One aspect of project management that is often overlooked is the customer service element. We spend a lot of time (rightly) focussing on the tasks and the team and the schedule and the costs, but it is easy to forget that – ultimately – project management is providing a service to a customer.
Good project managers realise that the sponsor is their customer, and the best ones do the things that, elsewhere, would simply be described as providing excellent customer service. So, what are some of the things that we project managers can do to provide the kind of service that keeps the customer coming back for more?
Understand their goals (the benefits)
You’ve been asked to run the project in order to deliver something that contributes towards a sponsor’s overall goals. If you understand those goals, you can communicate much more effectively with your sponsor and highlight things that other PMs (who focus just on the delivery) would overlook. For example, if the customer has asked you to lay some garden turf down then you could just do that. Perfectly acceptable project management. But are they doing it to create an child’s play area or to have a space to play football? Understanding the reason will help you to spot things that might otherwise be missed (e.g., “Would rubber matting be better for a child’s play area?”). It will also help you to identify different ways of adding value along the way (e.g., “Should we paint lines for a penalty area?”) – much more difficult if you don’t understand the ‘why’.
Communicate (regularly) with the customer
Have you ever been in the situation where, perhaps, an order you’ve placed has been delayed but it took you calling the shop to find out where it had got to? It’s bad enough sometimes when things go wrong, but when the customer has to pick up the phone to find out what’s going on, they will already be in a bad mood and the supplier answering the phone will be on the back foot.
Far better, then, to ensure that your customer (and any other stakeholder with an interest) is kept updated with progress – good and bad. It keeps you on the front foot and maintains the perception that you are in control of the situation (even when you don’t feel it yourself). It also gives the customer an opportunity to offer alternative solutions that you may not have thought of; or might not be available to you – but are to them.
And this doesn’t have to be reserved for delivering bad news. Providing regular progress updates to the customer when things are going as planned helps to build confidence in the delivery and ensures there is a continuing open dialogue.
When I train people in project management, I frequently state that project management is about avoiding surprises. It’s about creating a predictable delivery environment by bringing the project under control and anticipating the things that might derail it. Part of this means not sitting on issues – if something goes wrong, you should, of course, attempt to resolve it – but that doesn’t mean you have to work in secrecy or isolation. Good project management is about sharing the issues openly, so that a constructive discussion can be had and so that – yes – there are no surprises.
However, I notice in some project managers a tendency to simply report the issue and calling that good project management. Well, it’s better than not reporting it, but really good project management is about doing more than that. Again, if you think of it in customer service terms, you wouldn’t be happy if a supplier simply told you something had gone wrong. You would want to know what they are doing about it and what options might be available so you can choose the one that suits you best.
The same is true in project management. You should report an issue as soon as is practical or sensible, but first spend a bit of time (and you will need to use your judgement as to how much*) working up a couple of options as to how you might proceed before offering the sponsor their choice on the preferred approach.
Don’t just ask them what they would like you to do about it. Better still, if there are some mitigating actions you can take straight away to reduce the impact of the issue you should consider taking them. In summary:
- Terrible project management – hiding the issue whilst you try and figure it all out yourself.
- Bad project management – reporting the issue and asking what should be done.
- Good project management – reporting the issue along with a couple of options for how to proceed and beginning a discussion with the customer.
* Don’t wait until the house has burned down before suggesting that one option is to call the fire brigade.
Make it easy for them
Above all, make things easy for your customer. We’ve all (hopefully!) had that customer service experience that was just seamless. It’s feels fantastic when it happens – you enjoy it and you’ll often tell your friends about it too. As a PM that sort of feedback leads to all sorts of good things – promotions, job offers, more exciting and interesting projects; not to mention the all-round good vibes of knowing you’ve done a great job – and others knowing it too!
In project management that means anticipating the questions a sponsor might have and having the answer ready (or providing it before they’ve even asked). It means being clear about what your sponsor can expect from you and what you might need from them (so there are no surprises).
Put yourself in your customer’s shoes
It is well worth taking a moment to think about the things you would want to know about if you were the person commissioning the project. For most projects, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out which are the key deliverables, or major milestones that the customer will want to be kept abreast of (especially if you have taken the time to understand their goals in step one). You don’t even have to use your imagination – you can just ask! What are the things you care most about, and how would you like me to keep you updated?
We’ve all been customers too. Whether in a shop, online, having work done at home – you name it – what have been the good customer experiences you have had, and what made them good. Most importantly, how can you bring those good experiences into your project management style?
To receive these blogs, project management tips and video tutorials straight to your inbox click here to sign up to our newsletter.