeah. There's two big things and one of them is going to seem crass and the other philosophical. The first thing is quite frankly, they have to have a budget that fits. I don't think that's crass, but I know that sometimes I can come across that way. They have to have enough money to work with us because we specialize in doing things that take kind of a long time.
Dean Schuster: If clients come to us and they have a lower budget, we typically find a place for them to go, that fits better. We're just not a commodity shop, so we do a lot of custom stuff, a lot of UX stuff that solves some pretty complex problems that usually means a larger budget comes along with it, which is fine. It's just a business model. Nothing wrong with any of the other business models.
Dean Schuster: But the other one is we're solving UX problems. Typically, people who find out about us or are approaching us or we're approaching already have this notion that a user experience is important to them in some way. It is important to them based on metrics, based on value, whatever. They're actually interested in that sort of thing. So they've got a series of internal apps that need to be recreated or made to work better with off the shelf software, things of this nature. And they know we do that.
Dean Schuster: Part of this is a self selection thing. Our site says what it says, so that if you show up and as we say in the south, "Bless your heart, you won a thousand dollars website." We're not that team to do that. And that saves everyone's time and money, quite frankly, because the last thing you want is to waste time talking to someone who is not... It's like dating. You want to date the people who are serious. You don't want to waste a year of your life and then suddenly you say, "Oh, well I want to live in the country," "Well, I want to live in the city," and it's just too late, and then it's Green Acres and you see where that goes.
Carl Smith: Wow. Okay. Green Acres, loving that reference and-
Dean Schuster: [inaudible 00:16:23] is the place for me.
Carl Smith: We'll put in the show notes for the Millennials what we're talking about here. Arnold the pig, the black and white episode, I think was the best. Did you ever see that? I'm off on a tangent here, but because the show was in black and white and in color, they would actually do things and captions like the toaster just turned green.
Dean Schuster: No, I didn't know any of that.
Carl Smith: It's a cutting edge my friend.
Dean Schuster: It's a mission of mine to get Millennials to grasp some of these old shows that are really quite hilarious. I'm hoping someday they'll become hip or something. Maybe for Generation Z.
Carl Smith: They'll come back. They do. Generation Z is already all over the office right now.
Dean Schuster: That's right.
Carl Smith: It's all coming back. What about a client that had the budget, had the right need, but maybe there was some sort of a just vibe or maybe the chemistry between what you thought your team would be bringing from a personality perspective as well as everything else versus what the client was bringing. You ever hit that road mark?
Dean Schuster: Yeah, I think so. But some of that happens due to evolution. I can name a few clients of ours over the years that were just wonderful clients, just excellent, but over the course of years as they change and as we evolved, we evolved to become early on, more and more specialized. And as they change and grow, sometimes you have to sit down and say, "I don't sure we're quite the right fit anymore." And we've had to have some of those discussions and fortunately, they've actually been really good.
Dean Schuster: It's like any relationship discussion, once you start talking about it or talking about an issue, things still aren't as bad anymore. It's the not talking that's bad. We've had a number of situations where we've moved amiably away from clients because it didn't quite fit. That vibe wasn't there. But in terms of our clients as we have them now, I would say, largely based on how we hook up with our clients, the vibe is usually solid.
Dean Schuster: I think because they know what we do and what they need and who we are, by the time they say yes, they tend to say yes because they want the vibe that we offer. So I think that is good. As I say this Carl, I feel like everyone says this on the podcast, "What if all our clients love us?" But I think we've just learned over time how to better manage clients.
Dean Schuster: That's why I wanted so much to talk about it at the conference because I think there's a lot of good to sorting that out and to figuring out how to sort it out, especially coming from a guy like me who had to really take his lumps to learn it.
Carl Smith: You just described, I think that'll be the title of my autobiography, "Took me some lumps to learn it."
Dean Schuster: That's right.
Carl Smith: I'm really excited that you're going to be with us October 20th to 22nd in Orlando. There's a little plug for Digital PM Summit, and as I'm thinking about your talk, you're going to be basically sharing with everybody, "Don't just manage your team, manage your client." And as everything that you've said today, really managing the client is about managing yourself.
Dean Schuster: Oh my goodness, yes. That's a great way to put it. I've never really thought of it that way, but it's not far off the mark to say a lot of the processes that I had to work to help create in Truematter were processes intended to rein myself in.
Dean Schuster: As you say it now, it's suddenly makes so much sense to me that I was doing some of that. Because you simply cannot let a big picture person loose in a project management scenario and expect good things to happen unless you have some processes in place.
Carl Smith: Well, Dean, thank you so much for being on the show with us today. I look forward to seeing you in October and I look forward to having your hanging around with the Bureau community.
Dean Schuster: Oh, it's going to be great. I'm really looking forward to it.
Carl Smith: All right, everybody listening, thank you so much. And we'll be back next week. We'll talk to you then.