Clients and projects: irritant #12 of the employee experience

It was impossible to review the irritants of the employee experience without talking about what is central to any business, its raison d’être: customers and customer projects. Didn’t Theodore Levitt, economist and marketing professor, say that “the purpose of a company is to create and keep a customer“?

You don’t need to be a Nobel Prize winner in economics to understand that without a customer the company doesn’t get very far and doesn’t need employees. But without employees or with employees who are inadequate, poorly organized, poorly managed, poorly equipped, unmotivated or disengaged (or all of the above) if we can envisage “creating” the customer it will be complicated to achieve the second objective, which is to keep him.

The two are therefore inseparable even if a mental barrier continues to exist that intellectually separates the two. One is seen as an objective and the other as a constraint, one as an income and the other as a cost, etc. But whether you work in services or in commerce, whether the client is a person or a company, whether you have a working relationship with them that lasts for months or a business relationship that may only last a few minutes, if the two don’t work well or don’t work well together things just don’t work out.

It is accepted by all that, internally, a team that does not work well together is not a high-performing team. But at some point the customer and the employees form a team that will succeed or fail together.

This may seem pretty obvious to understand in the service world, so I won’t elaborate on it. But even when a person walks into a store, for 5 minutes and an hour they will form a team with the salesperson, one having a need and the other having to satisfy it. The quality of their exchange, the quality of their relationship, however short it may be, the energy that one will put into understanding and advising and the other into making himself understood will depend on whether or not something is done, whether or not a customer comes back. At the end, either both have won or both have lost (if we consider that if we succeed in selling anything, the client will not come back and therefore will not be “kept”).

Clients and projects are part of the employee experience

Since it is central to the company, one cannot take the client and the project (even if the project is internal and the client is internal) out of the employee experience equation. We can indeed assume that the customer is an external factor over which we have little or no power and therefore that in the worst case it must be suffered whatever the cost, but this is not a good approach.

When an employee or a team suffers a customer, it generally results in a level of quality and performance below expectations, lower revenues, employees increasingly demotivated and disengaged over time (if not worse) and in the end a rarely satisfied customer.

But we’re not going to lie to ourselves: a company doesn’t have as much control over its customers as it does over its internal staff, even though we’ve already seen companies “fire” customers and refuse to work with them. But that doesn’t mean that it has no way of making things go well for each other. By “go well” I don’t only mean relations and collaboration but above all results: one is satisfied with what he has, will come back and recommend the company, the other is satisfied with his work and both are happy with the way it happened.

When a bad business relationship undermines execution

Sometimes a relationship can be commercially strained, for good or bad reasons. That’s life. But what we must not lose sight of is that often the one who sells is not the one who executes afterwards. It may be legitimate to strain a commercial relationship, but one must always bear in mind that those who are in the daily execution are the ones who will bear some of the consequences. Sometimes the game is really worth it, sometimes not at all.

Same in a case of overselling. When one promises too much, the other is systematically taken in default and must keep untenable promises. Those who work in the service department of a software company often know this all too well, but they are not the only ones.

I also remember a service company where the salesman wanted to sell “at all costs”. He had sold a project to someone who wanted it to fail. The latter had been appointed responsible for a “Proof of Concept” on a subject while he was the defender of another solution that had not been retained by his management. He did not want it to work and the salesman had detected it but had sold it without telling his teams. The result: employees who did not understand why their work was constantly being criticized and questioned and, logically, why their manager blamed them for it. The result: a project that left scars and a team of motivated and talented employees who all resigned within 6 months.

However, in such circumstances the employee usually experiences the project very badly. Sometimes it is a necessary evil, sometimes not.

The problem of the mental wall between the internal and the external

Too often we see in companies a culture of “them and us” towards the customer. The problem is that a project is carried out by two, succeeds by two and fails by two.

Even if everyone’s role is to look after the interests of his or her own company, we must not forget that if we do not share the same employer, we share the same interest in a common project: to see it succeed.

