I've been there. I had one client who said they didn't like me. My tech lead said, “You don't even know Brad.” Their response? “We are paying $150 / hour (my company's charge rate at the time for a PM on a project) and we have a limited budget.”
What did I do? I decreased the visibility of my role, cut my travel out of deliverables and onsite meetings and made them feel a whole lot more comfortable. I could still manage the project effectively and they saved money in the process. Then they loved me, and we finished the project under budget and with a nice high profit margin. Win-win.
So, I'm not so much looking at this from the angle of us not liking the client, but rather the relationship just not being A+. Perhaps they are very difficult, and you just don't like them. Whatever the case... how do you go forward, manage the project, team and customer effectively and eventually deliver a winning project? Let's look at some steps or ideas on how to get there...
Go through the motions. This sounds bad, but it's true. In this scenario you basically put your head down and run-on auto pilot using the best practices knowledge you've gained through years of experience and keep your eye on the prize of a successful project delivery despite the adversity and consider it a huge win if you do. This doesn't mean you don't think and manage and be strategic. It means you go solo with your team as much as possible and involve the customer as little as possible. This goes against my overall feelings that customer participation is a huge part of the successful project equation. But if this gets you through it, it's better than any project confrontation if it helps avoid it.
Suck it up and be responsive. In this scenario, you put a smile on your face and put aside every difference you might have and pretend that the customer smells like roses... or just always picture them in their underwear... in a non-pervasive way. Sort of like they told you how to get through those first big presentations in your personal or professional life without fainting or wetting yourself. Remember that first college speech or whatever? Use that... you can make it!
Give some things away. You can take the high road, turn the other cheek, and kill them with niceness. You still will not like the customer, but they end up loving you and that's half the battle. Give something or several things away for free knowing you probably end up winning in the end because of it. They (the customer) become more cooperative - if that was a problem – you get past some issues and get things accomplished. You do not have to give away a lot, but make sure it is known that it is being given away. There is nothing worse than suffering through a project – giving things away to make better things happen – only to keep the pain and suffering going because they don't realize they are receiving a “gift.” The gift giver usually should not brag or boast or point this out – but in this case you need to in some not too subtle way, so you don't keep pulling your hair out.
Never forget to rely on your support team. Finally, never forget to rely on your team. They are not the problem, and you must take the blinders off and managing the whole big picture, not just your frustrating situation with the client. Otherwise, you'll end up taking it back to your wife and if she has to listen to it for too long she might kill you in your sleep! I've been there. Seriously, though... your team is assembled with pros who have felt this way themselves. If they say they haven't ever – then they are probably lying. So, rely on them to keep you from getting too aggressive with the customer – let them step in when needed and take the lead so you don't have to show frustration and can keep your game face on throughout the engagement. After all, the customer isn't likely to feel too comfortable with a PM that basically wants to smack them every time they talk. You can think it, but do not let it show and hide behind your project team when necessary to make it through. They are your 10 step support group.
Summary / call for input
So there you have it. My opinions and steps and thoughts on how to make it work when you and the client – for whatever reason – are not really the best of friends. It can make for a long 3 months, or 6 months, or even 2 years depending on how long the engagement lasts... but just because you do not like each other doesn't mean you can't win on the project. If that were the case none of us would have very many Facebook friends from our high school days. And now some of those are the most fun Facebook friends to have, right? And now you get along!
Readers – what are your thoughts? Have you ever had those strained project relations that you have had to punch your way through and basically grin and bear it till the end no matter how the yucky customer treated you or no matter how much you didn't like them? Life is not just always coming up roses and it can be hard. Managing projects is nearly always hard, not always fun, and sometimes it can be a nightmare. But there is usually a light at the end of the tunnel. Even a marathon ends after 26.2 miles even though you are sure you will fall dead first!