Three Ways to Mend Customer Relationships

What do you do if you find yourself in a situation where you have strained relations with the customer and, while the project may not be on the verge of collapse, your relationship with the customer is crumbling? Brad Egeland describes three ways to deal with this challenge.

As an independent consultant and a project manager, the customer relations aspect of any engagement is my top priority. Make the customer happy—not at all costs, of course, but do everything within reason. As a consultant, you don't want to lose customers. It's easier to retain your current clients than it is to go out and find new ones. And as a project manager, you don't want a string of failed projects trailing behind you. It looks bad on your resume, and it certainly isn’t going to guarantee you long-term employment in the project management field.

When the Customer Isn’t Happy …
What do you do if you find yourself in a situation where you have strained relations with the customer and, while the project may not be on the verge of collapse, your relationship with the customer is crumbling? How do you get back to a reset point with them? How do you win the customer back over to your side? Based on my own project management experiences and discussions with colleagues, I've created a list of three actionable items. You may choose one or you may need to perform all three actions—it depends upon the severity of the situation and the success of each action as you move through the process.

1. Get the Problem Out in the Open
I'm a firm believer that the best thing you can do in a bad situation is directly address the offended or dissatisfied party. It isn't always easy—and it certainly isn’t comfortable—but it's the right thing to do. It's your best chance to get real, solid information on what's wrong with the situation without wasting time running through he-said, she-said scenarios. Go to your customer 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 who 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. It all depends on what you find out. If what you want to find out has to do with management of the project—possible communication issues or a resource on the project that is causing the customer concern—then address it directly. If no official communication plan exists and communication is an issue, then create one and get the customer to signoff on it. If it's a resource issue, explain to the customer how it will be handled. Either work with the problem resource or—if that doesn't help or isn't possible—then seek a replacement from your management. The key is to address customer concerns proactively and quickly once you have this information.

2. Involve Your Senior Management
If you feel like you can’t make any progress, discuss the problem with the customer—take the leap and sit down with them and someone from your senior management. Do it before the customer reaches out to your senior management 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.

3. 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 his discomfort is due to his 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. Identify how the project's status will be reported going forward. Discuss how financials will be managed and reported. Layout for the customer how issues and risks will be managed, assigned, and worked. Formally present how meetings will be led and what will be covered. Do everything you can to get that customer back to the point where he is comfortable that everything on the project is under control—your control—and that his needs will be addressed.

No matter what, if the customer is unhappy, you have to do something now—not later. It may not even be your fault, but you can't get past it with the customer until you resolve the issue. So resolve it in any way you can. And, in the end, if none of these three steps does the job—whether the steps are taken individually or stacked on top of each other—you may have to face the reality that some other project manager needs to be at the helm of this project and manage this particular customer. With the right effort and digging and action, most situations can eventually be turned around with the customer. And for those few that can't be, then more drastic actions may have to be taken.

Go to management and look for the next assignment. Get back on the horse quickly and act like it's not affecting your confidence level—even if it is. And explain to management how you will or are addressing any concerns the customer had of your performance. If it wasn't really your fault, explain that thoroughly to your management. But don't make excuses if it was your fault; rather, show how you will proactively address any issues.

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