How listening skills drive the best outcomes Teera Konakan

Program and project managers -- the front lines of business development -- need effective communication skills to lead their teams and serve their customers. A little training might go a long way.

In today's competitive environment, winning recompetes has become more critical than ever for program and project managers. Effective business development skills are vital, but most PMs receive no BD training.

In part one of this series, we discussed how relying on incumbency is no longer enough and that PMs must adopt a customer-focused approach, communicate effectively, understand root cause needs, and challenge internal stakeholder assumptions. This article will provide practical advice for PMs looking to improve their customer and stakeholder engagement skills.

Effective communication is critical for program and project managers to lead teams, coordinate efforts, and ensure project success. It also enables PMs to build strong relationships with customers and stakeholders, resulting in better collaboration and outcomes.

However, a GovLoop survey of 374 public sector professionals found that almost half of the respondents identified poor communication as their most significant barrier to completing government projects. In addition, the shift to virtual communication during the COVID pandemic has exacerbated communication challenges.

Despite the benefits of effective communication, PMs face challenges when communicating with customers and stakeholders that can impact relationships and performance. These challenges include:

  • Lack of communication: PMs may not communicate regularly with customers and stakeholders. This can often be perceived as avoidance by customers and stakeholders.
  • Poor communication: PMs may communicate in ways that are not clear, concise, or respectful. This leads to misunderstandings that often result in delays, cost overruns, or project failure.
  • Quality of intelligence: Another significant challenge for PMs is obtaining high-quality customer intelligence. Often, they ask superficial questions, leading to misinterpretation or false assumptions, which impact decision quality.

How to improve customer and stakeholder communication

Below are a few ways PMs can improve their communication:

  • Create a contact plan: A contact plan outlines a timeline of engagements and reasons/goals for meeting with customers and stakeholders.
  • Communicate regularly: Use the contact plan to facilitate regular communication. This helps with building customer and stakeholder trust and connection, and trust usually makes the customer more receptive to answering "discovery" questions.
  • Learn how to gather higher-quality intelligence: Success depends on a PM's ability to collect and validate customer and stakeholder intelligence. To achieve this, PMs must prioritize conversations and questions over capability briefings and solution presentations.

One effective method to use during customer and stakeholder meetings that will improve communication and intelligence quality is the Q.L.P. approach:

Question. Listen. Pause

Question, Listen, and Pause. This method involves asking short, open-ended questions, actively listening, and pausing before responding. Using Q.L.P., you allow the customer to be heard. It stops you from pushing quick-fix solutions and enables you to gain deeper insights and better understand the customer and stakeholder needs or challenges.

Questions are essential for engaging customers, building connections, understanding their needs, and controlling the conversation. Moreover, questions help clarify the stakes and impact of problems or opportunities for the customer.

Incumbents often think they know better than the customer. They usually underestimate the scope of changes in the rebid or overestimate customer loyalty and openness to share intelligence. Make it a priority for PMs to comfortably challenge internal assumptions early, even if it is uncomfortable. Find out what challenges the customer has faced and will be facing and what changes they want in the next contract.

Even though they have trusting relationships with the customer, PMs often don't get the high-quality intelligence they need to win. This occurs by asking the same superficial questions their competitors are asking. Most don't know how to get higher-quality intelligence about challenges, priorities, impacts, and drivers that are actionable and often game-changing.

Short questions get long answers.

Short questions get long answers, and long questions get short answers. Therefore, to understand customer and stakeholder needs, the PM must learn to use short, open-ended follow-up questions like "what," "why," and "how" to understand the reasoning behind the customer's answer. While this sounds like common sense, it's definitely not common practice, with most being eager to jump to discussing solutions or preferring to ask another question.

Nobody ever learned anything new when they were talking.

Listening is an often-overlooked emotional intelligence skill crucial for effective communication. People feel more connected when they believe the other person is listening. But PMs love to solve problems quickly, and as a result, they stop listening when they hear something they can help with and shift into problem-solving mode. To improve their listening skills, PMs must learn to listen without bias, distraction, or interruption.

Stop thinking while you listen.

Most people struggle with listening because they are preoccupied with their thoughts and insecurities. It is essential to focus on truly hearing the customer and not just hearing what they want to hear—not listening leads to missed opportunities, misunderstandings, and false assumptions, which can significantly impact the quality of opportunity and gate review decisions. Learn to silence any inner chatter and be fully present when meeting with customers and stakeholders.

Slow down for greater success

Pausing after a person responds to a question is crucial for effective communication. Pausing prevents interrupting the speaker, ensuring they can finish or elaborate on their answer, promoting a deeper conversation. Using a pause during a conversation can be difficult, as silence is uncomfortable for some people, but it's a skill, so the more it's practiced, the more comfortable they will be using it.

But aren't PMs too busy to attend training?

In today's competitive environment, retaining and growing existing contracts is more critical than ever. PMs are often pivotal in securing and maintaining these contracts. That's why exceptional engagement, communication, and BD skills are necessary for a PM's professional toolbox. However, PMs often rationalize not attending training for several reasons, such as time constraints, budget limitations, personal preference for developing technical rather than people skills, conflicting priorities, or needing to be billable 100% of their time!

Don't underestimate the value of investing in PM's BD skills. It's one of the most beneficial investments to improve customer intimacy, customer intelligence quality, stakeholder engagement, and recompete win rates. Equipping PMs with the BD training and communication skills they need to excel goes a long way in positioning your organization for recompete success.

Nic Coppings is Senior Partner at the Hi-Q Group and has over 20 years of experience in Government markets. Nic is also a passionate advocate for the use of human intelligence in BD and Capture Processes and has developed numerous training programs to help organizations improve their customer and stakeholder engagement skills. Follow Nic Coppings on LinkedIn for more insights.

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