Project Management Institute

Difficult customers--do they really exist?

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Do difficult customers really exist? Have you ever had the experience of dealing with a difficult customer on one or more of your projects? What made them ‘difficult’? Many project managers today feel their customers are difficult to work with. My take on this is different: CUSTOMERS ARE NOT DIFFICULT, CUSTOMERS ARE FRUSTRATED. There is a difference. As Project Managers, we are trained to manage scope, cost, time, quality, and risk. We are taught how to use software products to help us report status. Sometimes, we are so focused on the mechanical techniques of project management, we forget about the people. We overlook ways to influence decisions and outcomes. We're hard at work updating our project plans, but what about the customer? Have we forgotten to talk to them? Make sure what we do is what they want. Close the communication gaps!

Who Really Is My Customer?

This should be an easy question for Project Managers to answer. If only it was this easy (see Figure-1):



Most of us think we know who our customers are. After all, how do we make them happy if we don't know who they are? Managing customer expectations. We've all heard that phrase, so why are so many customers frustrated? Often times, decisions are made at the wrong level of management, causing changes, second guessing, rework and frustration. Why does this happen? And how can it be prevented?

Consider the following questions:

  • Does the person making the decisions on my project have the authority to do so?
  • Is there someone higher in the organization that could override the decisions being made?
  • Are there ‘hidden’ customers that will be affected by the project?
  • Who has what at stake?

The answers to these questions can make or break your project. If the right decision makers are not involved early on in the project, your chances of success are significantly decreased. Have you ever heard someone say “That's not what I wanted” “What were you thinking” “Who made that decision for you”? The best Project Managers will continuously ask who has the authority to make what decisions. And who has what at stake. Consider this example:

A Project Manager is asked to take over the management of a large, extremely visible, and high risk project that is in bad shape. A Project Sponsor is identified who has authority to make final decisions. Two weeks into his/her new assignment, the Project Manager and the Project Sponsor decide on a new organizational structure for the project, and a fresh new project name. The Project Manager sends out an email with the changes to all stakeholders, and receives an email back from a Senior Manager that states the project name cannot be changed, it will continue on with the old name. This prompts a question: If the Project Sponsor is not able to make a decision on the project name, what decisions CAN they make? Who has the final decision, and when?

It is absolutely essential for Project Managers to proactively look for who the decision makers and key stakeholders are. They need to ask who has what authority levels. And then hold people accountable.

Competing Priorities

A common problem on projects, especially highly visible projects, is competing priorities between senior management. The CIO wants the latest technology. The CFO wants it done cheaper. The COO wants improved processes. All of which can affect the triple constraint (see Figure-2).



How do we know which is the most important? This can be difficult. Ask yourself some more questions:

  • Who has what influence in the organization?
  • What were the original goals and objectives of the project?
  • Who is sponsoring the project?
  • Who signed the Project Charter?
  • Who is paying the bills?

One person needs to be the final decision maker, not three. And that person should be whoever created and signed the Project Charter. Making sure everyone clearly understands the goals, objectives, and business value to be gained is critical.

Then gain consensus. Easier said than done sometimes, but none the less important. Get everyone to approve the roles, and authority levels. And stick to it. Management needs to understand the impact competing priorities can have.

Keeping Them Happy

Projects run over budget, projects are behind schedule, projects never seem to end. Is this reason enough for customers to become frustrated, and ‘difficult’? How do we prevent this from happening? What makes some project managers ‘stand out’, and how do they keep their customers happy, satisfied, and pleased with the project's success? Once we have identified who has what authority in decision making on the project, we need to make sure their expectations are met. This sounds easy enough, but in reality it's something we don't do as well as we should. There are many factors to be considered in managing our customer's expectations. As Project Managers, we are responsible for anything that can affect the health of our projects, including the people.

We need to constantly and proactively look for disconnects. Disconnects between our team and ourselves. Disconnects between what the customer wants, and what is being delivered. Disconnects between middle and senior management. How do we do this? Most of the time, there are warning signs of disconnects. Or warning signs that there is potential for disconnects. Take the example discussed earlier. Was there a disconnect between the Project Sponsor and Senior Management? If they can't agree on a project name, what other disconnects might there be? And how do we prevent them?

There are many factors to be considered.

  • Assess the political climate. Who knows who? Who has what to gain? Who has what to lose?
  • Influence key decision makers. Who does senior management trust? And how can I gain their buy in? If you can gain buy in from the people senior management trust the most, you will also have buy in from senior management.
  • Build effective relationships. Ask about their hobbies or other activities outside work. Laugh and joke. Be conscious of how you are delivering both good and bad news. Don't be so serious all the time.
  • Building and establishing trust. Be honest. Don't gold plate. Don't ‘sugar coat’ things. Trust is one of the most valuable and important things the Project Manager can have. And remember, it's earned.
  • Avoid surprises. The best Project Managers are proactively looking to the future. Make sure you don't drop a bomb on your stakeholders.
  • Ask questions. Ask yourself and others who's happy, and who's not. And why?
  • And of course, listening. Listening patiently, without emotions. When a customer is not happy, it's not easy listen to their venting. But we have to. We have to listen to the message, not the way it is being communicated. Listen to what they are saying, and try to uncover the ‘real’ problem.

Being proactive, and actively looking for disconnects will help ensure that your customers, stakeholders, and project team are committed to the project.

In Summary

Difficult customers. Angry customers. We've all had them. Try to prevent them. Don't be part of the frustration, or the problem. Be part of the solution. Proactive prevention is the key. Don't put out fires. Prevent the fires from happening in the first place. You will quickly realize the benefits.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of PMI® Global Congress 2003 – North America
Baltimore, Maryland, USA ● 20-23 September 2003



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