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Years ago, I hired a soft-spoken project manager who would bend over backwards for customers. He was a customer advocate, born and bred.
He had many years of experience in managing website development projects, so I assigned him to a few of our more challenging and vocal clients, having full confidence that he would knock them out of the park.
One of the projects I handed off to him was a website for a local hotel. The project was progressing nicely. We’d started with the homepage because it’s like the shiny hood of a car, the first thing visitors see to get an impression from. He worked with our creative team to design the homepage based on input from the client, industry best practices, and the hotel’s existing brand. We reviewed the first draft together, and it looked great. So he scheduled a call to review it with the client.
I was in my office, working on another client’s project, when I looked out into the bullpen and saw the project manager step out from his desk and beeline to the exit. His face was red, and he looked flustered. I quickly got up and followed.
He was outside, pacing back and forth in front of the door. The watery eyes were a dead give away that he was upset. I asked him if he was okay and to tell me what happened.
He said that he was going through the design with the client, dutifully taking notes on her feedback, when out of nowhere she blew a gasket and started cursing at him. He said she didn’t like the colors, the pictures, or the content. I recalled that she’d provided the pictures and content, and he confirmed that she had. He said he tried calming her down by saying he would change them all, but she refused to relent and continued to attack him for the creative work and her perception that the project was a failure. I’d heard enough. I told him he’d done a fine job and apologized for having left him to deal with the personal attack. I said that this client’s behavior was unacceptable, and that I would call her on it.
I was already tensing up as I walked back to my office, mentally preparing for the call. Once the call connected, she picked right up where she had left off with the project manager. She started yelling and cursing. I quickly jumped in and told her that her behavior was unacceptable, and if she continued in this tone, I’d end the call. I really was ready to hang up, but she went silent. I explained that her outburst seriously upset the project manager and we would not tolerate her behavior. I said that sometimes companies don’t have good synergy, and if she felt we weren’t up to the task, we’d refund her money and let her exit the agreement, no penalties. In short, I was ready to fire her as a client.
That got through. She was silent again for a moment. Then she started apologizing. She explained some of the pressures she was under, and I sensed that this wasn’t the first time she’d berated someone. Though it may have been the first time someone had called her on it.
We left things on a good note, and I went out to update the project manager. He was relieved to hear that she was sorry for the outburst. I could see he got some of his confidence back, but mostly he was grateful for my support. From then on out, the client approved everything without a peep and actually referred another client to us.
It could have gone the other way. That we kept the client was a gift. But for me, the greatest gift was an important lesson about leadership. I couldn’t pawn difficult clients off on my team, hoping they would magically correct all wrongs and turn bad clients into good clients. I also needed to set client expectations early in the process, set the project up for success, and protect my team. Most importantly, I remember the look in my project manager’s eyes when I told him I’d call her. He’d seen how angry I was with her, and he knew I had his back. And that is the heartbeat of leading a team: having their backs when things go wrong. Because no piece of business is worth watching your team be abused.