Early in my IT manager career I discovered a valuable lesson that has helped me immensely ever since. The story goes like this:
In a senior IT manager role, my team of some 100 technical resources supported the business applications developed by our company for just over 100 hospitals throughout the U.S. My five regional IT support organizations also provided customized programming services and training for our hospital clients.
I received a call from our West Region support manager one day and she tells me we have a client in the state of Washington who refuses to pay their bill and is threatening to leave us.
Not good! This client was a $2.5 to $3 million annual revenue generator for our company so we needed to address their pain.
I asked my support manager a few questions to better understand the client’s issues. What I heard was general feedback: nothing she said told me helped me quantify what the issues were.
Key point: You can’t solve a client’s problem unless you can quantify the specific issues that are causing the problem(s).
I asked her to schedule an onsite meeting with the client in order to understand the situation and determine what we needed to do to address their issues.
Prior to the client meeting, I asked the manager more questions to try and get underneath the situation. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn any more than what I already knew.
We sat down with the client. After our introductions, I asked the CFO and CIO to discuss their concerns and I remember how frustrated they were.
They spent 10 to 15 minutes telling us the “problems” they were experiencing with our company’s software products and support. The frustration was apparent.
Key Point: If a client is angry, it’s not personal. Listen objectively to understand their pain and don’t be defensive. Your mission at this point is to listen in order to quantify what the problematic issues are.
After the discussion, I quantified their issues as I heard them. I remember there were four issues so I said, “Alright, it sounds like you have four issues: A, B, C and D.”
I asked for confirmation, “Is that correct?” They said, “Yes.”
Then I asked if there were any more issues so we could be sure we had a complete list of the specific issues that’s causing our client’s pain. They gave me a fifth issue and discussed it.
After finishing this discussion, I quantified the five issues we had identified and again asked for confirmation and whether there was anything else we needed to know.
We received the confirmation we were looking for.
Finally, we had what we needed to address our client’s problems and turn the situation around because we identified the specific issues causing their pain and frustration.
We developed a plan and proposed it to the client the next week. They accepted it and we began delivering successfully what we said we would do. A big part of this delivery was to over-communicate. It started with daily teleconference updates with the client, IT support manager and the technical resource doing the work. After 10 days or so it went to weekly updates and ultimately a monthly status review.
The end result was that this client stayed with us and purchased millions of dollars of additional products and services over the years. It was a very successful turnaround.
With a problem client, I use a guide called 6 steps to rescue a problem client, which you can read and download below.
Step-by-step guide to rescue an unhappy client and develop a positive relationship.
6 steps to rescue a problem client
Step 1. Listen
To improve a bad client situation, you must know what the problem is. Your employees may not have a clue as to what the real problems are so you have to interview the client to get to the problem. Listening without being defensive is key in this session.
Step 2. Quantify the issues
In quantifying the problem, you must quantify and articulate the specific issues that come from the client’s discussion. You won’t be able to solve the problem unless you are very specific as to the issues that are causing the problem. After listening to the client, list the issues specifically that must be addressed to resolve the situation.
Step 3. Gain client agreement on the issues and a commitment to what will occur when the issues are addressed.
Once you have listed the issues that must be addressed, gain concurrence from the client so you know you have listed every specific issue to be addressed. When you positively address the issues causing the problem, identify what the client should be committed to do. This might mean paying for outstanding invoices, developing a positive relationship with the IT organization, etc. It must be a win-win for you and the client for this effort to be a success.
Step 4. Develop an action plan to address the issues and gain client agreement on the plan.
Develop a specific action plan, or project, to positively address all issues. Be conservative in what you plan to commit to in terms of timing, cost and specific deliverables. In other words, include plenty of buffer and position your organization to over-deliver. Communicate the plan to the client and gain agreement that the action items will positively address the issues identified.
Step 5. Execute the plan.
Execute the plan and be sure to do a quality and timely job. Remember, this may be your second or third chance so success is critical this time.
Step 6. Over-communicate the status of the plan
Communicate daily until everyone agrees that less often is appropriate. When trying to turn a problem client situation around, you must over-communicate.
When you complete the projects that positively address the client’s issues, you may ask the client to fulfill his part of the agreement. This may be to pay an invoice, be more supportive of your support organization, or whatever the client agreed to do once the issues have been addressed as discussed in Step 3.
Problem clients are opportunities in disguise. Be proactive in listening to their input and quantify their issues so you can attack the source of their problems. When you resolve their pain you often develop trust and a positive relationship for the future.