Those of us who travel for a living have developed an extensive knowledge of the service industry around the world.  We have indeed experienced the various shades of customer service, much of which seems to be influenced by culture and leadership.  In fact, I suspect that many of us have developed a  schizophrenic stance of being both tolerant and intolerant of poor customer service and vendor responsiveness.  I suspect that this dual approach to these issues has to do, in great part, with the ability of the service provider to set expectations accurately.  Let me illustrate with an example.

A couple of years ago I was on a travel assignment for PMI in Rome, Italy.  After concluding the conference and my PMI business, my wife and I checked out of the hotel and headed to the airport for our return flight home.  When we got there, we discovered that our flight, which was scheduled to leave at 12PM, was delayed for 2 hours.  Naturally, we were annoyed but could do nothing as it was the only available flight on that day.  After waiting in the airport for 5 hours past the originally scheduled time, the ground crew announced that they were continuing to have problems and there was an additional delay.  We realized that throughout the entire time, the airline did not do a good job communicating with us.  On the contrary, they kept telling us that the flight was to leave any moment and that we should stay close.  They did an awful job setting our expectations.  As such, what started as a mild case of annoyance turned into a full case of anger against the airline.  The ground crew had themselves a crowd of 250 passengers and had no way of making the situation better.  There comes a point in every situation like this when the customer knows that they are in a no-win situation.  So, shortly after 5PM I told my wife that it was time to leave the airport.  We went straight to the counter and asked them to rebook us for the flight the following day and we headed back to the city to try to recover from a very frustrating experience.

Interestingly enough that night after we checked back into the hotel, we experienced another example of poor customer service, but amazingly the end result was very different.

As I mentioned, we checked into the hotel and were ready to get some dinner before we turned in for the evening.  The concierge had recommended an excellent restaurant which was within walking distance of the hotel.  Upon arriving at the restaurant we were promptly seated and presented with the menus.  We looked through them and decided on what we wanted but the waiter was not readily available to take our orders.  After 20 minutes of waiting followed by another frustrating experience of getting the orders mixed up, delivering the wrong drinks, and having a bad attitude I decided to complain to the manager.  The manager, who turned out to be the 3rd generation owner of the restaurant, was mortified.  He immediately took it upon himself to act as our waiter.  He fixed our drink order, took care of the food, and insisted on offering us complimentary desert.  When it was time for the bill, he refused to allow me to pay and stated that his reputation is dependent on referrals.  He was adamant that we left the restaurant happy otherwise he would risk us going back to the hotel and telling the concierge about our bad experience.  The ultimate result would have been devastating to him.

The points that I am trying to articulate here are basic concepts that also apply to project management.  The first is that the difference between the average manager and the great one is their ability to take over a bad situation and personally get involved to fix the situation.  This is simply about responsiveness, as is the case with the restaurant proprietor.  As an aside here, please don’t misunderstand what I am saying.  I am not asking that a project manager jump into the project to become a perform resource to fix issues.  On the contrary, I am asking that the PM step into a leader role and act proactively to resolve situations.

The second point deals with expectations.  So much of what causes failure in project manager, similar to my airline experience, has to do with improperly setting expectations.  The effective project manager must be able to lead the team in setting the proper expectations with stakeholders.  This process begins by helping stakeholders understand that all of their wants may not be reasonable and will not be delivered.  In addition, it includes helping them understand realistic time requirements for delivery.  The great project manager is a person who is able to shield his/her team from background noise to allow them room to deliver while simultaneously navigating the customer expectations waters to deliver the project successfully.

I started this post by highlighting the difference between situations where one might be willing to tolerate poor customer service and situations where one is not willing to do so.  Again, expectation setting is critical in this area.  Imagine you are staying in a hotel over the weekend.  If management posts a sign telling you that there will be no hot water between the hours of 3am and 5am you are likely willing to forgive its absence.  Compare that with a hotel that does not notify you, yet you wake up at 4:30am to get ready for your flight and realize that there is no hot water.

Expectation setting is indeed a critical success factor that project managers must work to master so that they can position themselves as invaluable leaders within the organization.