IT project managers start out with new project clients with very little knowledge of the individuals involved, how they do business, how well they pay their bills, or even how easy they are to work with. As we try to establish a meaningful and trust-based relationship with these new clients, we work on the communication and information sharing that will lay the groundwork for what we hope will be a very successful project initiative.
Our first instinct is to tell everything, say everything, do everything for this client and work on the best collaboration and two-way communication that we possibly can. That amount of openness, that amount of disclosure leads to customer confidence and a high degree of customer satisfaction, right? Well… maybe. But not so fast. I’m not talking about lying here. I’m not even talking about deception. Nor am I talking about full omission. What I’m talking about is knowing the right time to tell your client bad things about the engagement and knowing if they should even be told at all.
Personally, I believe in full transparency. I’ve had to go to a client… a huge client at $20 billion per year in revenue… with the worst and most embarrassing news possible. I had to tell their CIO that my organization had been brought down overnight by a fraudulent CEO who had just committed suicide and we likely could no longer support their project initiatives or at least not for awhile. So approach, timing and presentation of potential alternatives is critical and not to be taken lightly. With that in mind, I’ve come up with five general categories or statements of things that I believe you should never tell your client – at least not until you know more or your concerns have been confirmed.
You are asking the impossible
The last thing you ever want to tell your client is that something can’t be done. That may be the case, but you only want to bring that news to them after you’ve investigated the options thoroughly and exhausted all possibilities of making it happen. Remember, it was important to them so you can’t discount it without trying. If you do, and if it’s early in the engagement and they do not yet have much invested in your efforts, they may end the relationship abruptly.
That change is going to cost ‘x’
Never abruptly tell the customer a ballpark figure of something they are asking for – especially if you know it will be bad news for them to hear. Tell them you’ll investigate and get back to them. Giving them a low number that you later have to raise can frustrate them. Giving them a high number right away may anger them and lead them to believe that every change request is going to have a high price tag when working with you.
You don’t have the right personnel in place to make this work
Telling the customer they don’t have the right people is basically telling them they’ve done a poor job of hiring. And you may be talking to the primary hiring person. Consider this potential issue to be a new task on the project – a need to investigate the current make-up and experience level of the staff. It may become an opportunity for a change order involving training resulting in more revenue for you. Look for a way to turn this concern into an opportunity.
You’ll need to restructure your organization to accommodate this solution
Again, just like the personnel concern, you can’t tell the client that they’ll have to restructure in order to make this work. If you do, you’ve just told them they have to add six months and $100,000 to the project. Of course, those are just numbers I’m throwing out there and the restructuring effort would be completely dependent on the size of the company and what industry it is in. But you can see how this can cause the client to shut the entire project down immediately. Do the proper amount of investigation first. Ask questions, interview department personnel. Look for positive ways to turn this into an additional set of tasks on the project.
The sky is falling
This is a ‘general one,’ but remember this: you can be thinking without actually saying. I almost had to pull my tech lead off of an engagement for always whining about the problems he was finding. Bad news does not have to be blurted out. Give yourself time to digest what you’ve found, think about alternatives. Figure out what the problem is and put together a rough estimate of the time and dollars needed. Then, and only then, take it to the client. They’ll be much happier for it. Bring them a solution when you bring them a problem. Check it out first because sometimes you’ll find out that it really isn’t an issue and you can take care of it without alarming the client.
Openness and transparency does not mean you don’t need to pay attention to customer communication anymore. On the contrary, as a manager you must think when and how to deliver news to your customer. What do you think about my list – do you agree? What would you add to it? What issues have you had to bring to the client that put the project at risk? Please share and discuss.