The guy was brilliant at what he did. He knew all the ins and outs of the software program, as he had stewarded the application from its infancy all the way through its development lifecycle. From a subject matter perspective, no one was better equipped to answer questions, train others, or provide support on the application.
There was only one problem. You couldn’t let this guy loose in front of a customer.
His brilliance was only rivaled by his sarcasm. His sarcasm was overshadowed by his negativity. And, his negativity waned in comparison to how quickly he could and would throw his own compatriots under the bus. The company tried to put him in front of clients every now and then. Inevitably, his presentation would be met with awkward moments of silence as people tried to process what he thought was a joke. His attempt at humor was to blame the client for not knowing what they wanted, or not understanding how things worked.
He was talked to numerous times, but he just couldn’t help himself. You knew the minute he got up in front of the customer it was just a train wreck waiting to happen. He stayed with the company because of his expertise but stayed indoors because of his demeanor. He was not client-facing material.
What exactly is required for a project manager to be client-facing? There are many different roles we can assume. We could concentrate on only working with internal teams who may be somewhat forgiving. After all, they know who we are as a person. Or, we may concentrate on working with outside vendors, who may be very forgiving. After all, they’re getting paid. The most challenging situation is working with clients, who can be the least forgiving of the lot. After all, they are paying us.
The following are some guidelines you may want to apply if your role puts you in front of clients:
Listen More than You Talk
The first skill client-facing project managers need to master is to listen more than you talk. It’s always so tempting to take the client’s project over by storm. You come onto the project loaded for bear. You’ve done this type of project a thousand times before and nobody knows better than you what needs to be done.
Good for you. This is a great position to be in. However, you also need to come up to speed on each client’s environment. What are the unique challenges and issues they are facing? This type of project may not be new to you, but you’ve never worked on it with this particular client. Hence, it’s good form to let them talk and to set up that relationship from the beginning even if you already know all the answers and issues they are facing. It will provide them with a level of trust and confidence that will prove to be invaluable as the relationship continues to grow.
Your company may be very informal when it comes to dressing code, work hours, or other employment practices. It may be loosey-goosey concerning what language is allowed; having a foul mouth may be acceptable in your environment. Keep it in that environment. Being customer-facing means that you abide by a certain code of conduct…even if the client doesn’t necessarily abide by that code of conduct. Try and remain at least one step above what is minimally acceptable at your client’s location. For example, it may be okay for them to show up 5 or 10 minutes late to a meeting. You need to be there 5 or 10 minutes early. It may be okay for them to let out an expletive every now and then. You need to do what you can to keep your language in check.
Abiding by this principle can alleviate some potentially embarrassing situations. I remember going on site with a person who did not normally visit clients. He wore jeans and a t-shirt, which was perfectly acceptable where he came from. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite so acceptable where he was visiting. He was politely asked to at least tuck his shirt in and try not to walk around too many areas outside of the conference room. Awkward.
Say NO in the RIGHT Way
Another big part of being customer-facing is how you deliver bad news and how you say no. There are going to be times when things go wrong on projects, and times when you may not be able to satisfy every request your client has of you or your company. The response should not be, “Sorry, no can do.” Or, you may have to deliver bad news about the date being delayed, and want to deliver that message in, “By the way, we’re going to be late and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Will that get the message across? Yes. But it also brings with it a lot of angst and consternation. A client-facing project manager can deliver the same message in a slightly different way that considers the client’s needs and desires. “Sorry, we won’t be able to do that, but, we can move a few things around and we will be able to do this instead. Will that work?” That’s a much better way of just coming out and saying NO. Or, when you deliver bad news, make sure you have exhausted every opportunity and chance to make things right. They need to know that it was only the last resort that the date had to move. Same message, different delivery, better results.
Don’t Bite Off More than You Can Chew
Here is one of my pet peeves as a client-facing project manager. Someone will come in from the office and listen to the client for a while. They will agree with everything they hear and then say, “Sure, that won’t be a problem to do.” This person then goes back to the protective cocoon of their office or cube, never to see the client again. They forget what they said, don’t follow-up on their commitments, and you are left holding the bag. You have to talk to this client every week, and they constantly ask when the new feature that the nice man promised last time will be complete.
The lesson? Don’t bite off more than you can chew or commit to more than you can deliver when you are front of the client. You may forget what you said, but you can be guaranteed they won’t!
Let’s face it, not everybody is cut out to be in front of the client, and that’s okay. We all have our own set of unique strengths and weaknesses. If you’re fortunate enough to be client-facing, realize that there’s a high level of trust that comes with that relationship. One wrong word or action could potentially jeopardize the account. It’s up to you to nurture that client and steward you both to a mutually beneficial relationship.
Oh yeah, one more thing…under no circumstances should you ever wear those shoes that look like gloves for your toes. Those should be banned in dress codes everywhere!