Project Managers can learn from all sorts of places. And, since your job is partly to serve your clients 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. Very little of this will surprise you, because you have been a customer plenty of times. You’ve seen the best and the worst of customer service in you work and you 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 projects, and the stakeholders who are affected by that project.
And this is particularly relevant if you are a PMI member. ‘Customer Relationship and Satisfaction’ is explicitly a part of the Strategic and Business Management Competency of the PMI’s Talent Triangle. Yes, PMI uses the language of ‘customers’!
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: all you have to do is serve your customer. In our case, that’s the client, or sponsor, of your project, along with your stakeholders.
So customer service is about putting your customer first. You need to:
And, above all:
There are two answers to this question; the literal and the metaphorical.
A large part of our profession undertakes projects on behalf of a paying client. We are either freelance, contracted project managers, filling the role for a client organization. Or we are employed consultants, whose employer serves their customers with the services of you and your colleagues.
Not only is your day-to-day client-side boss a customer, but many of your stakeholders are a part of the same organization and so, in a direct way, your customers too. This is my background, by the way. For 12 years, I was a Project Manager for the consulting and client services firm, Deloitte.
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’.
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:
Of course they do!
When I sat down to list ideas for good customer service, which apply wel in our domain, I got such a long list, I have split it into three sections:
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.
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 mindset that are absolutely central, in my mind, to good customer service in project management – and much else!
This is a hard word to define, yet one we all feel in our bones. To me, it is about:
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.
Your customers want confidence in you and your project. So, you attitude needs to inspire that confidence.
This isn’t about false optimism, and a jolly demeanour. 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.
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.
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.. if ever.
So, keep your stakeholders informed… especially about changes and setbacks.
And regular readers will recall a favorite quote of mine:
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 blind chance, the actions third parties take, and the results of bad actors. They 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.
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.”
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.
If you want to be respectful towards you stakeholders, you’ll have to prioritize good communication. Commercially, communication is the medium of good customer service. Think aboout bad customer service experiences you have had. I’ll bet they all involved one or more of:
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:
People like communication, because its absence scares us, frustrates us, and angers us, depending on our starting emotional state.
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 don’t. Have the courage and respect to give bad news quickly
Be polite in every contact you make. It costs nothing and shows respect. Of course, if you are working outside of your own culture, it pays to learn carefully what represents courtesy in their 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.
In this last section, let’s look at some habits that a Project Manager can get into, which represent examples of good customer service.
One thing that absolutely infuriates us as a customer 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
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 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:
There are two ways we can interpret the term: ‘expectation management’.
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. Mainly because people find us uncomfortable and untrustworthy if our actions vary unexpectedly. We lose control of fairness. The secondary reason is that consistency builds habit. If you consistently do the right thing, it’s easier to default to that, at times when you are under stress.
Great customer service means finding ways to please and delight your customer 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.
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 over0 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.
Getting this right is a challenge. So, the approaches you’ll need are:
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: 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, they 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 respond. 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.
Everyone knows about customer service. The reason for this article is to bring it to the front of your mind, and 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.
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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