Dealing with Angry Clients

Recently, while sharing a quiet dinner at a nice restaurant (in lovely Regina Canada), I could not help but overhear the conversation at the next table. The patron was angry and demanding that the cook re-do the meat because it was not to his liking. I paid attention to this because the customer had already returned his wine as, “inferior” and the atmosphere around that table was toxic.

Now, this person may have just been a jerk or perhaps he had a very, very bad day. However, not all anger is unjustified. People get angry for reasons. Sometimes those people are clients and sometimes they are right.

To be honest, whether the client’s anger is justified is not really the issue. The situation is the issue. You, the project manager or program manager have to deal with it. By “deal with it,” I mean you need to diffuse the situation and move forward. Angry clients or employees often do not keep their disappointment or anger to themselves. They tell friends, co-workers and even competitors.

Reasons Clients Become Angry

  • They can’t get scope changes for free. (Do not be surprised if this anger involves some posturing, since agreeing on cost and schedule is a negotiation.)
  • Your project did not deliver what was promised.
  • The project manager or key personnel changed without notice.
  • Your project missed a milestone or cost bogey (“target” for those non-military types).
  • Some “user requested changes” were over-ridden by the client’s senior staff or the project team.
  • What they want is not possible given project cost and schedule constraints. (the old project triangle theory)

Reasons Staff Become Angry

  • Scope creep: Workers agree to do a certain amount of work within a specific time. Then, customers, clients, senior management – someone – keeps adding tasks without changing the schedule or adding hours to do the work.
  • Organizational change: Events outside of the project alter the organization’s usual way of doing business, which eventually trickles down to the project staff as added training, forms and procedures. (See: “Don’t Take Organizational Change for Granted – Manage it”)
  • Perceived lack of appreciation or respect. (Don’t under-estimate this one!!)

Dealing with Anger

  • Accept that the person is angry. They may be angry with you, your company or your team. They could be showing displaced anger from situations in their lives outside of the project. Alternatively, they may display an angry pose as their way of intersecting with the world. Therefore, acknowledging the anger is a place to begin repairing the situation, if it can be repaired.
  • Clarify the situation. What is the client angry about. If there are several points of anger, write them down on paper or on a whiteboard and address each concern.
  • Be careful of your body language. Relax. A red face, clenched jaw or fist pounding does not help.
  • Some clients express anger or disappointment passively. If a client is consistently slow to return emails or voice messages, misses meetings, stops contributing to discussions, check with them about their state of comfort with the project and ask them if there is a problem. Do not assume they are angry; just give them an opening to discuss their perceptions or concerns.
  • Provide realistic feedback. If you or the project created the problem, acknowledge it and see if there is an acceptable resolution. If the problem itself is not solvable, acknowledge both the concern and the reality of the situation. “I realize you wanted the entire system to be compatible with your legacy software, John, unfortunately that cannot be done because the systems handle data differently. To write a translator would cause the performance to degrade below your minimum expectations …” etc.

Best Practices

  • Whenever possible meet face-to-face.
  • Deal with the situation quickly – do not let anger fester.
  • Stay calm, speak quietly and do not escalate the situation.
  • Invite a senior member of your organization to the meeting to demonstrate your organization’s concern and commitment to improving the situation.
  • Follow up a confrontational meeting with a call or email that describes the resolution and your commitment to meet the new schedule, do the task or just check into current perceptions of the project.
  • When dealing with an angry project staff, follow many of steps suggested above – listen, accept the anger, be realistic and if changes need to be made either make them or make it clear you are working with decision-makers to improve the situation.
  • Keep the end goal in mind, you want to leave the meeting with the anger reduced or hopefully replaced with positive feelings.
  • Monitor yourself – stop breathe and take a pause to think.

Resources:
Seth Godin: How to Deal with an Angry Customer
http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2006/09/how_to_deal_wit.html

Steven Flannes, Ph.D.: Working Effectively with the Angry, Critical Client: Real World Solutions to Help You Get the Job Done
http://www2.sas.com/proceedings/sugi30/107-30.pdf

Bloomberg Business Week: Dealing with Angry Customers
http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/jun2007/sb20070620_974061.htm

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