Monday, January 29, 2007

Dealing With Difficult Customers

I think anyone who’s done any work, regardless of the domain, regardless of the role, has had to deal with difficult customers in one form or another.  I’m in the middle of a months-long such effort which is exhausting me and severely pushing my limits.

I happen to be a person who does not believe that “The Customer is always right.”  I believe that “The Customer is always right unless they’re pushing well beyond the border of what the agreed upon work was, attacking my team, or being duplicitous.” 

Unfortunately, that’s the spot I seem to find myself in right now.  I’ve worked hard to break through some extremely difficult barriers at the start of this particular project, but it seems that those barriers are some form of vampiric hydra.  Put a stake in the heart of one issue and it sprouts another two heads.  (OK, badly mixed metaphor.) 

We started off with basic expecations management and communications issues, such as the customer’s expectations being far out of line with what we’d agreed to for the project, but I thought we’d worked through that.  I thought we worked through the other numerous communications issues because the customer reps I’ve been working with seemed to give me positive feedback when I’ve been face to face with them.  Hand off partially completed code to them and walk them through what’s going on with the design.  Get some head nods as to our approach.  Smiling faces.

Then tonight I get one of those e-mails that instantly turns me into a red-faced, profanity-screaming lunatic.  Management at the client is disappointed with our progress and is saying the customer reps we’ve been working with aren’t satisfied with our progress and that we’ve not delivered anything. 

Ugh.  Get up.  Walk around outside.  Ignore that it’s 16F with the windchill.  Calm down a bit.  Compose a reasoned response to my boss who rightly feels sandbagged.  Explain the numerous steps we’ve taken while on this road.  Agree to meet tomorrow for more explanations.

I may not be the world’s best project manager, but I believe I do customer relations about as well as anyone can.  I’m not sure what lessons I’ll take away from this when we’re through this latest round of customer explosions, but I’m sure I’ll find something useful after my stomach acid level gets back to normal.


Avonelle Lovhaug said...

I've often said that if we had a "crazy" sensor - something that would tell us whether or not a customer was nutters before we signed the deal to work with them, things would be a lot easier.

Good luck!

Jim Holmes said...

"Crazy sensor." Heh. I like that!

Wish I could figure out how to write one!

Dianne said...

Would chocolate help?

Have Zingermans ... will ship ...


Jim Holmes said...

Chocolate? Tried that. Didn't work. Everclear is next.

Dave O'Hara said...

Everclear is good but be sure to stand back when you light it. ;) So do we have a method to verify that the client's "take away" from a meeting matches your own?? I only ask because I've recently endured a similar experience and am currently grappling with a solution.

Ben Carey said...

I've been there.

The only advice that I can give is that sometimes it just doesn't work out. Many times, it's just a mis-match.

My stance has always been (well, morphed into)that there are times that it's the right call to fire your customer.

The customer and the provider of the services should have mutual benefit. If the benefit isn't there for both sides, it just never ends up being good business.

It's easier said than done, but sometimes the customer deserves the pink slip.

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