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A strategy for better project communications.

How do you overcome poor customer relations through communications?

It can't be done alone in the absence of a good product, but good communications can give the company an edge in client faith that will bring in business.

In one company that developed and customized sophisticated computer software for human resource professionals, the problem of the quality of the product was worsened by the lack of good communications.

Over the two to three months that the project was supposed to last, the client rarely saw the project manager after the initial specifications meeting; was never informed well-enough in advance of any delays, often being told the day of a planned installation that there would be a further wait for a couple of days; and found it almost impossible to contact the project manager by phone.

After the systems were installed, service seemed worse. Errors in the system were rarely acknowledged, system "updates" were simply sent out by mail to the client with few if any instructions on installing them, and the problem of getting in touch with the project manager became worse, as the manager was no longer responsible for the project after installation.

The company recognized a loss of faith by its existing clients, and the real possibility of loss of business through poor references.

In addition to improving the quality of the systems dramatically, the company's senior executives met to hash out the real problem - communications.

They adopted a pro-active communications strategy built around three key elements.

First, they looked at the way the project was conducted, to identify "communications milestones" where the project manager could report meaningful progress to the client.

Then the project team met with the client to outline the step in the project, and determine additional reporting dates relevant to the client (for instance, just before a quarterly budget meeting or the annual recruiting campaign).

Second, the company made certain that the client could always reach the people working on the project directly.

This meant reorganizing the staff into project teams responsible for the project throughout its life, not just up to the point of delivery. It also meant ensuring that if the client could not reach the project manager or systems analyst when he called, he would be able to talk to the Vice-President or even the President. This tactic was named "First Call". A client should only have to make one phone call, and would know for certain that his request would be heard and acted on.

As an offshoot of this second step, the company defined and acted on a need to have its staff better trained in the understanding of legislative developments and general theory of its specific systems solutions. The idea was to make sure that each member of the project team could ensure the accuracy of the system being developed, as well as being able to answer questions and concerns in client meetings.

Third, the company revamped its lackluster newsletter to focus more on the client.

This included reprinting articles of relevance to human resource issues and staff-research reports on new developments in legislation and in the product. This improvement went hand-in-hand with the sponsorship of a "users group" which went beyond the usual "sales pitch" gatherings and held up senior managers for questions and criticism in open forum.

Everyone gained from these efforts. The client became more relaxed about the project through being better-informed by the team as it worked to completion. The project-team itself became less stressed by customer complaints, and more knowledgeable about its work. And business improved as existing clients gave better references to new prospects.

Steven Laird is a former benefits manager, now a partner with The CaJen Company, providing business and personal consulting services. He is presently working on benefits systems projects for a major international actuarial consulting firm.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Canadian Institute of Management
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Laird, Steven
Publication:Canadian Manager
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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