This is more of a general thought in the entire communication process than any one specific communication strategy. If you subscribe to the same notion that I do – that the process of effective communication is the single most important thing that a project manager does – then you understand that how we interact with the customer is critical to the overall success of the engagement.
Just as important as the project manager’s communications with the customer are the individual project team members’ communications with that same customer. The part that becomes hard is that as the project manager you’re responsible for ALL communication, but you can’t always police that which you are not a part of. Nor do you really want to, but it does all come back to you.
So the questions then become:
- How do we (the project manager) best interface with the customer
- How do we prepare our team to interact with the customer
- What actions do we take to oversee all communication
- What do we do when the communication goes wrong?
Project manager – customer interface
The primary function here is to practice frequent and effective communication with the customer. Most of this done through the creation of informative and accurate weekly material: status reports, project schedules, issues and risks tracking sheets, status calls, and status call notes among other things.
But even the informal communication with the customer is important and must be done with care. Always be above board with the customer, but also always be above reproach. You don’t ever want to spread gossip, give inside information that is not appropriate, or speak poorly of your team, your company, the project, or customer personnel. Always maintain a very high-level of professionalism. It’s ok to be familiar with the customer, but don’t let your guard down … they’re still the customer.
Prepare the team
At the beginning of the engagement set the ground roles for the team in their communications with the customer. Coach them on professionalism, the methods that are acceptable, and what communication approaches to use in different situations.
One more thing – in this age of social media – be sure to make it clear that no discussions with or about the customer should happen on Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Google Buzz or any similar source. During the project that is too familiar and potentially unprofessional. And once it’s out there, it’s there forever.
Overseeing the communication process
This one isn’t easy because communication is happening all the time and you can’t oversee everything. Make it clear to the team that decisions need to involve you and most need to come from you. In fact, all official project communication needs to come from you. However, you don’t want to slow progress, so ask that you be cc’d on all important project communication that doesn’t require your immediate attention. Stay in the loop because when things are moving fast on a project, once you are out of the loop it’s hard to fix what might go wrong.
Fixing the mess
This exactly where you hoped not to be, but it happens. And you may have a mess to clean up or fix. Go back to the effective communication and the practice of full disclosure with the customer. Making them part of the solution rather than keeping them uniformed is almost always the best way to go.
And for communications that get out of hand … that’s a another problem. First, go to the source. If it’s your team member, then discuss the communication issue with them and understand their side of the story. Then take it to the customer together. Working with the customer and the team to proactively correct a communication problem or misunderstanding will show that you’re involved and the problem is being addressed. This will go along way in maintaining customer satisfaction and confidence.