Risky Business: Symptoms of dissatisfaction — Part 1

November 2006 » Business » RISKY BUSINESS
Client representatives signal their unhappiness through a variety of behaviors for which project managers need to be alert.
John P. Bachner

"If only I'd known" is a time-honored lament among civil engineers who learn, too late, that a client or client representative's dissatisfaction has led to a claim. I'd feel badly for the folks involved had they not had every opportunity to learn what they needed to learn and establish a plan to help prevent precisely the predicament they find themselves in.

In an article reporting on "the seven habits of highly effective engineering firms," Terra Insurance Co. CEO David L. Coduto reported that being responsive to client representatives' symptoms of dissatisfaction is a common trait among those Terra owner/insureds that had not reported a claim in the last 15 years or so. They know what the symptoms are, and they teach all personnel how to spot the symptoms and to whom to report them; preferably to a trained member of what I (being fond of acronyms) like to call a Special Procedures And Tactics (SPAT) team.

Not all problems stem from clients, of course, but most do. It's therefore important to know when client representatives are the least bit unhappy with you or your firm. Client representatives signal their unhappiness through a variety of behaviors for which project managers need to be alert, especially after their client representatives have had to contend with some type of difficulty caused, or seemingly caused, by a project manager.

Unfortunately, when it comes to mistakes, many project managers are "but-heads." For example, when they fail to meet the schedule, they say, "But the client increased the scope"; when they exceed the budget, they say, "But I told the client representative that might happen"; when they irritate someone the client representative likes or reports to, they say, "But that person is a complete idiot"; or when they are being blamed by a contractor for delays, changes, and overruns because of alleged errors or omissions in the plans and specifications, they say, "But those plans and specs are just about perfect."

The client representative's viewpoint

To prevent problems from the get-go, train project managers to look at things from the viewpoint of their client representatives and be willing to accept blame when it's appropriate to do so. (As a general rule, project managers should never say they committed errors or omissions.) For example, assume you are a project manager and you forgot (didn't think it was necessary) to mention to the client representative that the additional tasks he threw into your lap would add two weeks to the completion date. You burned the midnight oil to get it all done well in just nine days.

"I got your deliverables. I was expecting them last week," is the message the client representative snarls into your voice mail. Your reaction? Defense. You probably say something along the lines of, "That ingrate. What'd he expect, that he could add all these scope items and it wouldn't take any additional time? I killed myself to get him the deliverables when I did." Righteous indignation is good for starting brushfires, but little else.

In fact, the client representative doesn't know what you know because you didn't take the time to educate him. Without that education, why would the client representative assume that more scope would mean more time? Why wouldn't the client representative assume that you could simply integrate the new "stuff" into the existing scope, and still come out on schedule? Reasonably, he could have assumed that you planned to come out ahead of schedule to begin with (underpromising so you could overdeliver). In other words, if you want to be ticked off at someone, look in the mirror.

Often more important: The client representative, being employed by a large organization, reported your schedule to his boss, who gave it to her boss, and so on up the food chain, meaning that a delay (or budget overrun, or unanticipated condition) would lead to problems cascading down on your client representative's head, neck, and shoulders—all of which the client representative would regard as your fault.

Had you understood how a client representative might see things, you, first and foremost, would have done whatever you could to help the individual succeed in his or her own organization, typically by helping the client representative overdeliver.
Second, by being sensitive to the individual's needs, you would have done whatever you could to minimize the potential for unpleasant surprises, by informing the individual as soon as possible that the schedule or budget would not be met.

Third, even when it should have been obvious that the scope change would add time or fee to the project, you would have taken nothing for granted and made sure the client representative was aware, and you would have confirmed that awareness through some type of writing, such as an e-mail.

Fourth, if you forgot to inform the client representative of something, he or she would have been expecting you to be apologetic, humble, and eager to do something to turn the client representative's disappointment, dismay, and anger into delight.

Engineering is all about people

Firms that avoid claims and litigation understand human behavior. They realize that disputes and litigation are caused not by errors or omissions, but rather by people's response to those errors and omissions—by their attitude. They also understand the cost of claims and litigation, and thus can quickly create a claims prevention budget based on the value of litigation avoidance.

So, all of that notwithstanding, there you sit, totally taken aback by the client representative's angry voice mail message. Rather than curse the client representative, say to yourself what you need to know to be true: "Something I did or didn't do has ticked off the client representative." That should be enough to create some clarity and, even though we haven't discussed symptoms yet, you should know that a client representative's angry voice mail is a symptom of trouble ahead, and that means you have to respond … immediately!

Unbelievably, many project managers do not respond because they haven't been trained to. Rather than get into a confrontation with an angry client representative, they seek avoidance in the comforting—but false—notion that it will probably all blow over if ignored long enough. Lotsa luck.

In January, "Risky Business" will focus on more symptoms and response actions.


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