25 April, 2022

Good Customer Service: How to Keep Your Client and Stakeholders Happy


Project Managers can learn from all sorts of places. And, since your job is partly to serve your clients, users, and stakeholders, one valuable source of ideas for you is customer service.

In this article, we will look at how you can keep your client and stakeholders happy by applying some of the principles of good customer service. I expect that very little of this will surprise you. Because you have been a customer plenty of times. You’ve probably seen the best and the worst of customer service in your work and your daily life.

But, what I hope this article will do, is give you some food for thought. It will offer a load of ideas for how you can apply what you already know about good customer service, to pleasing your customers:

  • the client for whom you’re delivering your project,
  • the users who will engage with the products of your project,
  • and the stakeholders who are affected by that project.

I am Not Alone in Using the Language of Customers

PMI uses the language of ‘customers’ in its requirements for ongoing professional development. ‘Customer Relationship and Satisfaction’ is explicitly a part of the Strategic and Business Management Competency of the PMI’s Talent Triangle. However, whilst the word ‘customer’ does appear several times in the current, 7th edition, of the PMI’s Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide), it does not do so in a consistent way that suggests the authors see this as an important idea.

However, the term ‘customer’ does appear in a consistent way, in the documentation for PRINCE2. Here, it is used to represent the beneficiary of the project.

To my mind, the use of the word customer is an appropriate reminder to us of the duty of care we owe to the people and organizations that commission our projects. But it is also a valuable metaphor that we need to care for our other stakeholders too.

Good Customer Service: How to Keep Your Client and Stakeholders Happy

What We Cover in this Article

This is a simple article. In it, we will examine two things:

  1. What do we Mean by Customer Service?
  2. How to Apply Good Customer Service to Keep Your Client and Stakeholders Happy

I have divided the ‘how to’ section into three parts:

  1. Approach and Attitude
  2. Communication
  3. Good Habits

What do we Mean by Customer Service?

When I used to run customer service and customer care courses, I had a simple one-liner that sums up my approach:

Customer Care is easy: all you have to do is care.

I take pretty much the same literalist view of customer service: your task is to serve your customer. In our case, that’s the client, or sponsor, of your project, along with your users and stakeholders.

So customer service is about putting your customer first. You need to:

  • Give them help, support, and advice
  • Respond to their inquiries
  • Listen to their complaints and concerns
  • …and handle them swiftly and effectively
  • Learn what they need, and provide it to the
  • Make them happy to be a part of your community

And, above all:

  • Treat them with respect, as if they are of paramount importance to you

…and what does Customer Service have to do with Project Management?

There are two answers to this question: the literal and the metaphorical.

Literal Customers

A large part of our profession undertakes projects on behalf of a paying client. We are either:

  1. Staff members of our organizations, who are paying us a salary to deliver projects for them
  2. Freelance, contracted project managers, filling the role for a client organization
  3. Employed consultants, whose employer serves their customers with the services of you and your colleagues.

Not only is your day-to-day boss a customer in a literal sense, but many of your stakeholders are a part of the same organization. And so, in a direct way, they are your customers too.

It is the third of these that is my own background, by the way. For 12 years, I was a Project Manager for the consulting and client services firm, Deloitte.

Metaphorical Customers

Of course, if you are a project manager who delivers projects for the organization that employs you, they are not literally your customer in the sense that they buy from you. But the word customer has taken on a wider meaning (and not so recently – the oldest dictionary I checked is 35 years old). It also means ‘a person with whom one has dealings’.

So, anyone you deal with during the course of your project fits the description: ‘customer’. Of course, as project managers, we call them ‘stakeholders’. But, to me, the term ‘customer’ reminds us of the duty of service we owe to them.

And so…

Look at the list of things I suggested you need to do, to put your customer first. Don’t all of them make good sense in the context of your:

  • Boss
  • Sponsor
  • Client
  • even your Team members

Of course they do!

These are all your Stakeholders. So, maybe we should think:

Stakeholder = Customer

Whenever I use the term ‘customer’ in this article, you can equally read it as ‘stakeholder’.

How to Apply Good Customer Service to Keep Your Client and Stakeholders Happy

When I sat down to list ideas for good customer service, which apply well in our domain, I got such a long list, I have split it into three sections:

  1. Approach and Attitude
  2. Communication
  3. Good Habits

Inevitably, these overlap a lot. So, consider my groupings as more about a convenience for splitting up a long article, than a useful classification.

