5

So similar to this question: How can I deal with a difficult client?

Except that we know that the client is difficult and have had multiple meetings dealing with after-effects of the client's impatient and rash decision-making. The client feels that because they're paying they should get whatever they want -- even if that means delaying work for other clients.

What we really need is someone to act as a buffer, to help liaison between the client's requests and the team, but that role was given to the client.

It's hard to have a productive conversation about project issues, because project leaders don't acknowledge how the client's choices have created problems within the project. They seem to be under a lot of stress to please the client and have begun to exhibit negative behaviors. The client contract manager, for instance, gives evasive answers, makes passive aggressive requests, and generally takes the client's word before asking team members. The project manager is behaving as though team members report to him, he distrusts feedback/inputs of specialists on the team, and he speaks to other team members with an aggressive and condescending tone, as well as passive-aggressive behaviors. All of this is leading to noticeable reticence and lack of team cohesion by other team members.

The question is, with all this going on, how can we have honest conversations about the project and the client, have a healthy work environment, and simply get work done?

  • Does your line manager fill any of the roles mentioned in the question? – Philip Kendall Dec 2 '18 at 20:46
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    This is tough because it's not really the client's fault for trying to squeeze off resources, it's your own side's fault for improperly managing them. What kind of authority do you have? This might need to escalate to C-levels on your side. – rath Dec 2 '18 at 22:04
  • @rath Good question. I do not have any authority regarding selecting the client or any ability to "fire" the client. – user70848 Dec 2 '18 at 23:48
  • @PhilipKendall Not really... I was assigned as an individual contributor on this project, but the project manager decided he didn't like some of my answers to scheduling or asking questions about client requirements. So he asked someone more senior to give feedback. That person also seems to have been caught up in the stress/anxiety as well, such as asking for work for this client early which would have caused missing deadlines for other clients, as mentioned above. – user70848 Dec 2 '18 at 23:55
  • "The client feels that because they're paying they should get whatever they want". That's exactly right. If they pay enough they can get anything they want. – Fattie Dec 3 '18 at 4:37
7

What we really need is someone to act as a buffer, to help liaison between the client's requests and the team, but that role was given to the client.

You will have to set-up and enforce rules or fire the client

You may never be able to have a "healthy" work environment in this situation. Your best bet is to minimize damage.

I'm assuming you don't want to fire the client. Here are the steps I would take to shield the team as much as possible.

What to do with the client

1) Assign a single person to interface with the client. Let this person know the client is difficult, and have their back in meetings.

2) Don't send anyone in alone. While there should be one person in charge of interfacing, be sure to always send a 2nd person who can step in if things get too heated, or corroborate a story.

3) Don't allow the client to talk with the team members except for the one person who is the interface.

4) Meetings with the client should be highly structured. Make sure there is an agenda. Also, make sure any bug reports or new features are documented heavily. Screenshot or videos are the best here.

5) Have a higher-up step in when needed. Sometimes just talking to an "important person" will alleviate the problem. The client will believe their concerns are taken seriously.

6) Realize you may have to fire this client anyway. The customer is not always right, and sometimes it's best if you part ways with the customer.

What to do with the team

1) Make sure everyone understands you have their back.

2) Ensure the team is working normal hours and is insulated from the client.

3) Document everything. All team communication should go through a single individual (from above). That individual exist as much to document as to work with the client. No more "off the cuff" suggestions. Document everything.

How to implement these changes

The client is a difficult client. They'll make unreasonable demands like meeting (and berating) the entire team. You (the team) have power. You need to set some boundaries.

The client doesn't work for you. Even if they don't realize it, you must put your own manager over your developers. As you've already given the client this role, you'll have to take it back as diplomatically as possible.

1) Citing new rules at the company, your client needs to talk to the POC (see above) that you've chosen. Tell them you've got to add more accountability to what is said to clients, and developers are no longer allowed to talk with them directly. This only has to apply to this client.

2) Possibly in the same meeting as the one above, address the real issue. The client doesn't seem happy with the team. The client may have some valid concerns that are causing their bad behavior. Hold firm on the above, but let the client vent frustration. You may hear the "big boss" is turning up the heat. You don't have to solve the problems but listen to them.

3) Decide if this client is salvageable. Your client has already hurt the morale of the team, and I'm guessing several developers and specialist are eyeing the door. If this continues, you will not only lose good team members, but you'll have a dissatisfied client who will bad-mouth you to the community. If the client won't change the current (broken) relationship, then you're better off "firing" the client and at least saving your team.

For this talk, go above the problem person and talk to their manager. Explain the situation that you've explained here. Since this is the last ditch effort, explain the passive-aggressive tone with specific incidents. The client company may be willing to rework the structure. If they can't make substatial changes, walk away.

  • 1
    One of the issues is that the project leaders insist that all team members should be able to interface with the client -- so that if someone is away, another team member can fill in. This makes no sense, practically, because a developer is not a project manager, and vice-versa. So while I agree that a single point of contact is best, the client's complaints have led to this situation. – user70848 Dec 2 '18 at 23:51
  • @user70848 you'll need to convince people to stop this behavior, or if you can't, re-evaluate if this is a company you want to work for. – Erik Dec 3 '18 at 8:12
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    AGILE philosophy incitates to interact with the client and you need a fill-in in terms of general management. @user: You need to identify 2 - 3 persons on the team that have a good chemistry with the client or know how to handle him/her combined with the framework seven advised you. Irrationality has to be satisfied sometimes. On the conversation part, it's your project manager's duty to have a discussion with the team to find solutions, handle the pressure from the client and expose painpoints. – Answers_Seeker Dec 3 '18 at 9:27
  • @Erik Do you have suggestions for how to do that? – user70848 Dec 3 '18 at 13:06
  • What suggestions do you have for advocating for these changes? The issue is the team is not thinking or behaving rationally, so having discussions are not productive. Just suggesting these tips won’t work because they’ll say this is what we have to do for this client. – user70848 Dec 3 '18 at 13:33
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This is normal in business, but the very short answer is to

document everything.

in a sense, "it's that simple."

  • Every single change or new feature the client asks for (small or big)

  • Have a form for providing a short written quote for that change or feature

  • The form includes a delivery date (or hour!)

  • The client has to sign off.

If you do this, the problem ceases to exist.

"Can you also explain how this will make the problem go away?"

  1. The account execs can't promise anything until it is agreed

  2. The client is nailed down to what they want in writing

  3. The specific time is agreed nailed down

  4. Upon delivery (big or small feature) can be approved or not

  • Can you also explain how this will make the problem go away? This currently reads like a "do this" answer with no backing it. – Erik Dec 3 '18 at 8:12
  • good one @Erik. It's pretty self-evident but I did so – Fattie Dec 3 '18 at 8:53

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