What happens when you take a coke bottle, shake it up, and unscrew the top? It explodes! This should not come as a surprise, it’s just cause and effect at work. You may not be excited about the result, but you probably aren’t frustrated either since it was expected.
During the course of a project you will inevitably deal with a client who is emotionally reacting like an exploding coke bottle. How to deal with this situation is critical to the outcome of your project.
The first and most critical part of dealing with a frustrated client is to identify if you made a mistake that they are reacting to and to take ownership. The last thing an emotional client wants to hear is that it is not your problem, and that they need to go somewhere else to find resolution when you are at fault. However, if you truly have nothing to do with their state-of-mind, bring the right folks to the table because it is not your problem.
Four main causes that create an emotionally tense client are unmet expectations, missed deadlines, communication breakdowns, and uninformed stakeholders creating a panic. Here are some tips you can use when your clients explode like a coke bottle.
When a client’s expectations are not realized, whether during the project or during final acceptance, it is hard for them to not react. After all, their hard-earned cash has just been spent and has not produced what they felt was coming. The first thing to do is to acknowledge the client’s feelings and state your understanding of their position. The reason they feel their expectations aren’t being met is because they have not felt understood, whether or not that is accurate. Getting your client to agree that you understand how they feel is the first step in getting stakeholder relations back on track. The next step is to refer back to construction and contract documents. Clients can often misunderstand or forget what was previously agreed upon because you are not the only contractor they are dealing with. Helping them understand the specified scope of work in a gentle way can build their trust in you as a partner with their interests in mind.
Related to unmet expectations are the problems caused by breakdowns in communication. An account manager may go on vacation or a project manager may have too much going on to pay attention and communications could fall through the cracks. A lack of information and coordination can cause a client to feel unimportant and pushed aside, as well as stressed over the progress of their job. A great way to start repairing the relationship is to waste no time updating the client and getting regular communications back on track. The next step is to identify what went wrong and repair the broken process. Turning failure into an opportunity to pave the way for future success makes it a lesson learned rather than a mistake—the difference is added value. Keeping a written process of how to communicate with stakeholders on a project is a good way to keep everyone informed of how to do this, but it takes leadership to get everyone to follow it.
Nothing stirs the pot quite like missed deadlines. With missed deadlines, trust has been violated and doubt has entered the mind of the client but there is still work to be done. Assuming another trade is not at fault, the first thing to do is communicate with the client and get the project back on track (see the trend here). Own the missed deadline, take responsibility (even if the blame is shared, take your lumps and let your partner in crime know you expect more going forward), and send a written letter or email to the project team. A stakeholder who wants to get mad over missed deadlines is looking to get an apology. If you come right out and own the missed deadline there is nothing else for them to do but move forward. If they continue to beat a dead horse explain that you really are sorry and that things are back on track, but in order to move forward with the project you need them to let it go.
Lastly you may find yourself getting a tongue lashing from someone you don’t know because they are not a stakeholder. A volunteer, concerned member, or anyone not officially a part of the project team will decide that their opinion in a matter is important and not being respected, and give you an earful. Take the time to understand their position! Use active listening to let them know you are paying attention, and when they are done repeat what they have said back. “If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that…”. If they are upset because nobody hears what they have to say, ignoring them or telling them to talk to their boss will not smooth things out. After they feel understood schedule a meeting with the stakeholders and bring the issue up. It is not your job to solve an issue that does not exist so make sure the stakeholders on the project agree it is a problem. If the stakeholders do not share this one person’s view, ask them to communicate down to tie up loose ends.
Even after executing these four strategies a client who is feeling let down or stressed may still shake their own coke bottle again and continue to explode. The best thing to do is to let them talk or yell. They will eventually run out of steam and give you the opportunity to respond. If there are other people in the room then responding with patience and dignity, opposed to the childish outbursts you are receiving, will actually give you credibility and respect while the stakeholder identifies themselves as petty and emotional. It may not be fun in the moment to take a beating and not respond with like force, but you cannot buy back your reputation. You will be remembered for how you deal with clients even if they are jerks!
At the end of the day, all problems are human problems. Understanding that mistakes will happen, people will screw up, and that communication is really hard will set your framework for dealing with stakeholders. Having a mentality of stewardship and seeing things through the eyes of the client will give you the empathy needed to drive the project to the finish line when things go awry. Finishing well is difficult but worth it every time.