Whether it was a project deadline missed, an IT requirement misunderstood, or just general miscues and confusion, IT and end business user relationships can get off track. When the situation becomes severe, both sides can be headed toward a broken relationship. The good news is that most of these relationships can be repaired if the right kind of effort is invested. If you’re faced with mending a broken relationship with an end business user, these 10 tips can help.

1: Break the ice

Whenever there is a standoff between two parties, neither one is naturally inclined to make the first move — which is to reestablish communications. Take the lead and do it. Most of the time, the other party is hoping you will. They’ll be more than happy to reengage communications because a situation where no one is talking to anyone can be unbearable on all sides. It’s also extremely unproductive for the business.

2: Listen

You will likely initially receive criticism from end users when you reengage communications. When this happens, it’s important to listen. What are they really saying? Do they think a project went badly or are they really venting because they didn’t really feel they had an opportunity to participate in its design and development?

3: Collaborate

Actively reengaging end users in building and testing a project is a great way to achieve new project collaboration and to dislodge old feelings of anger or distrust. But there are also steps you can take to forge new bonds with end users, like organizing a joint lunch with users and IT or even scheduling a working lunch where everyone gets together and rolls up their sleeves for some project work.

4: Have the end user assume an active role in defining requirements and testing

All too often, IT tends to meet with end users and then go off on its own to develop a project requirements document. The best strategy to ensure collaboration and a constant alignment of expectations is to put the end user into the role of leading project requirements definition — at least from the business side. The end user should remain involved throughout the project, from early prototype testing through final acceptance testing before the project is placed in production. If you’re dealing with end users who felt disenfranchised from the project, plugging them into a meaningful project role can go far to change the culture.

5: Put a user-friendly IT person in front of the user

Historically, IT has been more of a task-oriented than a people-oriented discipline. But some IT’ers have great people skills, and they know how to bring out the best in people and in work. If you have an angry or a disgruntled end user, you might want to team that person with an IT representative who has strong people skills and an equally strong commitment to service.

6: Empathize with the business pain points the end user is experiencing

Putting yourself in the end user’s shoes is a good way to start patching things up. It might not be a big deal for IT to compose some kind of error message that reads like Java code and is readily recognizable to a programmer — but it’s a big deal for an end user who just wants to see plain English and whose work is stopped by the error. Similarly, if you’re in IT and you’re working on a system problem, it’s better to periodically let users know how things are progressing, instead of allowing their anxiety to build up without hearing anything. If poor communications is the original source of a relationship breakdown, even doing something little like calling to update an end user on a problem issue can go a long way toward mending the fences.

7: Be honest and direct about project status

No one likes bad news, but if a project’s behind, it’s better to level with the end users and tell them how the project is really going than to avoid them or to represent project status in half truths. I saw this done early in my career by a midlevel IT manager. He ended up losing control of the project and he lost his own job and his boss’s job in the process. All were victims of extreme end user ire — not so much because the project hadn’t gone well, but because users hadn’t been kept informed of its true status so they could make contingency plans. If you’ve got a struggling project on your hands, you can avoid scenarios like this if you keep people informed so that there are no surprises in store.

8: Avoid being controlling

IT is a control-oriented discipline, so it’s second nature for many IT’ers to take charge in projects. Overall, this is a valuable trait. But it can work against you if you become so control-oriented that you start dictating to end users what they should and shouldn’t have from a system. In today’s workplace, extreme control orientations aren’t well received, and IT’ers who succeed best in getting end user relationships back on track understand this. They are open to new ideas for systems (including those ideas that come from end users), and they approach each interaction with an end user as an open and collaborative dialogue.

9: Provide excellent service

If you provide excellent IT service, you will stand out from the crowd because end user expectations of service from IT are low. In fact, it is not only end users but the customers of end users who hear the eternal complaint about IT service: “I wish I could help, you, sir, but our system is down now, and I don’t when IT will get it fixed.” Poor service and sluggish responsiveness from IT over time develops a slow burn in end users, and it can quickly flare into anger if a system problem (or other) event sets it off. This is also why just turning around service, even if your projects aren’t getting done any faster, can dissipate feelings of disappointment or anger.

10: Know when you are licked!

Most of us who have worked in IT can recall at least one end user relationship that we couldn’t fix, because the mental and emotional channels just weren’t open. When you see this, the best thing to do is to try to set up working relationships with others so you can minimize your dealings with the individual and you can still get your work done. If you can’t avoid working with the person, make sure that your communications are open, direct and specific — and do your best to put as much of the project you are working on in the hands of a collaborative team that combines the talents of both end users and IT. The good news is that you won’t encounter these individuals very often, because almost everyone, even if they are unhappy about an issue, wants to see relationships and projects succeed.

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Mending fences

Have you ever had to patch things up or finesse a shaky relationship between IT and end users? Share your experiences and suggestions with fellow TechRepublic members.