Simple Techniques for Transforming Customer Conflict into Collaboration

by Rick Furino, Global Program Executive - Microsoft

Published on: 02/16/2017

Life presents us with an array of pleasurable and enjoyable pursuits, activities and opportunities.  We typically describe our personal endeavors in these terms but if we are fortunate, we get to do things in our professional career that can be similarly described.  However, we are all too often faced with not so pleasant or enjoyable situations that at the end of the day are just part of the job.  As much as we might like to avoid them, just like a hang-nail, they won’t go away until confronted.

Telling a customer something they do not want to hear or that you know they will vehemently disagree with, falls into this not-so-pleasant category.  As much as we try to avoid it, mitigate the need for it or try to pass it on to someone else, we must inevitably face it.  Not communicating these messages at the appropriate time and for the right reason just makes the situation worse.  So, given that it won’t go away, the challenge or “opportunity” is how to transform conflict into collaboration that yields positive results?  Like the saying goes “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. 

In this article, we will attempt to provide a few examples and maybe a little guidance on how this can be done.  A word of caution before we get started; each situation is different and the people we engage with are different so the approach you use must be adapted to the situation, audience and desired outcome.

With these caveats firmly in mind, we shall proceed.

The very first thing to understand is that the ability to disagree with a customer (or anyone for that matter) and have a positive outcome, actually starts long before the situation arises.  The foundation upon which conflicts are resolved is Trust.  Without it, disagreements are rarely resolved.  Building trust takes time, energy, sincere empathy and more than a little self-awareness. 

Conflict Collaboration ImageCustomers want to know that you:

  1. Are as passionate about their objectives as they are
  2. Understand what they are trying to accomplish
  3. Have the knowledge, experience, and desire to help achieve their priorities

We must recognize that by our very nature, people are going to disagree; at times vigorously.  Building affinity (and with it a high level of trust) with a customer takes time so the start of the project, when most everyone is full of high hopes and aspirations, is when the groundwork for effectively dealing with conflict begins.  If you are walking into a situation that is already volatile, the paramount priority must be to build trust quickly.  Whatever marks the beginning, is when this foundation must be laid.

For the sake of this article, we will assume that the groundwork (trust) has been established.  You may be thinking “that is like saying the way to become a millionaire is to start with a million dollars or the way to make a small fortune as a wine maker is to start with a large one”.  But nevertheless, that is our assumption going in.  This is our article so we make the rules.

Customer Encounters ImageWhen dealing with a conflict situation, it is critical to confront it immediately.  In doing so, our natural tendency is to walk in and start talking about what we think should be done.  That is actually the worst thing you can do.  Talking is only accretive to a situation when you have something relevant to say within the context. 

The only way to get context is by listening.  Yes, listen first, talk last.  To be blunt, no one cares what you have to say until they are convinced that you understand the situation from their point of view.

Following are two recent customer encounters that will serve to illustrate these key points (Listen, Talk, Resolve).

  • Encounter 1: mis-aligned expectations
  • Encounter 2: unrealistic demands

Encounter 1: Mis-aligned Expectation  

The CEO of a globally recognized company, where we were implementing a new business critical solution, asked for a meeting to express disappointment that we were not providing enough guidance on how they should run their business.  In his mind, we were the experts in our software, had implemented it around the world and should know how best to enable their business processes.  His expectation was that we would simply tell them how to change their business to adapt to our software, thereby saving time and cost and the chaotic process of understanding requirements.

During the first 20 minutes of the meeting he described his experience with other firms and his expectations of us.  During that time, we acknowledged his comments but did not respond or react to his message.  It was only after he felt he had adequately described his point of view, was it time for our response

The following is a summation of how we responded to his disappointment, excluding project specific details but highlighting those aspects of our response that transitioned the situation from conflict to collaboration.

Although our expertise is in our software and not in re-engineering your business, we do provide substantial value by doing what we do very well and not delving into the business process reengineering business wherein we do not have the requisite industry specific expertise.

