As a project manager, effective communication is crucial to the success of your projects.
We’ve talked about it before, but I’ll say it again: communicating is 90% of project management.
You’ll spend most days collecting information from your team and communicating it to your client and senior leadership.
But, what do you do when faced with a situation where you don’t have an answer?
Well, there’s one magic phrase that can help you navigate difficult situations and maintain strong relationships with your clients:
“I’ll look into it and get back to you.”
Together we’ll look at how this powerfully simply phrase can be used effectively, and how to avoid potential pitfalls.
We’ll also explore some helpful tips on how to implement this advice in your project management practice this week.
The Benefits of “I’ll Look into It and Get Back to You”
It sounds too simple. Almost obvious. If I don’t know something, just tell the client I don’t know.
Maybe. But, if you’re new to project management, you may find it harder than you think to admit when you don’t know something.
I, personally, have a huge speculation problem. If I don’t know an answer, I try to guess.
Sometimes, you just want to demonstrate that you know your stuff.
But, what if its not an easy question? How do you handle a request for extra work that your team may not have time for? Or, the client is confused about what’s in the project scope?
One of the primary benefits of using the phrase “I’ll look into it and get back to you” is that it helps you avoid overcommitting to requests or agreeing to things right away in meetings.
As nice as it would be for clients and contractors to all be on the same page, time and time again you’ll be caught off guard by the requests some clients make.
Sometimes they want extra work for free (usually they’ll claim its in scope, or that you agreed to do it previously).
They could be focusing months ahead of where you are in the project, and you just don’t have all the details yet.
As a project manager, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to be accommodating by saying “yes” to everything. But, this can lead to scope creep and over-running your budget.
By letting your client know that you’ll look into their request, you give yourself time to consider the request, research potential solutions, and make a well-informed decision.
You can determine if, and to what degree, their request falls in your scope. If the work is out of scope, you could even throw some quick pricing together for them.
And promising to follow-up gives the client confidence that you’re not just brushing them off.
Importance of Following Up with Clients
The second half of “I’ll look into it and get back to you” is “[I’ll] get back to you”.
That’s a critical component. The promise for future follow-up is the difference between “I’m really busy right now” and “I’m really busy right now, but how about tomorrow?”
If the client has a made a modest request, your top priority should be to get them the information they desire. (Or the information they need to hear, even if its not what they want).
Saying “I’ll look into it and get back to you” emphasizes the importance of following up. It’s essential to close the loop on questions and concerns, as it shows clients that you take their input seriously and are committed to finding the best possible solution.
Too often, “I’ll look into it” is used to get out of a tough situation. And project managers sometimes use it with no intention of actually looking into it.
By adding a sneaky little “…and get back to you”, you demonstrate that you are taking the time to gather information to provide a well-considered response.
Simply put, following up on client requests is an essential part of building trust and maintaining strong relationships. Its just good project management.
Addressing Potential Criticisms
While I do think “I’ll look into it” is a magical phrase, too much of a good thing can have troubling consequences. You have to be careful how often you use the phrase, and the affect it has on others if you use it too much, or if you fail to follow-up in a timely manner.
Overusing the Phrase
A potential pitfall of using “I’ll look into it and get back to you” is overusing it.
If you consistently or exclusively defer questions, you may come across as unprepared or lacking knowledge about the project. It’s important to balance the use of this phrase with demonstrating your expertise and preparedness.
To avoid this issue, make sure you’re well-prepared for meetings and discussions. Familiarize yourself with the project scope, contract, and any relevant documentation. Review project documentation regularly.
If you know an answer absolutely, don’t be afraid to respond. Answer questions confidently when you can!
But, don’t be afraid to drop an “I’ll look into it and get back to you” when you genuinely need more time to gather information or consider a request.
Honestly, I will sometimes add an “I’ll look into it” even after I’ve answered a question.
