The difference between client management and project management

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Clients always come first

While I go hiking regularly with my family, it’s been more than 10 years since I have maintained any sort of regular workout routine, which means that while my legs are pretty strong, I have basically zero upper body strength. I figured that it was time to change that and last week went to my very first CrossFit class, where I promptly died. Later that same day, I couldn’t even walk up or down my stairs without pain and had to scoot on my butt, and by the end of the day, I couldn’t lift my arms. The pain got worse the next day, and worse the day after that. By the third day, I was literally in tears, taking way too much Motrin, and icing my right shoulder constantly.

I was really looking forward to getting started with CrossFit. I had done my homework, researched gyms, signed up for the beginner trial period with extra support and training. I filled out the forms about my fitness level (honestly and frankly), answered questions, and was assigned a class. That morning I laced up my tennis shoes and filled my Hydro Flask, excited and a bit nervous.

But when I got there, my experience didn’t match up with my expectations at all. I was pushed to lift more weight than I was comfortable with and my concerns were disregarded. I tried to speak up, but I wasn’t very confident and I didn’t stand my ground. I figured that I don’t know what I don’t know, I trusted the professionals to do what was best for me, and I seriously injured myself.

The following week, I got an email from the gym owner asking when I would be back in to finish my 10-day beginner trial. I shared the story of my actual pain and that there was no way I could work out again in the next 10 days. The owner handled the situation like a true professional and admitted the coach wasn’t a beginner coach, the workout changed at the last minute and it wasn’t a beginner workout, and that someone should have told me or rescheduled my first session.

The whole thing got me thinking about my own creative agency and the differences between project management and client management.

For the CrossFit gym, delivering the class is their service, and in terms of delivery, they executed the project management well. They:

  • Managed team expectations by alerting the coach on staff that a beginner was joining the class.
  • Communicated internally about the workout.
  • Communicated clearly with me as a new client about the gym’s capabilities and resources.
  • Provided cost, schedules, and timelines up front.
  • Tracked my attendance, perceived performance, and followed up.
  • Prepared for the class and had all equipment ready.

However, in terms of client management, the gym failed.

  • What I experienced did not align with my expectations.
  • They did not account for a beginner attending the class and when the workout changed, they did not communicate the change, the intensity of the workout, or reschedule my introductory class.
  • When I asked questions about the schedule, workouts, classes, and follow up, they didn’t have answers to any of my questions.
  • Even though I provided detailed information about my level of fitness before attending, none of it was taken into account during my workout and my concerns were brushed off.
  • I didn’t feel confident speaking up and I didn’t feel listened to.

Project management and client management work together to define the client experience, differentiate your service from competitors, and position the business for success.

Understand the nuances, and you’ll thrive.


Whether you run a WordPress agency, a CrossFit gym, or any other type of service-based business or freelance business, it is critical that you understand the nuances of project management and client management and how the two work together to define the client experience, differentiate your service from your competitors, and position the business for success.

The difference between project management and client management

A project management system manages the planning, organization and completion of a project with a defined outcome, making sure it is well-executed, delivered on time, and within budget. Project management requires strategic thinking, careful planning, meticulous implementation, and clear communication so agencies can maintain the project trajectory, hit milestones, manage expectations, handle scope changes, mitigate objections, and effectively troubleshoot problems.

Project management is about improving the project experience, streamlining the workflow, protecting profitability, and reducing stress for the agency. It focuses on the work to be done and puts the agency first.

Project managers work internally to:

  • Manage agency/team expectations.
  • Create strong relationships with team members.
  • Deliver clear, simple communication.
  • Have a critical understanding of the agency’s capabilities and resources.
  • Develop deep knowledge of past project details to effectively determine scope, estimate new projects, and draft timelines.
  • Track production and execution to ensure the work is performed to agency standards and done on time and in budget.
  • Coordinate specific details related to the project’s success and communicate with team members.

Client Management People

A client management system manages the education, support, and care of the client to help them reach a defined outcome, making sure they feel valued and have an extraordinary experience. Client management requires personal connections, continuous communication, enthusiasm, transparency, patience, empathy, and flexibility to build trust and help clients feel comfortable and confident working with you throughout the project.

Client management is about improving the project experience, simplifying the process, exceeding expectations, and reducing stress for the client. It focuses on creating powerful client relationships and puts the client first.

Client managers work externally to:

  • Manage client expectations, pitch the agency’s work, and translate client feedback.
  • Create strong relationships with clients.
  • Deliver clear, simple communication.
  • Develop deep knowledge of the agency’s capabilities and resources to answer questions and facilitate solutions.
  • Have a critical understanding of the client’s business, industry and competition to facilitate smart, strategic decision-making.
  • Keep the project on-brand and focused on the client’s goals and objectives.
  • Coordinate education and training, client support, and ongoing care throughout the relationship.

Ultimately, you need project management and client management systems in place to not only ensure long-term success and profitability, but to deliver the top two things that clients desire most:

  1. Competence and expertise — demonstrated through project management systems.
  2. Warmth and caring — demonstrated through client management systems.