The mission of our consulting and support services is to enable our customers to realize the full value of our products, thereby helping them transform their business.  We accomplish this mission by relentlessly adhering to the principle of “configure before customize”.  This approach retains overall architectural integrity, ensures access to evolving features and product capabilities and minimizes Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) by constraining custom-code that must be retrofitted, maintained, and modified as business demands and circumstances change.

We are currently deploying this approach with your team and have guided them to better leverage product features and away from customizations for over 70% of what had been perceived as functional gaps.  It would have been easy for us to not drive toward these changes but it would have increased the project’s cost and schedule.  Our focus on a product-based solution provides you with a better long-term solution while at the same time, helping to ensure your organization feels ownership of the results, thereby enhancing adoption and mitigating resistance to change.

At the end of this explanation, the CEO became much less concerned about business process re-engineering and was supportive of us continuing on our current path.  He now knew he could trust us to act in his best long-term interest.

Encounter 2: Unrealistic Demands

In this instance, we had just finished an analysis phase and, as is usually the case, the number of customizations increased significantly.  This of course had a corresponding impact on the schedule and cost. 

During the subsequent update to the CIO, he aggressively objected to the schedule and cost impacts and stated that he expected us to be committed to meeting the original date and budget and to do whatever it took to do so.  After listening to his objection and expectations, we responded as follows:

From your comments it is apparent that there are business drivers that make the original schedule a critical project objective and success factor over and above all other considerations.  However, the fact of the matter is that the scope has changed significantly and our first obligation and commitment to you is to tell you the truth of the situation so we can resolve it together.

There may be options that we can explore but this will require our teams to conduct a deep dive into resourcing, deployment strategies and process options to determine what can be done.  We should bring our teams together early next week to conduct this planning.

While our teams are conducting this detailed planning, you and I should meet 1:1 to discuss how we can stay more closely aligned in regards to priorities, risks and strategies.

In this event, it is important to note that:

  1. We delivered bad news as soon as it was known and did not back away or avoid the confrontation.
  2. The team met as agreed and developed a phased deployment and resourcing plan that aligned with business priorities.  It actually resulted in a deployment strategy that de-risked other elements of the project.
  3. We met 1:1 and had an open discussion regarding how we can better communicate, the relative strengths and weaknesses within our respective teams and agreed on a plan to address each.

To be honest, it does not always work out the way we would like.  At times the customer just wants what they want.  But unapologetically communicating the facts or truth of the matter is when Trust begins.   Having a solution or recommended course of action demonstrates capability and empathy necessary to earn that trust.

In both of these examples, the result was a strengthening of trust and recognition of commitment by all parties to a single objective.  It enhanced the “we are in this together” atmosphere we had briefly lost.  By confronting the issue as soon as it arose, we gave ourselves the opportunity to remediate the impact.  Avoiding the conflict does not make the issue go away but simply results in less time to resolve it. 

Communication Conflict CirclesAnyone who has been involved with projects, knows they are the breeding ground for conflicts because they involve people.  It’s our nature to have differences of opinion that sometimes rise to the level of conflict.  The higher the stakes, the more conflict that will arise due to mis-aligned priorities, objectives and expectations. It’s all about how the conflict is handled.

In reality, an absence of conflict is actually a red-flag that things are not happening as they should.  Its absence is an indicator that people are not engaged or are apathetic and a sure sign of pending failure.  But that is a topic for another time. 

I will close by relating an incident that happened several years ago when I had just taken over leadership for a global services business.  During a project review session with my leadership team, it came to light that we were going to be late with a key deliverable and the person responsible for that account asked “what do we tell the customer”?  My response was “how about we tell them the truth”.  There was silence in the room for a few moments until that same person said “can we do that”?  My response of course was “yes”. 

The story ends with the customer being disappointed but expressing their thanks for being forthright with the information and allowing them to adapt their plans to accommodate the delay.  This exchange also became the spring-board from which we completely transformed out internal organization, boosting morale, increasing customer satisfaction and doubling our business in two years.

The most important thing to remember is that when conflicts arise, confront them quickly and with integrity.  Doing so will transform conflict into collaboration.  It may even make work a bit more enjoyable.