…a reflection on a real-life experience…
Have you ever started a phone conversation with a customer you’ve been working on a project with for the past several months and immediately get the sense that something is wrong? Within seconds (but what feels like an eternity), your mind starts to wonder. After reminding yourself this is one of the most important projects you are managing, your mind races to the status of the project and you tell yourself: everything is going well.
- There are no known issues with the deliverables.
- There are no open issues to be decided.
- The cost is under budget.
- Status shows the project is likely to finish early.
So why is the customer upset?
As humans, it is in our nature to assume we did something wrong.
Therein lies the challenge.
In split seconds, you have the choice to assume a similar negative tone or to remain positive. In my case I SMILED and then proceeded to seek to understand what was behind the negative tone by asking one simple question, “What can I do to help?”
The customer paused for a moment and said, “I’m not sure where to begin so let me start with what’s troubling me.”
Over the next 20 minutes, he proceeded to tell me the current project was going very well. In fact, so well the company had asked him to start planning the next phase. As he spoke, I feverishly took notes. He had been up to his eyeballs in details on the current project and wasn’t quite sure how to begin thinking about the next phase.
We proceeded to discuss the goals of the next phase, the ideal start and end dates for the work, critical issues the company was hoping to resolve, and a handful of unknowns that had the potential to take the project off course. It soon became obvious to me that the unknowns were the root cause of the customer’s issue. He spoke quickly and with incomplete sentences. He often mentioned he wasn’t sure what ‘they wanted’.
Leaning on Positive Thinking
I started by paraphrasing all of his key points back to him to confirm that they had been properly understood. Where there was an open issue, the customer stated that more research would need to be done to get clarity on the direction we needed to go. He also noted who would need to be involved in providing the clarity. The unknowns were restated along with potential options that might become available.
Positive thinking allows you to stay calm and actively listen for details on what is influencing customer behavior. You provide reassurance that your attention to detail will help in taking the project to the next step. In this case, the next step was getting a clear understanding of the project requirements as well as capturing as much information about the unknowns as possible.
This enabled me to paraphrase the information back to the customer for confirmation. Actively listening and reiterating what I heard eased the customer’s concerns because he knew he had been understood and his time was well spent. Hearing the information restated by someone else reassured the customer that he was no longer alone on approaching the next phase.
Even when on the phone, smiles are easily detected and provide a warm feeling to the person on the other end. We all like to know that someone else cares about our problems and is willing to help…even before they know what they are signing up to help with. The warmth of a smile breaks down roadblocks that prevent a person from thinking about all aspects of possibility. These moments stay with people long after the problem is resolved. Smile often.
Inspiring Outside-the-Box Thinking
Provide the customer an opportunity to do a brain dump of all the details he has. Then paraphrase what you heard to give the customer time to react to your notes. This allows the customer to separate himself from all the details swirling in his head and focus on making sure the notes were captured clearly and articulate what is needed. The customer has time to think outside the box about what he heard and provide more clarity where needed. Often times this allows the customer to think of options for areas where unknowns exist.
Doing the Impossible
Break down requirements into small, narrowly defined tasks. In doing so, you take a large, daunting task that seems impossible to accomplish and turn it into groups of smaller tasks, that become achievable. Instead of feeling as if you need to conquer the whole project at once, you can see how groups of common tasks can be tackled together for forward progress. Replace the feeling of defeat with confidence that the project will be successful.