“Nothing good ever comes from doubling down on a customer freak-out”

— Mike Montero, Mule Design

One of my favorite podcasts is Let’s Make Mistakes. It’s ostensibly a podcast about design but I often find that the advice about how to deal with clients is applicable no mater the profession.

In episode 68 Don’t Adopt Client Freak-Outs, the hosts discuss how to react when a client becomes upset. Listening to this discussion for the first time really resonated with me. I think it’s invaluable advice for Project Managers or others acting in that role in any business.

Often when a customer is upset, or freaks out over an issue, the response is all too often to double down on the freak out. People think adopting the customers attitude shows sincerity, shows that “you get it”.

When a customer freaks out it’s often because of two things. First, the customer doesn’t know as much as you do about the process/product. You have a better understanding of when something is going wrong, more experience dealing with the myriad of project issues that come up. What may seem like a small bump in the road may look to the customer like a major issue.

Secondly, when a customer is simply nervous about how things are going because you’re not communicating with them in a way that they can digest and understand. This is critical. Every person is different, often you’ll deal with multiple stakeholders from the client on a project and will have to figure out how best to communicate with them in a way that avoids freak outs. I’m not a fan of multiple communication processes and in the cast of internal employees, generally, I believe they can (should?) be “forced” into a standard cultural norm for communication but we can’t expect the same of clients.

The job of the project manager, or anyone in a client facing position, is to project the calm professional demeanor of someone who’s been here before. It doesn’t mean patronizing the client, it means explaining where things sit, why it’s all going to be okay, why we’re doing what we’re doing. This is an opportunity to show the client that you are indeed in control of the situation.

When a client freaks out, it’s often a cry for help. The client is nervous about something, unsure of how to react to an event. Use those moments to provide context, guidance and information that will make the client a better client. Oh, and if you are screwing something up, just admit that and fix it, for implementation projects it is the destination, not the journey.