Better Off Said: Honest Communication Leads to Clarity


“We need an engineer on-site today.”

“Hello?” I said into my phone. “Um …Who am I speaking with?”

“You are the project manager for Important Customer’s AV project, right? It is nonoptional that we get an engineer on-site today.”

I was across the country at the office Halloween party receiving a call from the Eastern regional sales director. I had never spoken with him before, but he was clear in his demands.

I didn’t want to disappoint this high-level guy; I knew the situation he presented very well. I also knew I could not give him what he wanted — as I was taking this call while donning my magnificent (though awkward) spider costume. He could come through like a runaway train all he wanted; he was going to be met by the immovable rock of an unavailable engineer.

In her excellent book “The Good Fight,” author Liane Davey introduced me to the idea of “conflict debt.” She warns that if a person ignores conflict when it first arises, they have only postponed that confrontation for another time down the road.

I could have lied to my VIP or sugar-coated what I was able to do. But I knew what resources we had. I knew we didn’t have anybody standing by, and I had to be honest.

“We will not be able to do that today. The earliest will be later this week.”

He didn’t back down; I didn’t either. Even though I punched the wall after our conversation, I knew I’d said what needed to be said. Conflict paid in full.

Every project involves a series of compromises from the beginning. It is fine and good when those compromises are understood and tracked, but inevitably a new wrinkle appears. A new stakeholder will be discovered or an unexpected technological development arises.

Things often turn out differently than we hoped. When they do, I am tempted to sweep the disaster under the rug. What if we threw in an extra set of parts or had our guys stay over an extra two days? We’d never even have to tell the customer things had changed. What could we do to remediate? I’ve had to ask another job if I could swap their warehouse parts for my still-being-shipped parts to keep a project on schedule. Scrambling is my first impulse, and I’ve learned to recognize and resist it. An honest reexamination is valid. Let’s get the team together to figure out what the options are.

Is it a design flaw? Can we adjust the design to get over the stoppage? Let’s get to the bottom of the issue and understand the options. As I talk it through with my team, I quell the scrambling impulse and bring focus on the situation and what can be done. It calms me down and puts me back in the driver’s seat. The whole point is to keep things moving.

Next, it’s time to let the customer know where things are. Early on in my career, I learned the customer and I are actually on the same side. Even if the customer is grumpy or unhappy, I am providing them with the service they need. I am their best hope to get the job done once it’s started. Almost any reasonable plan I present will be better than starting over, so the customer is motivated to work with me and my team to solve problems.

A quick statement of the facts comes first. In a conversation with a customer, I might say, “It turns out this part is not POE, and it does require an additional electrical outlet under the table. There is an alternative but, unlike the original, it is not 4K compatible. Let’s discuss what options work best for you. What are the preferred options for this conference room?”

I may have begun by feeling ashamed that something was missed, or that I had made a mistake. But shame doesn’t solve problems, only communication will.

Sometimes a customer might want to assign blame. That’s natural, and they may even be right. But if I come to the conversation prepared to redirect towards our next step, the customer will follow along sooner. Speaking plainly will steer the conversation away from blame and towards a solution.

These hard conversations come up during the course of a job. They could come from any direction: internally, from suppliers, customers, shipping providers or any stakeholder. I don’t like it, but the faster I deal with it, the sooner we get to that glorious completion.

Say it. Say it to everyone that needs to hear it. Speak the truth and shame the devil. The truth is better off said.