What to Do if Project Customer Relations are Strained
By Brad Egeland
I like to say that communication is Job One for the project manager and I will always feel that way. But Job Two (and part of Job One) is keeping the project customer or consulting customer satisfied, happy, confident… whatever it takes to keep them onboard with the project and current agreement.
I pride myself on excellence in the customer relationship area of project management. I certainly don’t do all things perfectly. Far from it. But when it comes to managing the customer, interfacing with the customer, understanding their needs, and doing whatever I can to meet those needs, I believe I am always giving 110%. I may not be always getting it exactly right, but I know I’m always trying – and generally, I see that reflected in the feedback I get from my customers.
That doesn’t mean that every engagement goes well…. and it certainly doesn’t mean that every customer is happy with me and that none have complained. They have…and I do tend to take it personally because of the way I always try to approach the customer.
If you find yourself on this situation or if customer relations are not your forte, what do you do to try to mend a strained relationship with a customer? Something has to be done obviously or the customer’s frustration level and dissatisfaction will likely only mount. Soon you may be shown the door on the project and even with your company if the customer starts calling your CEO….and some customers just may do that.
Let’s lay this out again – you’re project is having issues or you’re having customer issues and you have a strained relationship with the customer. The project may not be on the verge of collapse, but your relationship with the customer definitely is. What do you do? How do you get back to a reset point with them? How do you win them back over to your side? Based on my own knowledge of managing customers, as well as any difficulties I’ve encountered with customers and discussions I’ve had with other project managers with troubled customer relationships, I’ve narrowed the actionable responses to these three:
Have a frank discussion with the customer. I’m a firm believer that the best thing you can do is go directly to the offended or dissatisfied party. It’s your best chance to get real, solid information on what’s wrong with the situation without running through any he said, she said scenarios. Go in with a few questions in mind…
- What is your opinion of the status of the project?
- How do you feel about the way the project is being managed?
- Are there issues or concerns that you feel aren’t being adequately addressed?
- Are there members of the project team that are specifically causing you concern and why?
After you get some real answers to those questions, take it from there. Project managers are creative problems solvers – you should be able to unearth some information from one or more of these questions or similar questions.
Involve your senior management. If you feel like you can’t make any discussion progress with the customer, take the leap and sit down with them and someone from your senior management. Do it before they sit down with your senior management by themselves. Take the initiative to schedule this meeting so that you are on the inside of the information-sharing process … not on the outside looking in. Ideally, this will be a PMO director or even a CEO depending on the size of your organization and the visibility of the project (or the whininess of the customer – that’s sometimes a factor!).
Formally present a new course of action. If you feel like you can make some progress with this customer and if you think (or know) that some of their discomfort is due to their interpretation of how the project has been run, then by all means set up a reset point meeting. Gather all critical parties and take it back to a kickoff meeting type discussion. Review – or revise – how things are going to be done on the project. How project status will be reported going forward. How financials will be managed and reported. How issues and risks will be managed, assigned, and worked. How meetings will be led and what will be covered. Do everything you can to get that customer back to the point where they are comfortable that everything on the project is under control – your control – and that their needs will be addressed.
The bottom line is this – if the customer is unhappy and you have to do something. And quickly. Especially if you want to have any hope of retaining or re-engaging with this customer. The more proactive you are the better. It may not even be your fault, but you can’t get past it with the customer until you resolve it. So resolve it in any way you can. And, in the end, if none of these three steps do the job – whether they are taken individually or stacked on top of each other – you may have face the reality that some other project manager needs to be at the helm of this project and manage this particular customer. Most situations can be turned around – but some simply can’t be.