While we all want to enjoy stress-free relationships with our customers, where there are no problems and no disagreements, the reality is that projects and service delivery are rarely like that. So is your happy smiling customer a welcome sign that everything’s fine - or a big warning sign that there are issues bubbling under the surface that everyone’s dancing around like handbags on a dance floor?
Are we always logical?
The dispassionate logical view would clearly say that it’s always better to get significant issues out into the open and to thrash out solutions in a spirit of collaboration. But, of course, we’re dealing with people and the complexities of human relationships; logic doesn’t always prevail.
For one thing the person representing your client may not be searching enthusiastically for new things to worry about. They might be the sort of person who seems happier to convince themselves that everything’s fine - do you really want to risk being the one to upset their view of the world?
On the other hand you might, quite sensibly, be wary of undermining a relationship you are trying to develop, particularly with a new client. There could be staffing or technical issues that stop you from making progress – or things could just be harder to get done than you had imagined. How do you deal with this without wrecking the relationship?
Stalling and smoothing things over, while hoping that somehow you can conjure up a solution without them ever being aware there was a problem can look like a tempting option. But it’s almost certainly a mirage.
What looks like an expedient oasis inevitably turns into mile after mile of arid burning sand – the further you go, the worse your situation really becomes.
Don’t be scared of the ‘P’ word
Even the word problem can be a problem. Far less uncomfortable for everyone if we talk about challenges and opportunities than admit that there are real problems screaming out to be resolved. But forget the trite management-speak, problems are not opportunities. They are what they are and they have to be dealt with before they become a major threat to your business.
Evasion, denial and delusion can be understandable human instincts. Few people go out actively looking for problems and conflicts. The problem (that word again) is that you can only hold reality at bay for so long.
Developing the skills
People like Jeff are taking a huge risk. Eventually somebody else will come along who isn’t scared to talk about problems. More importantly they will have developed the skills to raise and discuss them in ways that engage rather than alienate a client.
The art of asking difficult questions is one of the most valuable skills in business. Structured and careful questioning can be a useful way to raise awareness of operational difficulties and their potential implications.
Clearly, there are ways and means of asking the difficult questions without coming across as aggressive or defensive. And having asked the question you then have to be seen to really listen to the answers objectively. Don’t jump in and try to defend your position, or tell the client that they are wrong, or don’t understand (their perception is, after all, their reality).
Non verbal communication is also critical, as we discussed in this article. Listening to win
Make sure that you have explored and uncovered all the issues, and demonstrated that you have done so before starting to address them. The best questions here are the ones that start how, what, when and who as they are “open questions” and get the client talking. But you need to be careful with ‘why’. This could lead you into a fruitless game of blame-apportioning rather than focusing your collective energy on finding solutions.
It’s all about empathy
You have a much better chance of dealing with issues in a way that bolsters your relationship if you can demonstrate and convince your client that your primary concern is to achieve a solution that works for them. You have to be seen to be more concerned about their problems than with your own.
Your client has to believe that you really do understand their situation. So see and explain things from their perspective; and make sure they realise and accept that this is the perspective you have. Again, the non-verbal clues will be just as important as the verbal ones here!
Only once the client starts to believe that you have real empathy with their position will you be able to try to resolve the issues.
None of this is easy
Facing up to problems (and getting your client to face up to them) is never easy. But if you want to move your relationships beyond the superficial (and risk-laden), to one based on a deeper level of trust and professional respect, it’s something you need to learn how to do. Understanding and acquiring the interpersonal skills you need is your essential first step.
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