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Hi project managers, happy Valentine’s Day! I would like to kicking off a series called “Mistakes Project Managers Make”.

With the theme of Valentine’s day, the #1 mistake that I want to discuss is :

“FALLING IN LOVE…… with your customer”.

This will never happen to you? Are you sure?

Let me describe a scenario for you. In a three-year production high complexity project, a project manager has been assigned to the project along with a team of members. In addition to that, and the project manager and the team also co-locate with the customer on site. Months into the project execution, the customer has requested a “small” project deviation. In the next senior management project committee review, the project manager comes in to present the project deviation request. Here’s what the project manager says:

“Our price is very high, we’re not competitive at all. Customer has paid lots of money for this and we have not delivered the value they paid for at the point of sale. They are very unhappy. This is actually a small request that we should be able to do it with the budget we have. We should not ask the customer to pay for more. We should do this for them so they stay happy and keep the longevity of the relationship with us.”

If this sounds like you, I have two feedbacks for you:

  1. WAKE UP!!! You’re falling in love with your customer.
  2. Where is your data? What are your recommendations based on?

Let’s look a little deeper into this love affair symptom with the customer before blaming the project manager. It is actually very natural and necessary that we have empathy to our customer’s pain and it’s part of a project manager’s job to listen to their complaints, hear about their pain and show empathy because that’s how we establish relationships and build trust. However, some of us cannot control our feelings and we let the emotions grow and overtake the rational decision-making. That’s how we fall in love and that’s when the trouble starts. The moment a project manager falls in love, the project starts to creep in scope, increase in cost and conflicts/ mis-alignments between stake holders appear. Not only will you lose the confidence from senior management, you also are risking the success of the overall project. At the end of the day, this project is likely to fail because of that little “love affair” you had with your customer.

We often see these types of examples in other stories. It is like an undercover agent and who falls in love with the enemy. In the end, these stories end with the agent dead. Project managers, if that’s you and if that’s the situation you’re in, please be careful! You shouldn’t let your empathy take control of your decision making. Remember: Bond girls are found dead in the bath tub, James Bond lives forever.

How do we prevent this from happening?

My advices: Always present the matter-of-fact and speak with data!

You might ask: how do you get the data?

This goes back to the project planning phase. As a good project manager, in a project planning phase you need to do a very thorough job to baseline all your major project KPIs, such as: cost, resources, project scope and risks. The better job you do at the planning phase, the better baseline you have. Then, during the execution phase, you can regularly pour the data into the baseline tracking tools you use. When you have a good set of data, you have good control of the overall status of your project. Whenever there is a request for project deviation, or if there’s a discussion about project cost, you can pull out your data and provide your professional input in an objective and convincing manner. At the meantime, it’s OKAY to challenge your customer! I know we all try hard to keep our customers happy and satisfied, but challenging your customer will not necessarily damage that relationship. You may actually gain respect out of that discussion. Of course, the key in that communication is to stay objective, polite and speak with data.

As a project manager, communication skill is definitely one of the key skills for you to master in this situation to stay out of the “DANGER”. Having a good set of data is a support system for you in order to be successful in these negotiations. Along the way you will gain respect with your customer and your senior management for your credibility as a successful project manager who can handle such a complex situation.

Key take aways:

A GOOD relationship with the customer would be:

Your customer LIKES you and RESPECTS you.

It takes a long time and a lot of relationship building for you to get there with your customer. Once you get there, CAREFULLY stay there. Don’t let your emotions overtake your decision-making.

I hope you enjoy the Valentine’s Day special episode! Enjoy your project! It might be challenging, “dangerous”, but very fulfilling. Cheers!