For example, the client may ask if we’ll be done a task by the end of the week and I’ll respond “last I checked the schedule, we were still on track to finish by Friday, but I will look into it and get back to you!”
Then, I just check in with the crew to confirm what I previously affirmed, and I bring it back to the client.
Creating a Non-Collaborative Environment
Another potential pitfall of using “I’ll look into it and get back to you” is that it might create a non-collaborative environment.
If clients perceive that you are automatically deferring any requests or concerns, they may feel like their input is not valued.
However, this can be easily mitigated by being open, honest, and genuinely considering their requests.
You don’t want “I’ll look into it” to become synonymous with “I don’t want to discuss this, so please stop asking.”
Clients will make requests for information or changes to the scope and you have no choice but to reject such a request. But, it doesn’t hurt to genuinely explore your options before doing so.
Sometimes, in doing a little extra research, you’ll discover a clever solution to a problem.
To create a collaborative environment, ensure that you follow through on your commitments to look into their concerns and provide clear, well-thought-out responses. By doing this, you demonstrate your dedication to working together and finding the best solutions for the project.
Its really tough to come up with an interesting story about telling someone you’ll look into something and get back to them.
There have been times where, in the moment, a client asked about pricing on some extra work and my gut feeling was way less than what the calculated number turned out to be.
So, in those cases, I’m glad I chose to “look into it.” But those still aren’t very interesting stories.
Instead, I’ll tell a story about the kind of person who doesn’t “look into it.”
i know this for fact
When I first started in the construction industry, I worked with a superintendent I really admired. His name wasn’t Alex, but I’ll call him Alex for his privacy.
Alex had twenty-some years of construction experience and solid gold confidence. He always had an answer for everything.
With only a few months in the professional world under my belt, I was in awe of a man who seemingly knew everything.
When Alex would make a statement and the client would question him, he had a habit of saying “I know this for a fact!”
And, a lot of the time, he did know it for a fact. He knew a lot about the project.
But after a few more months, it started to seem statistically unlikely that one person could know so many things for certain.
Go and see for yourself
You see, something unfortunate can happen when you’re expected to be the expert all the time: you lie.
Little by little, it became clear that Alex was always “certain” of everything he said, even if he didn’t actually know it to be a fact.
In the beginning, his dishonesty was likely calculated and rare. He’d lie when the truth wasn’t verifiable.
But over time he became so sure of himself, that he’d just fabricate things because he thought it made him sound smart.
He’d quote specific sections of the building code by reference number. That is, until the client started bringing a copy of the code to meetings.
He’d cite specific completion dates in the schedule. That is, until the client hung the schedule on the wall.
It became more and more difficult for Alex to make unverifiable claims because the client came to meetings preparing to fact check.
If you’ve read my previous posts, you know I used to build wind turbines.
And, the thing about wind turbines is that they’re really easy to see.
Alex’s big mistake happened when the client was lambasting us for being behind schedule. We were supposed to have connected to blades to a particular turbine.
Alex, in a passionate outburst, expressed that the blades were installed. “You can go and see for yourself!”
I can see it from here
Except we didn’t need to go anywhere. The turbine in question was visible from the window of the meeting room. A slight turn of the head revealed to everyone in the room a tall, bladeless tower.
The client lost it. Not only was it clear that Alex would say anything to sound like a winner, they began to call into question every assertion Alex had made throughout the whole project.
Alex’s integrity and, by extension, our entire company’s integrity, was now up for debate.
The remainder of the project was strained. Nothing Alex, nor I, nor anyone I worked with said could be taken at face value.
What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and tell Alex to just “look into it.” “Get back to them.”
Additional Tips and Techniques
While “I’ll look into it and get back to you” is an essential phrase for project managers, it’s also crucial to develop other communication techniques and skills to manage projects effectively.
Here are a few more easy-to-implement tools and techniques that can help improve your project management communication:
Practice active listening when engaging with clients and team members.