It is only after a client understands that you are competent, you have expertise, and you actually care about them and their goals, that they evaluate things like budget and timeline. This is why at Bourn Creative, we focus on being firm, fair and friendly in the way we manage both projects and clients:

  • We are firm about our capabilities, expertise, and contracts.
  • We are fair in the work we do, the fees we charge, and the terms and boundaries we set.
  • We are friendly in our communications and client relationships.

Most service providers focus on project management because it is all about protecting the integrity of the work, their time and their bottom line. They invest large amounts of time evaluating project management software options, consider building their own solutions, and constantly search for the “everything I have ever wanted” solution. They track time, setup internal project templates and checklists, automate tasks, and create software.

While this approach works, it’s not the best approach.


Don’t get me wrong … project management is critical to any freelance business or agency, but in my experience, the approach is backward.

Lead with client management, follow up with project management

Let’s take another look at my CrossFit experience:

Tension and frustration appeared when my expectations as a client weren’t met, I wasn’t listened to or understood, and I felt uncomfortable speaking up. As a result, it negatively affected the project management (class management) for me as a client and I didn’t have a successful experience. Now the owner has offered to coach me personally in private sessions, which will reduce their profitability.

The same thing happens with design and development clients. If their expectations are not being met, they aren’t heard, and they don’t feel comfortable speaking up, they will become frustrated and your relationship may become tense and strained. This will not only negatively affect the management of the project, but create a poor client experience.

A completed project done on time and within budget is the minimum requirement

In today’s market, projects are accelerated, stakes are high, technology is rapidly-changing, budgets are rigid, client expectations are high, and timelines are tight. Results must be produced, measured and proven. As the freelancer or agency hired, the success or failure of a project is your responsibility and ultimately, it comes down to how well the project and client were managed.

  • Service can’t just be about delivering a completed project on time and within budget. It needs to also be about building trust, nurturing relationships, and anticipating needs.
  • Service can’t be done only through email and communication can’t happen only when you need something or there is a problem. Instead, you need to call the client to check in, see how things are going, and see if there is anything else you can do for them, or schedule a video chat so you can interact face-to-face and build a stronger rapport.
Service needs to be about more than contract fulfillment.


It needs to be about creating consistent, memorable, extraordinary experiences that differentiate you from your competitors.

Client Management Man

Lead with client management

Client management is about the client — ensuring they are happy, answering their questions, providing education and support, making them feel good about their decision to hire you, and guiding them through the process so they are comfortable and satisfied.

Leading with client management will result in clients who feel happy, supported, and cared for.

When you lead with client management and the client is happy, supported, and cared for, the project runs smoother and the project management made easier because there are fewer distractions, obstacles are mitigated early on, and the client trusts you more.

Your approach to client management and agency success — producing the best possible return on investment for the agency and the client — must begin immediately during client onboarding. The onboarding process includes welcoming new clients to your business, setting expectations, and getting them up to speed so you can work together effectively, get the information you need, and establish a great relationship.

Active client management practices such as anticipating potential hurdles, providing extra support and education, or simply checking in to see how things are going, then need to be continued throughout the duration of the project.

Follow up with project management

When a client feels satisfied and cared for and they are thrilled with their decision to hire you, they will ask fewer questions, cause fewer delays, and require less hand-holding. You will spend less time on administrative tasks and enjoy greater focus. As a result, every other aspect of the project, including project management, will fall into place with less friction and more joy.

At Bourn Creative, our client management system, Profitable Project Plan, handles every aspect of client care, education and support throughout the duration of a project so that every client receives a consistent level of service. And, because the system is documented and automated, our time is freed up from email, administrative tasks and education, so we can focus on the work we are hired to do — strategy, design and development.

That’s where project management comes into play.

Clients buy based on benefits and emotion and justify the purchase based on features and logic.


This is why we lead with client management, putting the clients’ needs first, and follow up with project management, making sure projects are well-executed, delivered on time, and within budget. So once we make sure the client is happy and comfortable, we reinforce their positive feelings by demonstrating our competence and expertise through the meticulous management of their project.

This level of care allows you to provide extraordinary service and create an unparalleled experience that turns clients into raving fans, powerful referral sources, and trusted brand evangelists. It also provides you with more flexibility, less stress, fewer interruptions, better margins and higher profits.

If the CrossFit gym I tried out lead with client management, they would have communicated the workout program change, rescheduled my first class, made sure a coach focused on beginners was there to support me, and guided me through the workout so I didn’t injure myself. This would have ensured I had a great experience, signed a contract, and told my friends about it.

Shifting from a project management-first approach to a client management-first approach would have immediately put more money in their pockets and sent several new referrals their way.

You must actively manage clients and projects

Project management and client management aren’t two completely separate tasks that require completely separate systems, but two interwoven tasks that depend on each other to provide the best service possible without sacrificing your sanity, your time or your profits. While project management is a necessity for every freelancer and agency, I encourage you to lead with client management so everything else in your business flows with ease.

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