Most clients appreciate being part of most everything on the project. Some even want to be in complete control. It can be both helpful and frustrating for the project manager and team. Helpful because you need quick access to the client for information and decision-making. Frustrating because the oversight can at times be almost suffocating.

However, every once in a while, you may run into one of those project customers who really wants nothing to do with the project. And I don’t mean hard to get in touch with. No, I mean they are impossible to reach. They aren’t attending project status calls. They don’t respond to emails. They don’t return phone calls. It’s not so bad if they are next door…but that’s rarely the case – especially with the technical projects we manage. We may be doing work for a client who is 10,000 miles away. If they don’t respond, they don’t respond. What do you do?

The bad part about it is, you go to the status call, get your entire team in the room – or on the phone – and you sit and wait every single week for the beep indicating that they’ve joined the call. You waste a few minutes chatting with the team about personal lives, etc., but eventually you realize that once again the customer is not going to join and so you spend 10-15 minutes going over – just with your own team – the project status report and the project schedule. That’s still important information to cover and something may have changed since you last met with them during an internal team meeting…which for me almost always would have been only 1-2 days before this call we’re sitting on now. It can get very frustrating.

Has this ever happened to you? I know it sounds extreme, but it can happen and it does happen…and it feels like you’re performing on a project in free form and no one cares about what you’re doing or what’s going on with the project schedule. Sort of like running a race with no competition…no one to push you to excel and no real feedback to see how you’re doing unless you’re watching the track clock.

The key is to somehow get the customer re-engaged. There’s no guarantee you can do it, but there are a few creative steps you can try that may make it happen.

Make a crisis. Create a crisis. It doesn’t have to be a real crisis, but make it sound like one (unless you do, indeed, have a crisis to present). The hope is that the urgent nature of your correspondence will light a fire under this person or person(s) to get re-engaged on the project and show up at meetings. Bring up budget concerns, possible key risks you’re concerned about, or maybe some issues that need to be addressed that could possibly significantly impact the project schedule.

Call a face to face. Reach out urgently and request a face to face. They may not be responding to you, but it’s likely that they are getting your messages. And if you urgently request a face to face – even if it means one or both parties have to get on a plane to do it – then it’s worth it and it should get their attention. And the urgency is really there – even if there are no major issues. Why? Because if they’ve been out of touch long enough then you absolutely must get together to make sure everyone is still on the same page. So state that you’re packing up your team and coming to their site for a two-day gathering. That should get their attention. If not, then….

Go to the CEO. You always hate to go over someone’s head, but sometimes you have no choice. Someone, somewhere in the organization, actually did want this project. You would think that the project sponsor or someone closely related to that individual would care enough to step forward, but when this hasn’t happened for some time and you have possibly some decisions that need to be made, or you’re at some sort of crossroads on the project, then you have no choice. You must go higher up. And why cut corners, just go to the CEO. At this point it’s either the project sponsor’s job or your head…better to let it be their job at stake because you need your head and you’ve been diligently working on the project. Go to the CEO and express your concerns.

Summary / call for input

The freedom to run the project without a project customer looking over your shoulder may sound like a dream come true. But when you actually need something from that project client…information, clarification a business process or requirement explained, or an on-the-spot decision, then it can be very frustrating and possibly even a show-stopper for the project. Keeping the customer engaged is the key to avoiding these situations and maintaining forward progress on the project.