If you’re not familiar with active listening, this means giving your full attention to the speaker, asking clarifying questions, and paraphrasing their statements to ensure you understand their concerns or requests.
We often spend the whole time a speaker is speaking deciding what to say next. I know I’m guilty of this. But try to focus on their words and the meaning behind them. Ask clarifying questions to get more detail when needed.
Active listening helps build trust and fosters a collaborative environment.
Transparency is key to building trust with clients and team members.
If you’ve worked around older generations, you may find a tendency toward secrecy.
In my last decade in the industry, I’ve found transparency (with some notable exceptions) is always a better policy.
If you’re transparent and honest with your clients, superiors, and coworkers, they’ll be more likely to trust your judgement and decision-making.
So, share project updates, challenges, and successes openly and frequently.
By keeping stakeholders informed, you help manage expectations and reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings or miscommunications.
Use Visual Aids
When presenting complex information or discussing project progress, consider using visual aids such as charts, diagrams, or slides.
Visual aids can help clarify points and make it easier for your audience to understand the information you’re presenting.
This can even be helpful during the “I’ll get back to you” stage. Tough information can be easier to share with an image.
I once had to explain to a general contractor why we were getting very little done on a large infrastructure project. Every time they’d suggest an area to work, I’d tell them who else was working in that area. Hearing me come back with rebuttal after rebuttal felt like we were just giving excuses.
So I drove out to site and took photos of all the areas we were supposed to be and I super-imposed the photos of all the other contractors onto a map of the project. Suddenly it was very clear what the issue was and the client was much more understanding.
Create an open environment where clients and team members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, concerns, and ideas.
Getting critiqued can be difficult. Especially if you’re someone who takes criticism personally.
But even if it hurts a little, getting honest feedback can help you grow as a project manager.
Regularly solicit feedback for your project and yourself and make it clear that you value the input of others.
This not only strengthens relationships but can also lead to valuable insights and improvements for the project.
Tailor Your Communication Style
Recognize that different stakeholders may have different communication preferences. We looked at this a bit in a previous post, and we’ll discuss communication styles in more detail in the future.
But, everyone communicates differently, and each communication method has benefits and drawbacks.
Some people may prefer detailed, written updates, while others may prefer concise, verbal summaries.
Adapt your communication style to suit the needs of your audience and ensure your message is effectively received.
Practical Tips: Applying This Advice in the Next Week
This may be on of the easiest tools to implement. The toughest part is remembering to say “I’ll look into it” when your instinct is to speculate on an answer.
Give these tips a try:
- Identify situations where the phrase is appropriate:
Be mindful of situations where you don’t have enough information to make an immediate decision or when clients make requests that seem outside of the project scope.
In these cases, it’s appropriate to use “I’ll look into it and get back to you.”
- Commit to a follow-up timeline:
When using the phrase, provide a specific time frame for when you’ll get back to the client. This shows that you take their concerns seriously and are committed to resolving the issue in a timely manner.
If some time has passed or your response deadline hits and you don’t have an answer yet, reach out to let them know. A quick check-in is better than days or weeks of silence.
- Develop a system for tracking requests:
To ensure you follow up on client requests, create a system for tracking them. This can be as simple as a spreadsheet or a project management tool where you can easily update the status of each request and set reminders for follow-up.
- Reflect on your communication style:
Consider how often you use the phrase and whether you might be overusing it. Balance the use of “I’ll look into it and get back to you” with demonstrating your knowledge and expertise in the project.
The phrase “I’ll look into it and get back to you” is a powerful communication tool for project managers.
It’s probably the phrase I use the most.
By using it appropriately, you can avoid overcommitting, ensure you follow up with clients, and maintain a collaborative working environment. Remember to balance the use of this phrase with demonstrating your expertise and preparedness, and always follow through on your commitments to look into concerns and provide clear, well-thought-out responses. By doing so, you’ll foster strong client relationships and enhance the overall success of your projects.