With that clarification out of the way, let’s up and at ’em.

Approach and Attitude

In my comment that customer care is about caring, I was referencing a mindset; a way of thinking. And this is the source from which everything flows. What I have listed under this section are the five elements of your mindset that are absolutely central, in my mind, to good customer service in project management – and much else!

  1. Professionalism
  2. Positive Attitude
  3. Honesty
  4. Responsibility
  5. Detail

Professionalism

Professionalism is a hard word to define, yet one we all feel in our bones. To me, it is about:

  • Treating your project and your customers in a serious way
  • Taking care over what you do
  • Being committed to mastering and deploying the technical elements of project management to the highest standards
  • Doing all of this with integrity

Standards are a good place to start, in thinking about professionalism. Professionals set ourselves the highest of standards in everything we do within our professional sphere. And this includes the way we interact with our customers.

Positive Attitude

Your customers want confidence in you and your project. So, your attitude needs to inspire that confidence.

Here is a short video that discusses the importance of confidence…

This isn’t about false optimism or a jolly demeanor. Rather, it is about seeing setbacks in their context, and summoning the determination to take back control and put in place measured steps to resolve the issues.

Your attitude will be, to a greater or lesser degree, contagious. If you succumb to pessimism, your team, your client, and your stakeholders will quickly be infected by it. The outcome will be that, whatever it takes to put your project right, will be far harder to implement.

By the same token, a positive attitude will inspire your customers and your team. There is often an important element of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ at play here.

Honesty is Not the Best Policy

Honesty is not the best policy: it is the only policy. via @OnlinePMCourses Click To Tweet

Trust is the bedrock of your relationship with everyone around you. And, while you need to constantly reinforce it; one slip up can destroy it forever.

Trust is like paper

As a result, it is essential that you are transparent about your project status, and not try to hide bad news, in the hope it will go away. It rarely does… maybe never.

So, keep your stakeholders informed. Especially about changes and setbacks.

Take Responsibility
…for Setbacks, Problems, and Failings

Regular readers will recall a favorite quote of mine:

Blame is for God and Small Children
Blame is for God and Small Children

Things will go badly from time to time: shift happens! You need to own your mistakes and take full responsibility for them. But more than that, you have to take responsibility for your team members’ mistakes too. They are working for you, and to your brief.

And there are other factors too, like:

  • blind chance
  • actions third parties take
  • results of the behavior bad actors

These aren’t your fault, in the sense that you could influence them. But they are down to you, meaning that you need to take responsibility for dealing with them.

One client of mine had a favorite saying when things went wrong:

We are where we are.

This meant that there was no point in explaining, complaining, or blaming. What matters is what you do about it. And this is true in customer service. Things do go wrong, but it’s how you handle mistakes and problems that determine the impressions your customers form of your behavior, attitude, and capabilities.

Pay Attention to Detail

Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall, there was this one:

“Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.”

Master Ittei commented,

“Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.”

Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai’, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo

This comes from the classical Japanese text, Hagakure, known as ‘The Book of the Samurai’, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo. It’s a selection of over 1,300 parables, stories, and wise sayings, dating to the early eighteenth century.

To me, this short observation says everything about the importance of detail.

Communication

If you want to be respectful towards your stakeholders, you’ll have to prioritize good communication. Commercially, communication is the medium of good customer service. Think about bad customer service experiences you have had. I’ll bet they all involved one or more of:

  • lack of, slow, or inadequate communication
  • disrespectful communication
  • confusing and unclear communication
  • inaccurate or deceitful communication

So, I suggest there are three elements of good customer communication to bring into your project management practice:

  1. Empathy
  2. Effectiveness
  3. Courtesy

Empathize

The first tip is to get to know your team, bosses, clients, and stakeholders well. Don’t be afraid of small talk and learning a little about their background. Good communication is always based on personal connections.

Then, you should seek out their point of view. The more time you spend listening to them, the better you’ll be able to understand their expectations… and meet them. Consult them about the things they care about. And that’s the way we serve people. So, a good mindset is to be:

Always listening

Effective Communication: Communicate Clearly, Comprehensively, and Often

People like communication, because its absence scares us, frustrates us, and angers us, depending on our starting emotional state.

