Customer engagement – The hard stuff

25 Dec
Dealing with difficult customers

Dealing with difficult customers

Customer involvement in any project is very important. But customers also are humans and you can rest assured that with every new project – the way it is unique, your customer experience WILL be unique; either pleasant or unpleasant. Things can get very challenging, if you meet a customer who is controlling and/or unwilling to commit. Even worse: sways the users/team to “rollback” their decisions.

In recent past, we started to have problems with scope definition with our customer and the initial sessions turned unproductive. So our project management team got together internally to assess the problem and possibly rectify it. It was necessary to identify the “type” of customer and I started looking for some answers/similar experiences. I came across Mike’s post on customer engagement. As Mike suggests, customer engagement will get productive if your customers can be identified by “CRACK” acronym – that stands for:

  • Collaborative
  • Representative
  • Accountable
  • Committed
  • Knowledgeable

In our case, the controlling customer manager was just a R (Representative of the team) but missing everything else. The users were afraid and unwilling to express their needs, decisions and concerns in front of the manager. And we were expected to understand and rectify the business problem. IT team tried few tricks like JAD sessions, One-on-one discussion with the manager to help the individual understand importance of scope finalization and moving ahead. Things went 1 step ahead, but 2 step back.

Direct communication was not successful and we were not in a position to bypass the manager. In this case, the one trick that worked for us was:  Questions/Surveys. We developed a 2 page survey and distributed it to the whole customer team, including the manager to define the scope.

The statistics that came back from the survey helped us show the manager the actual needs and to arrive at the scope for the project.  This experience reminded us that: It is not just your analytical skills and technical expertise that are important. Dealing with difficult individuals and especially customers can test your people skills. You will need to reach deep down in your bag of techniques and experience to handle such situations.

Your patience, collaboration and interaction skills will be tested. Only experience can help you successfully navigate such situations. Connect, talk and try finding the answers with people who have been through such situations.

Because –  Soft stuff (skill) is the  hard stuff.


Posted by on December 25, 2010 in Business Analysis, Project Management


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5 responses to “Customer engagement – The hard stuff

  1. Meghana

    December 26, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    Liked this post because of the real-life experience. It is important to observe, learn and document from experiences and that is exactly what this article is doing.


  2. Derek Huether

    December 27, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    Sameer, I think you point out a problem that many of us suffer from. The people in the room who we expect to make unpopular decisions or comments won’t, because there is a personality present that is preventing them from being completely honest. I’m not saying they are being DIShonest. I’m just saying they are not being completely forthcoming. I like the anonymous approach you proposed to solve the problem.


    • Sameer

      December 27, 2010 at 3:30 pm

      Thanks Derek! I believe you can relate to this even more when I reveal that they/customer mgr avoid to commit on the grounds of “Federal handbook” contents. You are experienced handling those, so my question is: How do we help the individual understand that the flexibility (or actually the ambiguity, language tricks) given in these books should be used as positive risk and be exploited?! Our customer manager used that to kind of threaten the users by saying “It doesn’t clearly say what to do and what not to do, so whatever decision you take – you will be responsible.” and that was more than enough to cause lack of commitment from users.
      Have you faced any such situations? How did you handle them?


      • Derek Huether

        December 27, 2010 at 11:02 pm

        YES, I have seen this happen. The manager is not taking responsibility. I’m sure they’ll take plenty of credit if the efforts are successful. But, they’ll throw you under a bus to protect themselves. Are there other stakeholders you can engage? Who is the project owner or sponsor? You should get their input if the manager doesn’t understand the strategic vision. Realistically, the manager should merely be tactically implementing the strategic vision. If that vision has not been properly communicated, you may have a showstopper until you get that cleared up. There will always be stakeholders who are nothing but obstructionist. But, you need to learn to work with them….somehow. Stroke their ego, buy them a cup of coffee. It does not matter! Find out what they really like (personally) and play that card. Remember, you catch more bees with honey than you do vinegar.


      • Sameer

        December 28, 2010 at 9:11 am

        You’re right Derek. Our vinegar plan backfired (people don’t really like straight talk) and involving customer systems side manager plus the survey helped us get through. Other stakeholders didn’t really have a chance. But our anonymous honey trick worked. Thanks for sharing your experience and insights.



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