Quite possibly the hardest part of any customer-based role, Project management included, is having to deal with clients who may be rude, angry or perhaps constantly changing their mind.
Being able to deal with such clients, in an effective and resolute manner, is essential to the ultimate success of your projects.
Even if you don’t have direct contact with the client you can still be the focal point of their aggression or discontent, because it is you who is running their project.
Equally, if your ‘client’ is a difficult boss or colleague. Much of the following tips can apply to all of these situations.
Have Everything in Writing
I cannot overstate how important this is. The likelihood is that if you follow some kind of Project Management framework, you’ll already be keeping records of requirements and other important project information outlined by the client.
If you’re not doing this, start now! Having records of conversations can allow you to point to specific requests that the client gave if, for example, they ever argue with how a project is being undertaken.
In addition, keep a record of any client complaints and use it to show them you have acknowledged and addressed their concerns, which brings us to the next point:
Listen and Acknowledge
Often, one of the biggest sources of frustration for clients will be the feeling that they aren’t being listened to.
Rather than spending your time making excuses, listen to their concerns and grievances. Even if you think they don’t make sense or you know they are wrong, make the client feel that their point of view is worthwhile.
More important than just listening though, as mentioned, is to make sure you acknowledge what they are saying and attempt to take some action.
If they really are making no sense or you’re sure they aren’t right, then rather than say that to their face, assure them you’ll look into it and later email them with all the facts and figures you have to back up your position. Harking back to the writing point above, sending an email with all the data is a much more persuasive and understandable way of getting your point across than shouting out figures at them in person!
Really, this is advice for life in general but it certainly applies here. Taking responsibility for your own mistakes is really hard to do. Taking responsibility for other people’s mistakes might just be one of the hardest things you can do.
It feels unjust and unfair to get shouted at for what someone else did wrong, or even when you know that no wrongdoing took place.
Stand up, be brave and take the flack. It is your duty as a manager and it will go someway towards making the client feel better about the situation.
Sometimes they just want to vent. Holding your hands up and accepting their accusations, even when they are just plain wrong, will throw them off completely and may well diffuse the situation.
You might be beginning to notice a theme here, and that is to be more civil and thoughtful towards a difficult client than they are towards you.
By no means am I saying this will always work, but it will often disorientate them in terms of their anger and discontent. It’s very hard to shout at someone when they are responding calmly and politely. I said hard – not impossible!
Another aspect of being civil is asking them questions. Use it as an opportunity to gauge exactly what their problem is and what they want done about it.
‘What can we do to make this work?’ and ‘How would you like to proceed?’ are good leading questions that make it appear that you are genuinely interested in their opinion on how to solve the problem (even if you’re not!)
Seriously though, the best way to appear interested is to actually be interested. No matter how ridiculous or inane their problem, you should be grateful for the opportunity to receive feedback that you can use to improve your service and abilities.
‘Put yourself in their shoes’ is an overused phrase but one which certainly applies here.
Try to think of time when you had a similar problem to your client in other areas of service, and remember how it made you feel. Then think of how the service provider addressed the situation. Did they do something well that made you feel better? Did they do something that made things worse?
Use your own good and bad experiences with service to get into the mind of your client and really empathise with them.
If you still think they are being unreasonable, and you’re struggling to empathise, a good trick is to imagine them as a close relative or friend. When someone close to you has a problem, even if you know they are wrong, you’ll often go further to understand their point of view and back them up.
Think of clients in this way and you’ll be more inclined to see things the way they do, which allows you to see what’s wrong and be in a position to fix it.
If all else fails, it may be time (if you have the authority) to wave goodbye to them. Sometimes a client will just not be worth the hassle and stress. It may be better for all involved, client included, to part ways as amicably as possible and move one with other projects (this may even apply if your ‘client’ is your boss).
If even that option isn’t open to you, then it may be the time to make your position clear to them. Tell them that you yourself take issue with the way in which they are getting overly involved or the manner in which their outline complaints.
Give them an ultimatum of sorts and explain to them that you’ll go through any necessary process to address the situation (whether that’s formal disciplinary procedures or whatever).
Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind, but ideally if you’ve been through all the tips above, it won’t ever come to this. It would take a particularly nasty client (or a particular bad PM) to warrant such action.
Manage people the way you manage projects – take a reasoned, understanding and logical approach – and you’ll notice that the difficult customers will, in one way or other, begin to fall away.
Andy Trainer is an experienced Project Manager who has had his fair share of difficult clients! He now spends his days writing for Silicon Beach Training who run Project Management Courses in sunny Brighton.