In an ideal world there are not two project teams, one at the customer’s and one at the service provider’s, but one in which both employees work together. And the good news is that this is not wishful thinking. In teams that practice agility and practice it well, it is common to hear that “the client is part of the team”. And when the actions follow the words, it usually goes well.

Client’s lack of education

I am not talking about behavioural and polite problems that can be destructive for the employee and detrimental to the success of the project, although they are not prohibitive. After all, it’s all about courage and assuming one’s positions, even a certain ethic. We have already seen clients ask their provider to remove this or that person with whom things were going badly and the said provider generally does so without flinching, regardless of whether the request is motivated or not and whether the responsibility is on one side or the other. Rarer but much appreciated when this happens, I have already seen companies ask their client to “take out” a project manager or even a decision-maker from a project on the grounds that their attitude towards their employees was not acceptable.

But when I say education, I mean the way of doing things. Sometimes one has its own methodology, its own approach, the other its own, and when we start, each one goes his own way without listening to the other. And you end up with two irreconcilable teams, a bit like trying to get employees who don’t speak the same language to work together. Since the Babel Tower we all know how it ends.

I was talking about agility above, there are companies that train their clients in their work methods and project methods before they start so that everyone is on the same page. A little time invested at the beginning to gain a lot afterwards and a way to improve both the employee experience and the customer experience.

When competence rhymes with appetence

So of course when you assign someone to a task or a project you do it primarily based on their skills. On the other hand, it happens too often that we forget the appetence aspect.

With equal skills you can have two employees who are each interested in a particular sector of activity or each have a passion for a particular brand or company, for a particular type of activity or for a particular project. What happens if we put each of them on a project related to their field of predilection, to something they are passionate about, or, on the contrary, if we reverse the situation?

Here the client is not responsible for who he is nor for the nature of his project which is dictated by a business need. On the other hand, this does not prevent the client and the project from becoming a source of satisfaction, motivation and even pleasure for some employees and not for others.

Too many companies neglect this point and, moreover, do not even try to have sufficient knowledge of their employees to carry out this type of assignment. Sometimes motivating and pleasing people costs nothing more than a little attention and judgment.

Talking about management and project management again

But for a project to provide a satisfying experience, it is not only the customer who plays a role. The way a project goes depends just as much on the manager and the project leader. There is no point in the “implementers” operating in a true win-win spirit, getting along and collaborating at best if people at the above level make them live a nightmare. We have already talked about the impact of management here, but this also applies to project managers: their skills and interpersonal qualities can make a project a hell to live for both their own teams and those on the other side and, as an immediate consequence, a project failure independently of any other factor.

A decisive factor in the spread of remote work

Compared to many others my credo is that employee experience is about what happens when the employee is working and not only when he is at work. A small nuance that avoids cosmetic and peripheral measures that touch on everything but the essentials. And today, without yet knowing to what extent the lessons learned from containment will or will not change the face of work, we can still predict that work will take place more at a distance than in the past.

When we enter into a logic of remote work and the more remote work concerns an important part of the working time, the more the tie with the company becomes distended. The company becomes an increasingly abstract and distant entity, no matter what we say, no matter what we do about it. The employee’s commitment will therefore be triggered on two levels: the people with whom he or she works on a daily basis and the projects on which he or she is working.

In such a context most of the employee experience will depend on what he will experience in the projects on a daily basis and less on his life in the company in general.

The experience with clients and projects, a very expensive subject

The subject of clients and projects is the last irritant I deal with but it is far from being the least. It depends of course on the level of complication of the company, the efficiency of its processes, the quality of its tools, the quality of its management, and all the factors we have just mentioned here.

The cost of a bad experience in this area is easy to estimate when you see the consequences:

  • Projects that go wrong: over budget, over time, targets not met.
  • Unsatisfied customers.
  • Disengaged and demotivated employees.

It is always said that an employee joins a company and leaves a manager. We can also add that he often leaves because of a client or a project he has had a bad experience with.

Photo : project meeting by GaudiLab via shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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