When working with customers, we face many situations that might result in conflict. This is bad for obvious reasons. As service providers, conflict keeps us from providing outstanding value to our customers. It hurts our relationship and reduces the chance that they will continue to use our services.
Customers are at different technical levels and have different “personal styles.” Some are very technical and want to be part of designing the solution. Others won’t want to know any details and just want something that works at the end. Until we get to know the customer well, the potential for conflict is higher for reasons like these.
I have certainly not mastered the art of avoiding all conflict with every customer. But I continue to strive to improve. This post describes two kinds of situations where conflict is likely to occur if we don’t handle things well, along with some thoughts about how to avoid conflict in these and other instances.
The customer is always right!
Of course, we know that the customer is not literally always right. We also know (or had better know) that we are not always right, either.
But even though the customer is not always right, we must always respect them as if they are right. Why? Because it is the right way to treat people, and because they pay us. They are the reason we are in business.
We have all had times when a customer wanted us to do something that we felt was not in their best interest, was not efficient, or was just plain wrong.
So how do we handle it when we think our client is wrong? Below are some basic “rules of conduct” for reaching agreement. It’s good practice to follow these in order. Hopefully this will lead to building great relationships with our clients and avoiding conflicts.
- Listen completely to what the customers says, so we fully understand what they mean. This means not interrupting them before they have finished their thought. This takes patience. Often, if we let them talk through an issue long enough, they will come to the same conclusion we would have, and we have just avoided a conflict. Likewise, we may come to understand their position better and we will agree with them; and again, we have avoided a conflict.
- If after careful listening there is still not agreement, asking questions may help both parties see aspects of the issue that the other does not see. Try to use probing questions, not leading questions. Our frame of mind should be “How can they convince me that they are right?” Not “How can I convince them that I am right?” In other words, assume they are right, and help them prove it. I am not suggesting that you disregard your knowledge and expertise. But it’s important to acknowledge that you don’t know everything your customer knows. Challenge their position rigorously, but with an open mind.
- If there is still not agreement after they have expressed their entire thought and you have asked your questions and listened to the answers, try offering alternative approaches that may meet their objectives, but with methods that you think are more effective.
- If you and your customer still don’t agree after all that, then respectfully suggest that you table the issue and follow up via email with additional thoughts (in the same spirit of understanding that was described above).
If, after all your effort, you still think that what the customer is asking you to do is either not in their best interest or is ethically or legally wrong, then you may have to respectfully decline to provide the service they are asking for. I have done this and it’s not the end of the world.
Notice that nowhere did I recommend arguing with the client. Why? Because we never argue with the client. That is disrespectful. Oh, and they pay us.
This approach requires patience—but it’s worth it. Great communications allows us to add more value. Also they pay us, so they deserve it.
This approach might require that we answer the same question ten times. But that is also worth it, because great communications allows us to add more value, and because the client pays us.
This approach might also require that we ask the same question ten times or explain the same thing ten times. But it is worth it. Why? Because great communications allows us to add more value, and because they pay us.
The cranky customer
Right or wrong, the customer might get cranky with us from time to time. But it is worth it to endure this calmly and politely, because they pay us.
This does not mean accepting abuse. If a client is truly abusive, fire them. I’ve done that, and it’s not the end of the world. Service providers deserve and demand the same respect that they give to their customers.
But it does mean that we may have to accept expressions of frustration and even anger at times. When this happens, it is almost always due to problems with communication. And it is up to us to fix the communication problems. Why? Because they pay us.
Here are some simple steps to avoiding communication problems that lead to cranky customers:
- Over-communication: When giving an explanation, provide a littlemore information than you think is necessary, as long as that information is useful. If a customer tells you that you should provide less detail, then do so in future communications. It is better to be told you provide too much information than too little.
- Frequent communication: During the course of a project, particularly when a deliverable is expected soon, provide short, frequent status updates. The frequency depends on the length and urgency of the project. If the deliverable is due in one week and is urgent, then a daily email with a quick status can put a customer’s mind at ease. If it is a six-month project with ongoing deliverables, then a weekly recap may be enough.
- Set expectations with a communication rhythm: if you are in the middle of ongoing work with frequent deliverables, let the customer know that you will check Slack or email twice a day; for example, at 12 and 5. That way they won’t be disappointed or anxious if you don’t respond immediately to their 9:15 email asking for a status update. If you are on a longer-term project, let them know what days of the week you will provide status updates.
- Communicate problems or concerns immediately: If your project falls behind schedule, or runs into problems that are beyond your control, inform your customer immediately. This can be a difficult conversation to have, but the sooner they know about a blocking issue, the easier and less expensive it is to resolve it. And the moment you have the conversation, you will feel better!
- Be responsive: If your client asks you for something, either respond promptly with the answer, or acknowledge their request as soon as you see it and tell them when you will be able to get to it.
Here is the takeaway: the root of most conflict is misunderstanding, and the root of most misunderstanding is poor communication. As service providers, proper communications are our responsibility. It is part of our job.
We can build all the environments, databases and applications in the world. But if we don’t communicate well with our customers then we have not added the value that we should have.
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