Question Your Project Customer

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Summary:
When leading technical projects, project managers and their teams know the task ahead can be a daunting one. So, when the customer comes with a desired solution mapped out and detailed requirements in hand, the first thing you want to do is move forward. That's your cue to start asking questions.

When leading technical projects, project managers and their teams know the task ahead can be a daunting one. So, when the customer comes with a desired solution all mapped out and detailed requirements in hand, the first thing you want to do is move forward. Your planning work, requirements gathering, and selection of a technical solution is all done for you. After all, it’s the customer’s money, so why argue, right? Wrong. No matter what the customer says he wants and how he wants it done, at the end of the day, if it doesn’t solve the customer’s true need, it will be your fault.

The Customer’s Perception
One of the first things the project manager and team must learn is to never take the customer's needs at face value. The project customer has hired you and your team as the experts to implement his solution. He may come in with a plan of his own: knowing what the problem is, wanting to use the latest and greatest technology, and thinking he has the requirements all mapped out for your team. The problem is that the customer may only be looking at a symptom of the true problem. How do you deal with that? How do you even identify if that is the case? In order to identify, verify, and move forward, there are three things you must do: ask the tough questions, map out detailed requirements, and document the right solution.

1. Ask the Tough Questions
The first thing you absolutely must do is ask your customer some tough questions. The customer came to you with what he thought was the real problem, so you risk offending him by questioning the project sponsor’s judgment. But, as uncomfortable as it is, it has to be done if you want to be certain that you and your team solve the real problem. Ask questions like:

  • What efforts have you undertaken to determine the real need or problem?
  • Have you surveyed your end-users to verify this need?
  • Have you mapped out your business processes to confirm this is a real project issue and not just a policy or procedure issue?
  • Does your senior management buy into this need? Do you have their backing and agreement?

User Comments

1 comment
Keith Collyer's picture
Keith Collyer

All the four tough questions are useful, and you would rightly be a bit concerned about asking them and maintaining a good relationship as they can appear aggressive. However, by phrasing them as "can you show me what you have done to...", you make things much more neutral and validate what the customer has already done.

I am a great proponent of detailed requirements, but be aware that many in the agile community regard this as anathema. There is absolutely no conflict between detailed requirements and agility - in a well-managed agile project, the requirements are captured and managed, just not all at the start of the project.

These first two points are all about the old chestnut "build the right system" - before you can do that, you have to know what the right system is.

March 6, 2012 - 8:20am

About the author

Brad  Egeland's picture Brad Egeland

Brad Egeland is an IT, project management, and business strategy consultant and author with more than twenty-five years of software development, management, and project management experience leading business and IT initiatives in nearly every industry imaginable.  He works with organizations of all sizes from startups to Fortune 500 leaders and has overseen the creation and execution of multiple PMOs. Brad is married, a father of nine, and lives in Las Vegas, NV. He can be reached at brad@bradegeland.com or you can visit his website at www.bradegeland.com.

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