I recently had some communications mixups with a customer. It reminded me how delicate, communications are between customers & vendors. What’s more they can be challenging between developers & managers. It highlighted for me these challenges, and the strategies I’ve learned over the years.
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While I didn’t lose the project, the initial misunderstandings continued to eclipse the project, long after they were cleared up.
1. First a missed conference call
Early on, we setup a call to discuss the challenges. The time of the conference call had been agreed to, but somehow it didn’t make it into my calendar. So when the appointed day & time came, i missed the call. This was before any contract was signed, or even the engagement had gotten started.
Needless to say this is a very delicate moment, as everything we do sets precedents about our personality and working style.
While we were able to reschedule, it added some initial strain to the relationship. As you’ll see that compounded more later.
2. Next arriving late to the kickoff meeting
I always pride myself on timeliness. I think it communicates all sorts of things to customers. First it shows you’re serious and will manage the project carefully. Next it shows you respect for others time.
As usual, I left plenty of extra time, so I would arrive well before the meeting. Arriving at the building 20 minutes early, I searched but could not find the entrance. Neither could google as it turns out. Strange I thought, what could be wrong? I walked into the building where the address should be, and asked the doorman. He explained that the company didn’t reside there. Perhaps they’re not located at Park Avenue, but rather Park Avenue South, he suggested. And then the lightbulb goes off. Of course!
Realizing I now have 5 minutes to arrive on time, I’m going to be late. So I attempt to call the manager leading the meeting. I get his voicemail, and leave a message. I then jump in a taxi, and head to the Park Avenue South address. Arriving 10 minutes late, I quickly head upstairs. I’m greeted by some grumbling, and frustrated looks.
Despite this being an understandable mistake, it comes on the heels of another mixup. So now I’ve set a precedent of lateness. Despite being a timely person, it’s hard to erase the stamp that is there now.
We continued to have strained relations through the engagement. While it did finish to completion, I believe it would have gotten extended were I not to have stumbled early on.
3. What can a mixup indicate?
There are many questions it may raise. Possible ones include:
o Is candidate too busy with other tasks?
o Is the person forgetful?
o Is one party bullying on their perspective?
o Is there finger pointing & blame game in the org?
o What is the culture of the organization?
o Is it one of understanding & working together or blame game?
o Is the person uninterested?
o Is the project not a priority?
o Is the company disorganized
o Is miscommunication endemic?
Some of these thoughts may bubble up consciously, and some may linger as a bad taste in your mouth. Regardless, they should be faced head on, with understanding and humility on both sides.
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4. The weight of first impressions
Inevitably, when there is a mixup, of lateness or missed meeting, there is a technical explanation. In my story above, the *reason* is Park Avenue and Park Avenue South are completely different addresses.
o First impressions are KEY
Even with a reasonable explanation, there is a reaction that is felt.
o There is a visceral emotional reaction we all have anyway
Such a reaction is easy to cause, but hard to patch up. It will take time, and multiple interactions to set a new impression to people.
o Reactions can be incorrect & irrational sometimes
o They can color further interactions
With time impressions can be adjusted, but it takes much more work after an initial mistake.
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5. Possible solutions
While there is no sure fire way to avoid mixups like these, there are some things that can work in your favor.
o maintain flexibility
That means accepting blame, and mutual responsibility in reaching the goal posts.
o maintain a sense of I *can* be wrong
Everyone can be wrong, and everyone makes mistakes. So don’t try to avoid blame. That said emphasize that everyone must work together. On communicating engagement details, on mutual agreed times, and time zones.
o look for a sense of we *can* be wrong
I think these types of mixups can also be beneficial. For they underscore the customers management style. Do they point fingers, or acknowledge reasonable mistakes. Both parties will make mistakes eventually, and understanding of this builds good faith down the road.
o “let’s work together to improve communication”
Framing the mixup as a shared problem is important. Although the address mixup above is technically my fault, it’s probably a common one. Park Avenue South confuses everyone in New York. So an understanding customer might offer to share a bit in this with you.
o hold frame of mutual responsibility and working together using the word “we”
The frame is key. It’s not *all* your fault, nor is it the customers if they mixup. We all need to be understanding, to a point.