You need to take responsibility for stakeholder communication. Initiate contact, to show customer service is important to you and demonstrate that you are ready to take the initiative. And, if they contact you, whether by phone, email, or other means, respond quickly. If you don’t have the time to respond fully, send a short polite message to explain, and tell them when you will reply properly. And then keep to that commitment.

And if you have been listening, as I recommended above, you need to let them know. Tell them when you have fixed their problems or implemented their suggestions. And also tell them when you have not – along with a schedule. Have the courage and respect to give bad news quickly

Be Courteous

Be polite in every contact you make. It costs nothing and it shows respect. Of course, if you are working outside of your own culture, it pays to learn carefully what represents courtesy in that culture.

Typically, words or expressions like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ will always go down well. So too, will acts of kindness and generosity, and expressions of gratitude when you are on the receiving end.

Good Habits

In this last section, let’s look at some habits that a Project Manager can get into, which represent examples of good customer service. We’ll consider:

  • Promises
  • Delivery
  • Consistency
  • Delight
  • Escalation
  • Feedback

Don’t Promise what You can’t Control

One thing that absolutely infuriates us, as customers, is when people or organizations fail to keep their word. We feel that they are letting us down personally.

So, avoid putting yourself in this position by only making commitments that you can be confident of meeting. This means thinking about the extent to which you can control the outcome. The best policy is one of:

Under-promise and over-deliver

Delivery is the Key

Talking of delivery, here is another of my favorite quotes:

'You can't build a reputation on what they were going to do' – Henry Ford via @OnlinePMCourses Click To Tweet

This puts the premium on actions, rather than promises. So, make it your priority to follow through on your promises and commitments, as soon as you make them. If you have a track record of letting these things slip, I have two tips:

  1. Keep a commitments list
    This is a simple list that will help you track what’s outstanding. Review it every evening, when you do your personal planning for the next day.
  2. Schedule an alert for each commitment into your diary
    Place it with enough time in advance of any deadline, so you can meet it in good time.

Be Consistent
…and Match Your Actions to Their Expectations

There are two ways we can interpret the term: ‘expectation management’.

  1. The respectful approach is to find out what your stakeholders expect of you, and match your actions to their expectations accordingly.
  2. Sadly, too many people mean the alternative: they try to influence expectations to ensure they match what you were planning to do anyway.

Guess which one of these represents good customer service!

But the wider behavior is to be consistent in what you do and how you respond. This is mainly because people find us uncomfortable and untrustworthy if our actions vary unexpectedly. We lose control of their perception of fairness.

The secondary reason is that consistency builds habits. If you consistently do the right thing, it’s easier to default to that, at times when you are under stress.

Keep Looking for Opportunities to Delight your Customers

Great customer service means finding ways to please and delight your customers in ways that surprise them. The habit to get into, therefore, is to stay alert for opportunities. And, when you spot one, apply the generosity principle and take it.

Escalate the Right Decisions

A fundamental human need is to feel in control of the things that matter to us. So be careful to let people have a part in (or complete control over) the decisions that matter most to them.

But, on the other hand, we don’t like to be bothered with what we consider to be unnecessary trivia. So you need to take care of the rest of the decisions yourself.

Getting this right is a challenge. So, the approaches you’ll need are:

  • always listening
  • ‘fessing up and saying sorry when you get it wrong (notice: ‘when’ not ‘if’)

Ask for Feedback

Linked to the need for control is people’s need to comment on what they get. Some people are adept at offering their feedback and do so unprompted – often doing it well: but not always.

Other people tend to keep their opinions to themselves. But this in no way means that they don’t have those opinions. Indeed, if they don’t express them, those opinions can easily fester.

So, make a habit of seeking feedback on what you are doing and how you are doing it. Listen intently. See it as a chance to learn, and not to react or push back.

If the feedback is complimentary, accept it humbly and thank them. If it is not: listen hard, thank them, and think carefully about what you can learn and what you ay need to do, to put things right.

What are Your Tips about how to Keep Your Project Customers Happy?

Everyone knows about customer service. The reasons for this article are to:

  1. bring it to the front of your mind, and
  2. remind you of some of my best tips

But I’d love to hear what you recommend. And I will respond to any comments you leave below.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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