Project customers come into engagements with a project concept, people to manage, and a million other things to do. Sometimes they know a lot about what they need to be accomplished on the project and are correct in their understandings and knowledge. And other times they have just enough information to get the project initiated, but it may not be the whole picture of the issue or issues at hand. Those are the times when they may sound as if they are certain they know what they need, what technology is needed, and what problems will be solved when they haven’t been able to really do enough preliminary investigation to fully understand what is happening in their own organization and what their end-users truly need.
That kind of project client needs major assistance from the delivery team and may even be difficult to redirect at times. Expectations will have to be reset and that may not be easy. Have you ever had a client like this? One who insists they have the proper perspective when really they may not? Did you comply even though you knew it probably wasn’t the right move? Did you confront them … redirect them toward the right path? Did you frustrate the customer or were they understanding?
Customers often don’t really like to be told they are wrong, or way off base, or haven’t thought things through very well. But PM work can sometimes be dirty work and it’s our job as the project managers to also manage the customer. Do the hard stuff. Reset expectations. Correct wrongful thinking. And to flat out tell the customer they are wrong. But how? Doing so may kill the project. It may reset the budget to something the client can’t afford. It may reset the project to a timeframe – with delays now built in to rework the requirements – that simply won’t work at all for the customer’s needs. What then?
While all those questions are valid, real-world concerns, my collective answer to each one is….”Who cares?” You have to do what’s best for the project, and the customer …even if they don’t think that’s what’s best. Even if pushing for the best means the customer gets frustrated and may start to decide to go another way, because doing the wrong thing for project clients is just that – the wrong thing. Here are four key steps that the project manager should take to avoid these situations or to handle them should they actually arise…
- Get the background from the client on how they gathered their information.
I feel it’s always best to start with an understanding of how the need came about. Was it an awareness that arose? Did they meet with end-users to discuss real needs? Who did they meet with (important because you’ll likely need to meet with those same individuals again plus others)? And what information did they gather about the need? Or was the proposed project something that was handed down as a new initiative by their senior management?
- Discuss their issue and proposed solutions with them in detail.
Now that you’ve covered how the information was gathered and the project was basically initiated, you can discuss, in detail with the client, what their perception of the project and the need is. This is where you find out how much detail they have in the requirements, what their understanding of the full need is, and you ask some tough questions to dig deeper to see if they’re asking you to fill the true need or attack just a symptom of the real need.
- Regroup separately with the delivery team to discuss the proposed project.
This is the step where you and your team – separate from the customer – review what you’ve learned so far and make sure you’re all in agreement. You must decide – are you being asked to attack the problem or a symptom? And if you find that the customer is off on their understanding of the real problem, then you and your team must come back to the customer in the next step with some new information on how the budget and timeline will be affected to go after what the real fix is. And make it convincing, because at this point very few project customers want to be told it is going to cost ‘x’ amount more than they have already budgeted for the effort.
- Reconnect with the client to discuss steps going forward.
If, after discussing the project and the needs with your team you all jointly decide that the client is on the right path, then everything is great. The few meetings you’ve just had were time well spent verifying that everyone is on the right path. However, if you find that the customer isn’t on the right path, requirements need to be reworked, and expectations reset, then now is the best time to do that. Rework later on won’t cost just a few thousand dollars – it could cost exponentially more.
The real bottom line here is we can’t always take our customers at face value on their true understanding of the project. If we do, and it’s wrong, we’ll still be the ones held accountable for implementing a solution that doesn’t meet the real need. Ask the tough questions, delay the start of the project a little if necessary, but do what you have to do to find the real project … because it may be buried under some misunderstandings on the customer side.
HighGear is an excellent task management and project management tool and can aid your team in making critical decisions through its very informative dashboard and reporting features. For more information about HighGear, please contact our sales team or request a demo.