My Customer Doesn’t Want to be Happy

By Denise DeCarlo, PMP

Project management is never easy – but it sure is a lot more fruitful and rewarding when people around you WANT to be successful and want to work together toward a common goal. So what happens when you have a customer that DOESN’T want to be happy and/or satisfied with the results the team is working so hard to produce? What if, no matter what you do, they just aren’t satisfied? This certainly brings some challenging situations to the surface—but it doesn’t necessarily mean the project will be a failure. In this article we will discuss ways to deal with this very frustrating scenario.

For the purposes of this article, the term “customer” is used generically. It could be any significant stakeholder on your project – such as the sponsor, your end consumer of the product, a manager within the business unit your product is being developed for, etc. It’s a significant stakeholder of the project that needs to be “cared for.” This is a stakeholder who is getting the attention of team members through less than ideal behaviors.

Now let’s define “not being happy.” No matter what you or your team does it never seems to be “enough” or the customer believes it is something “you should have done anyhow.” In fact, the customer may actually be satisfied with your progress but they will never tell you this as a means to consistently have you “feel the pressure” to produce even more or better deliverables. Some customers believe this is a way to motivate the team to higher aspirations. They are concerned about “letting up” as you may then ease off and not achieve the targeted milestones. This can be very frustrating to you and your team as you’ll have no way to measure your success via the immediate feedback from your customer. The end result of the project is still quite important to the customer – however – throughout the project they give you the impression that you are not meeting their expectations.

Below are seven approaches you can take to address this situation:

1. Recognize this is the situation. This sounds “obvious” but sometimes we don’t even realize this until the pattern begins to repeat itself over and over again. If you’re working with a customer that you have not worked with in the past you’ll need to get to know them and then assess if this is the situation. To quickly assess the attitude of your stakeholder you may need to talk with other project managers or managers who have worked with this customer in the past to understand what it was like to work with him/her.

Common indicators that you have a customer who doesn’t want to be happy include consistent comments such as; “I didn’t think you’d achieve that goal”, “Why is the team not working harder?” and “Why can’t you bring the end-date in?”

2. Have the successful completion criteria clearly documented, measurable and signed off. We always know this is important to do on any project, however, it will be critical when working with this type of customer. This holds the team and the customer accountable for the goal. In other words, they simply can’t “change their mind” and then say you did not meet their expectations. If they do change their mind, the successful completion criteria should be updated via a change control process and then other triple constraint factors evaluated (i.e.: impacts to scope, costs and schedule) to ensure the revised project goals are achievable

3. Have scope clearly documented and approved (ie: the boundaries need to be clear). Similar to successful completion criteria, this is something we really should do on any project; however, it will be critical to success with a “perpetually unhappy” stakeholder. A customer who does not want to be happy will squeeze in scope creep without you realizing it and then will beat you up when schedules are missed and/or costs increase. This is their way of justifying their displeasure with the team’s performance. To ensure scope is clearly defined have examples of what is in and out of scope and describe them in business terms that everyone can understand. Frequently, scope creep occurs because we do not record what is out of scope – and people assume their scope item is in scope by default. Going through a detailed and rigorous requirements identification & analysis process will help refine and solidify the scope boundaries.

4. Demonstrate what you have done to satisfy their requests. For example, if there was something your team did “above and beyond” the call of duty – bring that to their attention (in writing). If you increased scope and still achieved the agreed to dates, create the change control record to demonstrate you have made a “concession” to them. You will need to take extra care to document what has been completed in weekly status reports – ensuring these reports are being distributed to the management above the stakeholder who doesn’t want to be happy.

5. Let them know you believe they don’t want to be happy – but that you are very pleased with the results of the team. This is a “tough conversation” but could be fruitful. You need to be comfortable approaching this stakeholder and being prepared for a confrontational situation as the stakeholder will likely deny their behaviors and/or accuse you of trying to make the team look better than they really are. Be prepared to give them specific examples that make your point. If you want their behavior to change, tell them that and make specific suggestions of things they could do differently and the positive impacts this could have on the project team. Describe to them the negative impacts their behavior is having on team member attitudes and morale (assuming this is occurring).

6. Attempt to “protect” your team and minimize the impact of the negative behavior on the team members. Provide lots of positive reinforcement that the team is doing well – especially if the customer is vocal to the organization about their unhappiness. If the customer has a valid point about something that is not going well, acknowledge there is a problem and work as a team to determine how to best resolve the problem. Even though you may disagree with the customer’s behavior, do not disrespect this person overtly in front of the team. As project managers and leaders we need to rise above the inappropriate behavior and simply state you disagree with them and provide specific examples of why. Don’t make it a personal vendetta against that person. If you do, you’ll be part of the problem as well.

7. Be very consistent – and have well used processes that are visible. Key processes to use frequently and consistently are risk management, an issues log, and scope management including change control. These processes will clearly demonstrate what actions have been taken, what was communicated to whom, and when. Ensure the high risks and critical issues along with approved changes are recapped in written status reports that are distributed to the customer and various key stakeholders. By doing this you have clearly communicated to the customer what is and is not going well. The last thing you want is for the customer to hear about a major problem from some person or process other than you. Clear and open communications about the project status is critical.

There’s a great book, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and For our Leaders by Ira Chaleff that contains the following quote “It’s important to understand that being a follower is not a term of weakness, but the condition that permits leadership to exist and gives it strength. They are interdependent with, not dependent on, the leader. They add value to both themselves and the leader through this relationship”. As project managers if we behave as great followers – our team success will be enhanced even further. We are leaders to our teams; however, we are also followers of our key stakeholders.

You may never get your “unhappy” customer to change their behavior but you can certainly protect your team more effectively, create a less stressful environment for yourself and increase the chances of a successful project if you are capable of following several of these recommended steps.

Denise DeCarlo is a Founder and Principal of MINDAVATION, a company providing project management services including training, consulting, keynotes, coaching, leadership workshops and team building programs worldwide. Denise can be reached via the web at WWW.MINDAVATION.COM or by calling 866-888-MIND (6463).


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