We have all had the experience of being in a restaurant and being asked, usually by a small sign, not a human being, to fill out one of those ubiquitous little survey cards that want to know if we are happy with the food, the service, etc. Or, a server might wander by when our meal is half eaten and inquire “Everything OK here?” Or when we are leaving the cashier might ask “Was everything OK?” To which we are expected to reply “Everything was fine.” And smile.
If “everything” was only a little bit shy of “fine,” many if not most people nevertheless will still say that everything was fine. Only those earnest and confrontational seekers of perfect social justice will voice a complaint about a small failure on the part of a restaurant. But the memory of that small failure may linger and as a result their next meal out may be at a different restaurant. Or they may remark to a friend that, “You know, last time I was in there the soup was cold.” The friend may decide not to eat there either.
Small customer dissatisfactions can be damaging to business. That’s why most successful retail businesses go to great lengths to keep them from happening, and quickly repairing them when they do happen. Some project teams pay little attention to the matter, relying on their project and contract management people to buffer them from most customer concerns. But in many projects, there are many interfaces with the customer, and total buffering is neither possible nor desirable.
Unfortunately, maintaining good customer satisfaction in the world of projects can be enormously more complex and difficult than in the retail world. One complicating factor is the often diffuse nature of the “customer,” as discussed in the previous chapter. Which customer element should you try to satisfy? Another complexity can be the many levels and points of contact with customers that often occur on projects. Often people at many levels of the project team are in frequent contact with their counterparts on the customer side. At each point of contact dissatisfaction can occur, and it potentially can propagate throughout the customer organization.
Just as in a retail business, dissatisfaction can go unnoticed without customer feedback. The ubiquitous questionnaire is not a practical tool for gathering feedback in most project situations. Most people dislike filling them out unless they have been egregiously offended, and the feedback may be slow in coming. So do you train your people to occasionally ask their customer counterparts “How is it going?” or “Is everything OK?” as a server in a restaurant might? If you do, the answers you get will likely be vague and not particularly useful.
We recommend a somewhat more direct approach. We like to call it TCB, short for Taking Care of Business. If you want a fancier name, try Anticipative Closed Loop Feedback or ACLF.
The theory behind TCB is that dissatisfaction is most likely to arise or to become evident at a time when members of the project team are in contact with members of the customer organization. Therefore at every significant contact or transaction with the customer, the project team elicits specific feedback from the customer and promptly reacts to it in a “closed loop” manner. The principle is best illustrated with a couple of simple examples.
TCB example 1
A few days ago, the same day it was requested, you mailed your customer counterpart a report of some tests that you supervised. Just after dropping the report off at your mail room, you called your counterpart to say that the report had been mailed and that it should arrive in three or four days. This is a transaction in which dissatisfaction can arise in at least two ways. One way is to have the report get lost or delayed in the mail. Another is that the report may not provide the information your customer needs (even though you may think it does!).
To avoid the first problem, you make a note to yourself to call your customer in four days to be sure the report arrived. If it didn’t, your proper course of action should be to follow up and see what went wrong. If necessary, you should mail another copy of the report, or send it overnight mail if the need is urgent.
If your counterpart did get the report, ask if it contains the specific information needed. If it does, tell your counterpart you are glad you could be of service. If your counterpart hasn’t had time to look at the report yet, say that you would welcome his phone call if there are any questions.
Of course, if your counterpart can’t find the needed information, you should help find it. If it doesn’t exist, and you can readily generate it, do so. If an issue arises about whether providing the information is in the scope of project work and the information is not available, discuss the matter with your boss to see if you can accommodate your customer. If not, be sure to call back and explain that the information is beyond the scope of project work and suggest that if it is really badly needed, a contract change is in order so you have financial cover to do the work.
After this transaction has been completed, log it in a convenient database or log book or PDA. The entry should describe the wanted information, who wanted it and why, the dates involved, and the final disposition of the matter. With such an entry, if any question about the matter comes up in the future, you have the information you need to resolve it.
The following key points can be made about the transaction described in this example:
- Prompt responses to customer requests build the customer’s confidence in your team.
- The world is an imperfect place. Things get lost in the mail. You may think you are sending what is needed, but then again your understanding of what is needed could be wrong. Entropy exists in human affairs as well as in thermodynamics. Murphy and his Law lurk everywhere. Therefore meticulous follow-up is necessary to be sure things don’t get fouled up. Anticipate problems.
- Surround your customer in a cocoon of confidence. Make him marvel that you are so interested in his success.
- Keep a diary of customer transactions. Never leave the customer hanging, even in small matters. Close the loop.
TCB example 2
You have called a meeting at which several of your team members as well as customer representatives will be present. Before you decided to call the meeting, you carefully determined that what needs to be done cannot be done by telephone or by e-mail, thus avoiding an expensive meeting. You have followed the principles of effective meetings by publishing an agenda, setting a time limit, and assuring that the meeting place and all needed materials will be available.
During the meeting, all members of your team are civil and courteous, even though one of the customer reps is noisy and somewhat abusive. You scrupulously avoid criticizing anyone. You carefully steer team members away from overly long war stories and side issues, maintaining the meeting’s focus. You take (or have someone take) minutes and assign dated action items. When attendees return to their places of work, or soon thereafter, they find in the mail or e-mail a copy of the minutes and the action items.
You follow-up on the action items to assure they have been taken care of. You advise attendees of their status as they are accomplished or otherwise disposed of.
- Meetings where customers are present are potentially a source of dissatisfaction. Customers may not appreciate overly long and poorly structured meetings.
- Failure to take and propagate meeting minutes and action items is sloppy and wasteful of valuable time. It will lead customers to believe your team is not well managed.
- Courtesy and civility are critical in customer meetings. Rudeness and violation of accepted norms of behavior can leave lasting feelings of ill will.
- Follow up. Close the loop.
Some final comments before closing this chapter:
- If it becomes clear that anyone on your team has offended someone on the customer side, the offending person must make a sincere apology, in person if possible, and directly to those offended.
- Hiring interviews don’t always screen out team members prone to incivility. Any team member who shows signs of incivility of any kind, including but not limited to sexual harassment, coarse speech, and aggressive or rude behavior, must as a minimum be counseled, and if necessary removed from customer contact.
- Project teams must be aware of and respect cultural differences between themselves and the customer. If the project team is going to work with a new customer, the customer’s cultural modes and preferences should be studied and the team should be briefed. Such study is obviously appropriate when dealing with foreign nationals, but it is also warranted when merely dealing with a new company of your own countrymen. What works in Dallas does not necessarily work in New York.
- Obviously a project team that doesn’t get the job done will have an unhappy customer. Fortunately for all concerned, such a team more often than not loses out in the bidding process and never gets the job in the first place.
Chapter 6 Review Questions
- Think of an example of customer dissatisfaction on a project you worked on. Try to trace it back to its root cause. What could have been done to anticipate and avoid the problem? How was it finally resolved?
- Do you agree with the recommendation in this chapter to keep a log of customer transactions to be sure the “loop” is always closed? Why?
- How effective and well organized are your meetings with customers? Could they be improved? How?