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The only guaranteed method for improving customer satisfaction on a project
Happy customers on projects are essential for repeat business
The obvious answer to an age old problem
I was hesitant to write this article. After all, what I'm about to advise is so obvious and extremely well known that it hardly warrants an article at all. It is one of the first things you learn as a project manager. Most of all, it is a guaranteed way to keep your customer happy on a project.
If its so obvious, why write about it? Well, I will tell you a little secret:
Most projects fail to do it
How customers think
Before I tell you the solution to customer service, let me first explain how customers think.
When a customer launches a project they have the energy and excitement of a child. By the time the project is signed off and ready to start, they've typically spent days, weeks or months doing preparation work, waiting for this day to arrive. Their project is full of ambition, aspirations and dreams.
They are likely to have an end goal in mind, and end date and an end budget. Let me be blunt. This sometimes bears little relation to reality.
This isn't a criticism of customers. This is simply human nature. We are naturally over-confident and over-ambitious in our goals because that is what drives us.
You want evidence? How many times have you lost the weight you wanted in the timescale you planned?
Keeping a happy customer happy
So what is this magic formula for making your customer happy? Of course, it's managing customer expectations.
Customer expectations will be cited in every single project management book you ever read. The basic lesson is this: tell customers what they can expect and deliver exactly that. No disappointment. No unhappy customers.
So why, as I've already claimed, is this so hard to achieve? Let's look at the reasons why.
The bias towards being optimistic
Optimism and enthusiasm are infectious. Project management can be a tough job full of stress and pressure, but some of the most enjoyable moments on a project are often at the start. The focus is on the big dream - the end result, and the project is yet to be beset with issues. This optimism can,, however cloud your judgement and it can make it hard to put the breaks on a plan with a healthy dose of realism. Who wants to be the fun-zapping boring person to say:
"Hang on a minute. We need to push the dates back on this plan as I don't think we can realistically meet it"
No-one wants to be that person. This is a common scenario at the start of projects and one of the reasons that customers are not given realistic expectations of their project. Quite simply, no-one wants to burst their bubble.
However, as we all know, this can lead to a lot of disappointment later on down the line, and a very unhappy customer.
The reluctance to shatter an illusion
Happy customers are nice customers. It makes the job more pleasant. When you first get introduced to a customer, they like you. You are new, and you are going to be completing an exciting project for them. There is a big reluctance for many people to dampen this relationship so early on when you are just getting to know the customer. You may worry that disappointing a customer by changing project dates, scope or budget before you've even built up a relationship is foolish. You may be concerned that it will cause irrevocable damage to the relationship and the trust between the two parties. You may worry that souring a relationship so early on will give you an uphill struggle throughout the rest of the project to make them happy.
Pressure from management
Winning a new customer is hard work. It can take months. It involves wonderful PR to demonstrate to that customer just how fabulous your business is. So of course, the management team do not want to undo all that hard work once the project begins by lowering expectations about what your wonderful company can do.
Managing customer expectations
What can you do about this?
We've all been there. All these arguments sound like perfectly valid reasons for not rocking the boat. Why try to 'manage' a customer's expectations when you are going to potentially do harm to that relationship? After all, isn't this whole article about making a customer happy?
However, a happy customer at the start of a project is not as valuable to a company as a happy customer at the end of the project. Think about it: a happy customer at the start has already paid their money. They've already bought their services. A happy customer at the end of a project however may tell their colleagues and professional acquaintances about how brilliant your company is. They are also more likely to buy from you again. Which situation is more valuable to a business?
To keep a customer happy, you need to avoid disappointing them as the project progresses by keeping to your promises, not missing dates, delivering what you said you would, and sticking to a budget.
The truth is, you can manage a customer from the start. The reasons I've mentioned above cause far too much fear for project managers and for businesses but for little reason. Here are some tips for how you can manage that customer's expectations from the start, without souring the relationship:
- Phase the project: Very rarely is an entire project of equal importance to a customer. Typically there are one or more elements which take priority. When stuck with challenges over time or resources, offering a phased delivery is the way to go. Give the customer delivery of the higher priority items as they need it, and push back on the things that are of less value.
- Early delivery: As a follow on from the point above, early delivery of an easy element of a project allows you to build up that client relationship and gives you a bit more room for negotiating on the more difficult things. Early delivery is a nice surprise for a client. It gives you project a little bit of a wow factor.
- Negotiation: Sometimes, you just need to be a bit better at negotiating with a client. I don't see this employed enough on projects and it is a mistake. Remember, saying yes to a customer all the time is not going to do your relationship any favors in the long run. Be brave. Negotiate.
- Emphasize quality: In about 90% of projects I've ever encountered, time seems to be of the highest priority, but in many circumstances this is misplaced; when you quiz a client, time isn't as vital as it appears. Turning around a conversation to talk about quality is one tactic you can employ. After all, quality is the thing on a project with the biggest legacy. Delivering something you can all be proud of should always be a high priority.
- Bring out your hidden politician: now I don't mean be that politician. You know the one: never answers a question and never tells the truth. I mean use some intelligent spin when you are talking to a customer. Emphasize the benefits, emphasize your expertise. Use metrics, statistics and evidence to back up what you are saying. Be the authority on the subject.
- Spend money: you can of course, do everything you have promised, even if its not possible on paper. You simple spend more money on that project without that getting billed back to a client. In other words, you run the project at a loss. Mad? Not necessarily. Your project is simply a loss-leader. You do it to gain further work. Be wary when choosing this option, however. I've seen many projects which I call phantom loss-leaders. Promises of future work never arose, and the client walked away with what they came for and no more.
Trust, and the value of a long term relationship
Instead of focusing on pleasing a customer in the short term, think about building a long term relationship. The best way of building a long term relationship is by gaining trust with that customer, and you achieve that by doing exactly what you say you are going to do.
Never over-promise. However difficult or awkward a conversation might seem with a client, be honest about what you can do for them and when. Surprise them by getting things done earlier than you promised, and with added value, and you will take your first step into gaining a happy customer who will come back to you time and time again.
Recommendations for further reading
A great guide to understanding the meaning of customer loyalty, and how to win it