Co-authors: Ashley Liu and Hannah Wood (Mindwalk Studios)
This year’s XDS saw a variety of exciting and innovative sessions. One of these was the first-of-its-kind, “How to be a True Partner to your Clients.” This break-out session provided an open forum for vendors to discuss common challenges and best practices in a safe and judgment-free environment, without the presence of their clients. The goal was to have a forum where the external partners could come together and talk about how to raise the quality of service that they provide.
Sixty representatives from various external partners attended, and no publishers or developers were allowed in the room – with exception of Ashley Liu (CEO of Mindwalk Studios) who co-hosted the session with Liza Wood (Senior Producer at Warner Brothers). The room was divided into five stations, each supervised by a station leader, who engaged the attendees in brainstorming on various topics. The following covers the highlights of each.
Station 1: Common Pitfalls during Engagements
Led by: Tom Marx, Business Development Executive, Pole to Win America
This station called participants to think back to “failed” engagements and discuss the issues that caused them to fail. Some of the most popular topics were engagements in which:
- Tests were “hands-off” – clients would not provide feedback or create opportunities for questions.
- The projects was rushed, where a client wanted a vendor to help put out fires by turning something around very quickly.
- There was a failure to agree on contract and legal terms.
- There was delayed feedback or a general lack of feedback.
Once the causes of these failed engagements were discussed, the group moved on topotential solutions:
- On the legal side of things, vendors should not be afraid to set limits, particularly for change orders or things that cause something to run severely over budget.
- Master service agreements could be standardized across the industry.
- Vendors should set expectations through:
- Clear communication channels
- Scheduling regular check-ins
- Establishing realistic team sizes
Station 2: Communication Practices
Led by: Arseny Lebedev, Director, Media and Entertainment at EPAM
Part One of Station Two asked participants about their communication best practices. Participants agreed on the following ideas:
- Establishing a regular communication process with weekly or even daily calls.
- Prioritizing the human side of communication – for instance, voice chat or face-to-face over email.
- Keeping emails brief, direct, and polite.
- Keep all contacts in the same thread.
- Some participants suggested instead that separate communication, broken up based on job function was best.
- Promote understanding between both vendor and client on cultural differences from each side.
In the second part, vendors discussed common client-side communication errors. The following are some of the biggest issues discussed:
- Not setting expectations early, before production starts.
- Making changes to scope, approval systems, or contact points happen partway through a project without communicating those changes clearly.
- Having too many contacts giving contradicting orders.
- Providing feedback that is indirect, overly lengthy, or purely subjective and/or negative.
- Making assumptions about scheduling or priorities without communicating those assumptions.
- Engaging in communication inconsistencies, such as the amount of time for a reply, or the use of random communication mediums, methods, and etc.
Station 3: Choosing to Take on One Project Versus Another
Led by: Sergio Rosas, Owner, CGBot
In this station, participants discussed examples of when they regretted taking on a project and why. Some of the biggest examples were projects in which:
- There was no briefing, late briefing, or briefing that changed unexpectedly.
- There were was an unclear art director, or multiple art directors.
- Which led to problems in which the vendor would get an approval from one director only to be contradicted by another later.
- There were changing commitments (projects being suddenly canceled or grossly delayed).
- There was a tight or impossible deadline.
- Unreasonable or illogical demands were made. For example, situations in which clients wanted to solve scheduling issues by simply by adding more bodies, even though, as Station Lead, Sergio Rosas said, “you can’t get nine women to have a baby in one month.”
The second part of Station Three asked participants to discuss their criteria for choosing projects. Some of the most popular ideas included projects that:
- Offer long term stability.
- Would benefit team morale, for example if the project is:
- a big title
- a popular IP
- in a style the team likes
- Offers flexibility in timing.
- Has an organized client.
- Offers a potential learning or portfolio building experience.
Interestingly, while money (potential profit) did come up, many participants later retracted it, saying that indeed long-term stability was more important.
Station 4: Tracking and Review Tools
Led by: Ron Ashtiani, CEO, Atomhawk
Station Four was interesting in that, unlike the other stations, it had little do with clients. Two simple questions were asked. The first, “What are the top tools you use in collaboration with your clients?” saw the following answers (in a general order of popularity):
For communication: Jira, Base Camp
For File Transfer: Dropbox, Box, Secured FTPs, Perforce
For Project Management: Microsoft Project, Hansoft, Trello, Shotgun, Excel
*Station Lead, Ron Ashtiani said it was in fact, “amazing to see how little people are using Excel.”
The above are just the most popular applications the session discussed, though other programs (Harvest, Tortoise SVN, Lifesize, Github, Google Sheets, and others) were also mentioned.
The second question asked participants to speak about what they feel is lacking in today’s tools, and the most popular answer by far was user experience and ease of use. Ashtiani suggested this could be why tools like Basecamp are so popular: more complex tools see little artist buy-in. Other areas included:
- The ability to collaborate across a team or allow for multiple producers and account managers to work in the same system.
- Programs that track resources, artist ability, payments, and time tracking software.
- Integration across these tools.
Station 5: Managing Client Expectations
Led by: David Gratton, CEO, Work at Play
Station Five covered perhaps one of the most delicate topics, but there seemed to be a great deal of agreement amongst its participants. The first part called for discussion on the best ways to proactively manage client expectations. Suggestions included:
- Establishing a very detailed scope, and making it more detailed depending on the style of the client or the complexity of the project.
- Reach a process agreement, not just on production but over the entire business engagement.
- Have pre-mortems and hopes/fears exercises.
- Engage in regular communication (onsite when possible).
- Set benchmarks.
- Keep a risk log.
- Be as open and transparent with the client as possible.
Almost all these answers were communication centric, focusing on frequent and thorough questions, clarifications, and updates.
The second part of Station Five asked participants how to restore client expectations after a set-back. Steps include the following:
- Go onsite and discuss issues in a face-to-face meeting.
- “Stay cool”.
- Take ownership of responsibility in not meeting expectations.
- Remain sincere and honest.
- Do not focus on faults, but on solutions.
- Point out mistakes the client made that help facilitate the issue, and set expectations on moving forward.
- Establish a clear and documented forward plan that everyone agrees on.
- Don’t mess it up again, and…
- Should all else fail…bring out the alcohol!
At the end, it was apparent that a session like this was long overdue. Throughout the session there was a strong sense of relief that “oh finally, someone else is going through this too”. On some topics, there were a lot of heads nodding, but consensus was not shared across every topic. At times the microphone was grabbed to share a counter point which made for a very lively session. It was obvious that sessions where vendors can share their experiences and learn from one other is desperately needed in the industry. Hopefully this is the beginning of many similar sessions to come at XDS.