Unfortunately for project managers, complaints are not a rarity in the world of project management. It can seem very unfair to get criticism on a project when in the majority of cases a lot of hard work has gone into getting it successfully delivered. However, the reality is that you may be working with a client that is not happy with what they see. How do you deal with this situation in a way that is suitable for both parties?
Review the situation objectively
The first and very human reaction to a complaint is to become defensive. It doesn’t make sense to us that a customer would be unhappy. After all, we’ve been working hard getting their project delivered.
It is hard to see someone else’s point of view when you are in the midst of a complex, face paced and stressful project. Criticism may feel like salt rubbed in an open wound. However, to handle the situation properly you really need to be able to take a step back from your feelings and analyze the complaint objectively.
Try and get the complaint in writing and take time to read through it carefully, taking a step back from your personal feelings about the project. Have a look at the words they use and have a look at the statements they make in the complaint. Try to find a common understanding of what has caused the customer to become so dissatisfied.
It’s not personal
Even if you as the project manager come under direct criticism, it isn’t actual personal. Unfortunately for project managers they front a project; they are the face of the brand. Despite the efforts you may be going to behind the scenes to do things right, if there are errors they will fall to you to take responsibility for. So if the criticism is directly at you personally, try to take it on the chin.
Once you have your own assessment of what the problem is there is no better way of addressing it than talking directly with the customer at length. Arrange a time with them away from the project meetings, and without a large audience. Meeting in person is a better than talking on the phone as it allows you to read body language and also use your own body language – smiles, nodding, open relaxed arms - to diffuse a potentially tense situation between the two parties.
The key to this meeting is simple: listen, don’t talk. Allow the customer to open up to you about what the issue is, and explore some of the reasons behind why they might have that perception of the project. The purpose of this meeting isn’t to defend your project, but just to hear what you customer has to say as openly as possible. The customer will appreciate the fact that you are taking the time out to take their complaint seriously and this goes a long way to rebuilding a relationship.
Honestly builds trust between you and the customer. Openness about what you are doing and why you are doing it will reassure the customer that your words are not just ways of placating them but that you are giving them a true, accurate and fair view of the project. If, for example, you have had to make a difficult decision about the project, explain why. Honesty will help the customer understand things from your perspective, and that will help in rebuilding the relationship.
Quite often, relationships with customers break down because there is a wide gap between what they want and what you can offer them. It can be a struggle for a project manager to close that gap.
However, even if there is a requirement of the customer’s that you are having difficulty fulfilling, there may be other avenues on the project for you to explore where you can offer them some added value. This shows flexibility, and by demonstrating that you are prepared to be accommodating with the customer will be seen in a positive light as its one of the biggest qualities customers want in a supplier.
Make sure you always follow up a complaint in a timely manner. In your follow up, reiterate back to the customer what you perceived their issue was. This shows you have understood and listened. Identify key faults that need remedying and put in place an action plan for dealing with them. This shows a level of proactive handling of complaints that will give the customer some confidence back.
Learn from mistakes
Use complaints as a way of doing things better in the future. Once the complaint has been dealt with, look at how you could avoid such issues in the next project. Complaints can be good opportunity to improve the way you do things as a business and within a project. Every project you do should be an improvement on the one before it. Think of things from that angle, and you don’t have to think of complaints in such a negative way; they can have a positive outcome.
Complaints are never enjoyable to hear. If you get a complaint, it means something somewhere has gone wrong. What is important is not to dwell on the problem but look at how to make things better, and bridge the relationship with the customer. By doing so, you can build that trust and develop a long term relationship that lasts beyond the completion point of the project.