I went out to visit some customers recently. I learned, or should I say I relearned some basic tenets about dealing with customers. Our customers were concerned about the performance level they were receiving. We were concerned about the incremental work that we were doing that was not in scope that we were not getting paid for. With this kind of a build up, we were all expecting an interesting and potentially spirited meeting.
I was prepared to go into the meeting with a strong review of the contract and definition of the agreed scope. We wanted to make sure they understood our issues and concerns regarding our out of scope functions. It sounded like the right approach to me. It would provide the basis for our future discussions about who would do what going forward. It would provide all the basic groundwork for our positions and planned negotiations about how we would both go forward.
I am glad we didn’t conduct the meeting the way I was planning on doing it.
When we met the night before the meeting to go through the slides and plan our meeting strategy, the sales team was almost apoplectic when they saw the slides. I should say that they were not entirely against the content of the slides. They were against the order of the slides.
The sales team’s position was that the customer understood what the scope of the agreement was. The customer was unhappy with our performance regardless of what the scope of the agreement was. If we were to start off with reminding them of what we signed up to do – meaning worrying about our position, instead of worrying about what the customer was concerned about (our performance) we would have set up a significantly adversarial situation.
Let me repeat that. We wanted to address our issues before we addressed the customer’s issues. That is always a major mistake. I think we would have failed.
Fortunately, we didn’t do that. We changed the order and focus of our slides away from what we wanted to talk about (scope) to what the customer wanted to address (performance).
We started the meeting by going through the metrics, performance measurements and demographics of the types of functions we were performing for the customer. Robert McNamara in his book “The Fog of War” stated that the first thing you do was “get the data”. He was right. We got the data out in front of the customer first. We set the stage by telling them what we were doing for them.
We listed it out by function and quantity/effort. We also made sure to show our performance measurements, both the good and the bad. The customer was right (as usual). We were not meeting our performance commitments. However, the data showed that we were doing so much more than we (or they) had planned on us doing, there would have been no way for us to meet the performance targets.
The customer then understood the issues.
By approaching the contentious issues from the perspective of the customer, and providing the data on how we were trying to do measurably more that we were supposed to do for them, we were able to defuse the customer’s performance issues, while also delivering the message (indirectly) regarding our scope issues. We never even had to review the agreed scope.
The end result was that we were able to turn a contentious and possibly negative customer perception into a positive. By providing the data, both the good and the bad, we were able to set a stage that addressed both the customers and our needs for the meeting. We also ended up getting an up-scope commitment from the customer to cover the cost of the incremental work that we were doing.
I have to remember that customer first thing in the future.