Stakeholder stress? 3 tips from the customer front-line


For project managers under pressure to deliver results, the stress of having to deal with difficult stakeholders can become too much to cope with. The result can be a negative impact on the project team, on stakeholder cooperation, and on the project itself. Customer service teams have learned how to avoid customer problems undermining customer relationships. What tips can project managers pinch from the customer service front line?

Stakeholders: Fight or flight?

“When is it OK to ignore stakeholders?” This question was from a project manager during one of my recent workshops on stakeholder engagement. Whilst I wouldn’t advocate it, I can understand why turning a deaf ear to difficult stakeholders might be an appealing strategy for coping with stressful situations.

So, an interesting article on how to handle project stress caught my attention. The issue that the article addresses is how stress can build up to a tipping point where it affects a project manager’s relationships with their team and their stakeholders.

Stakeholders and their problems

When a project manager is under pressure to deliver, the added complication of something as standard as a change request can turn pressure into stress. And too much stress can affect our ability to think, communicate and collaborate. You might think that stress is a good thing, but it's a real problem that was highlighted at the recent APM Conference by cognitive neuroscientist Araceli Camargo.

Project-based work is about solving problems. But the underlying message is that project managers face a Catch22: the added stress of having to deal with fickle stakeholders can undermine the ability to do the one thing that’s needed – work together to find a solution.

When pressure turns to stress

Project managers are not alone in coping with stress. Training courses abound for managing stress in the workplace. I'm not an expert in this field but I am really interested in the impact that stress can have on our ability and willingness to engage with people. So I am indebted to the multiple sources on the Internet for information about this communication barrier.

“Pressure is a necessary part of getting things done. Stress is the negative result of excessive pressure.” (source: Cambridge Training).

A certain amount of pressure can improve your performance, according to this performance coach. “When you experience pressure you become more focused and can make better and faster decisions.” However, when juggling multiple demands and dealing with situations that require a variety of decisions and responses, the additional pressure becomes more difficult to cope with and you experience stress. “With stress, you lose control, calmness and composure. Your judgement becomes clouded and you start to make bad decisions.”

How leaders respond under high-pressure situations has a direct influence on the performance of the people the work with. In research into leadership performance, one out of three leaders were seen by their direct reports as someone who can’t talk or engage in dialogue when the stakes grow high. And when leaders can’t communicate effectively under stress, the people they need to work with are more likely to be frustrated and angry, and more likely to complain.

Not a good recipe for situations that require careful consideration, collaboration and cooperation. 

The customer is not always right

Stress is part-and-parcel of every customer service rep’s job. They have to deal with unreasonable customers virtually every day, and find solutions to problems that are usually not of their making, according to Customer Service Manager Magazine.

So how do customer service teams stay calm under pressure? The phrase “the customer is always right” has become a mantra in many organisations as a coping strategy ie. reducing the potential for conflict and therefore stress by giving people want they want. Ironically it can actually increase stress levels and lead to worse service

In fact, rather than bending over backwards for the customer in the hope that the problem will go away, customer service teams have found that putting the service rep in control of working out the best solution is more effective. Even when the answer is "No", behaviour that shows the customer that their request is being taken seriously can have a significant influence over the degree of cooperation between the two, and mutual satisfaction with the outcome.

Managing stakeholder relationships: 3 tips we can adopt from the customer front-line

What strategies can we learn from the customer service desk to avoid a stressful situation putting a strain on stakeholder relationships? Here are three tips that might help: 

1.    Respond and show consideration:

Instead of ignoring difficult stakeholders, seeking to engage someone who's got a problem can have a positive effect on their perceptions of the situation and the relationship you have with them going forward.

The airline industry is no stranger to customers complaining about service problems. But research has shown that even angry passengers with unreasonable demands can be transformed into satisfied customers. Inevitably there are changes that can’t be accommodated or problems that can’t be fixed such as a cancelled flight due to fog. Researchers found that the best approach to negative comments was to respond instead of ignoring them. Simply receiving a response — any response at all — increased the customer’s willingness to use the service again another time, even in cases where customers were aggrieved.

A mere acknowledgement of the stakeholder’s problem can defuse initial frustration, encourage them to feel that you are on their side, and put the relationship back on the road to cooperation.

Online discussion boards are another communications channel to add to the mix. They can support non-text communications, such as dra

2. Use positive language:

One of the key customer service skills that is often cited is the ability to influence others when things get a little hectic. Language and behaviour affects the way the customer feels about the service that’s being provided.

Customers reach out for support when they are stressed, confused and frustrated. Just like everyone else, their stress affects their ability to engage in productive dialogue. “If you deal with customers on a daily basis, positive language can greatly affect how the customer hears your response.”

"Splendid! Terrific! Fantastic!" - no, that not what I mean. I don't know about you, but the happy-smiley call-centre voice tends to wind me up even more. The point is that constructive language can lead to a constructive conversation. Trainers recommend reframing negative language. For example, a response of "That's going to be difficult" sets expectations that nothing is going to be done and the customer (stakeholder) stops listening. A more positive response might be "This is going to be interesting", which keeps people's attention by suggesting that there may be options forthcoming.

3. Address the problem:

Someone proactively trying to fix the problem is more important than empathy for a customer who thinks the world is about to end due to their current problem.

As customers and consumers, we are all becoming used to self-service and solving simple issue ourselves. Indeed, research has shown that across industries, 81percent of all customers attempt to take care of matters themselves before reaching out to a live representative. So a customer or stakeholder arriving with a problem or change request has probably already invested considerable time and effort in seeking a solution. What customers are looking for at this point is someone who can take the strain to develop an effective solution.

Reps who take control of the situation, who are willing to put the process to one side in order to get to a result faster, and who guide people towards a solution, are preferred to those who are good empathisers. The role of the customer service rep, or project manager, is not to lose their cool but to be capable of fixing the problem.

Whether your work involves customers or stakeholders, responsiveness and volunteered value can have a big influence on the attitude and perception of the other party, making it much easier to take the stress out of a difficult situation.Stakeholder


Fran Bodley-Scott

Fran is a business communications consultant specialising in customer and stakeholder relationship marketing. She started out in engineering and product development before moving into marketing and business development. Fran brings a blend of marketing experience, system thinking and creative design to client projects. She is a thought leader in applying marketing thinking inside the organisation and is passionate about improving business effectiveness and efficiency through relationship marketing.

If you are interested in talking with Fran about your project, please get in touch.