There are a variety of relationships a medicinal chemist might have with a client (and here a client might be considered an internal one as well as an external one). The most simple is the one where they tell you exactly what to do and you do it A.S.A.P. or there is the other extreme where a client has little or no chemistry background but wants the product (usually a biologist wanting compounds for their assays and models). While the technical skills on the project to succeed will be somewhat different depending on the style of the project, the building of your relationship with your client has some common features.
Fundamentally, your goal is please the client. The primary way of doing that is by meeting the ultimate goal of the project (this amount, by this time), but the funny thing with research is that it does not always go by a time-table and though you may be making progress toward the target, you may have already failed to please the client.
I had a project I was in charge of a few years ago. Without going into detail, it was mostly a resynthesis project, following a literature procedure, with the opportunity late stage to make some analogs. I talked with the client via a weekly teleconference and some by email (mostly sending the slides for the teleconference). The client was going to be hands off and let us work it out. But problems began when the literature procedures didn’t work and we were having to work out new synthetic methods as we went. The client became more agitated and nervous about the project. There was a deadline coming up. We made progress, solved the synthetic issues and brought up material on scale to attempt the final few steps (one of which was tricky and crucial to the synthesis). But the client was unhappy.
So what went wrong? Well, part of it was undoubtedly inexperience on my part. It was my first time front and center and I was trying to do what the client asked of me. But first, I was overly optimistic in my estimates of time and, crucially, though I tried to do what he asked, I did not necessarily do what he really wanted me to do. He had said he would be hands off and would let us get on with it, but his questions and comments made it clear (especially in retrospect) that he wanted detailed and thorough reports of progress. I had been up till that point primarily a practical chemist not a project leader, so my priority was on getting the work done and the presentations were done later to get the latest data in. But their presentation was hurried and left me open to further questions.
The conclusion from this project experiment was that I needed to pay more attention to the relationship with the client. Of course, the work in the laboratory is important – it is the reason you have the contract after all – but the ultimate goal is to please the client and the client needs the proper amount of attention and you need to put the proper amount of work into keeping them up to date, in presenting the data properly and being ready to answer questions. You have to be ready to adapt your presentation style to the client’s wishes and needs. Also, as I noted in my own example of project gone wrong, you need to be realistic about time scales, give yourself some leeway to allow for things to go imperfectly (as they often are wont to do). If multiple people are involved in delivering compounds or intermediates, you will need to get them together and work out between you when things can be done, allowing you to have faith in the information you give the client and your team has input and investment into the process.
The reward for this extra effort into client happiness comes down to a smoother running project. The client is included and informed and happy so is more understanding of delays and difficulties. As they come to trust your input, you can have greater influence and say over the course of the project. Because your communication channels are open, you know when the deadlines are hard or soft, which are important to the future of the project and which would merely be nice to have. Ultimately, the goal of good client relationship is a customer satisfied, who then extends the contract or brings in a new project for your team. Then, management is happy, which should mean new opportunities, larger project teams and, of course, a nice bonus. And although it seems like it is more work, it ends up making the project much less stressful.
There is also a great feeling of a job well done.