You know the scenario.  You sign up a client, have some initial discussions and are handed some high-level requirements for what it is the client wants you to lead or implement for them.  Now it’s time to meet with the end users and other subject matter experts (SMEs) to gain further insight into both the problem or issue that is to be resolved and what their actual needs are for the project.

And when you do this, the bottom drops out….

The big picture problem

The customer has brought you in, expects to spend ‘x’ dollars on ‘y’ number of hours to implement their planned solution and have it done by ‘z.’  Really, anytime the customer brings a consulting project manager in and tells them how much, how long, and what it will take, they’re usually setting themselves up for problems, tunnel vision, and potential failure.  As project managers, we all know the project or engagement has to start with realistic expectations and a draft schedule that you draw up and work from using a collaborative viewing tool such as Seavus’ Project Viewer or some similar PM tool, right?

Customers need to utilize the consultant in this case for discovery as well as solution implementation.  Fearing it will cost too much, they fail to see that it can also save them money as well.  An expert is an expert.  Bring the expert in for the right reasons and let them do their job.  That’s why they’re the expert and that’s why the customer needs them.

What went wrong?

The problem, you discover, is that your customer didn’t do enough leg work up front to understand or to truly analyze their current need and potential solution.  The experienced IT project manager knows this is often the case with customers.  The customer often comes into a project or consulting engagement with a partial understanding of their own issue and a preconceived notion of what the solution should be.  That is either based on what feedback they received from their own employees or from what technology they’ve heard about that might take care of their problem.

What we go back to is the question – is the customer always right?  The answer as we all know is ‘no.’  The next question is – should we ever tell the customer ‘no.’  That answer is ‘yes.’

Discover the problem

Once you start digging and analyzing the current ‘as is’ situation and the customer’s ‘to be’ planned scenario, and you discuss needs, issues, and frustrations with the actual end users and the various SMEs within the company (sometimes these are also the end users), you realize the real problem is different than the perceived problem.  Which usually means the solution is different as well.

Options arise – what do you do?

What can make this even more difficult is pricing and the overall workload?  As you analyze the customer’s real need further, a number of different scenarios may come to the surface and you’ll have to decide how to handle these.  And as you determine the best course of action you must always be conscious of how the customer is going to take the news as well as how the actions you end up taking will affect your professional reputation and your situation with this particular client going forward.

If you determine that the customer’s proposed solution is the correct action to take, then there really is no need for further discussion anyway.  Therefore, for the purpose of this article, we’ll assume the customer’s proposed solution is wrong and you now have to handle it with the customer based on what you’ve found during discovery.

Scenario 1 – The right solution will cost more / take more time

This particular scenario usually won’t sit very well with the customer.  It’s basically like bringing the customer a change order on a project.  Finding out they underestimated and that the real solution will cost more and take more time is bad news to them.  They will either question you and wonder if you have the expertise to really know what they need, or they’ll appreciate the fact that you discovered this early on before additional time and money was wasted.

Be sure to back up your proposed solution with detailed findings from your discovery, and a very professionally laid out quote and project timeline for the customer.  The more information you can give them about why your findings are different from theirs, the more likely they are to trust your expertise and move forward with your proposed solution.

Scenario 2 - The right solution will cost less / take less time

This is a difficult one.  On the one hand, it will make the customer happy and if the savings are significant they’re not likely to question you too much as long as what you present makes sense and has data to back it up.  On the other hand, you lose money and guaranteed work with this scenario.  But it’s a call you have to make.

The greedy route of knowing this is the scenario yet proceeding to implement the customer’s proposed solution just so you’re guaranteed more money and more billable time is the wrong route to take and can permanently damage your reputation.  If the project goes well, you’ve potentially gained a client for life and a long-term revenue stream.

The right solution will take less time

Scenario 3 – The customer won’t consider any other solutions

This scenario puts you in a dilemma.  Many customers are stubborn enough to say “this is our budget and this is what we’re going to do whether you like it or not and whether you accept the job or not.”

You could throw up your arms and say “ok, let’s do it.”  However, if it fails like you anticipate it will, the customer may still blame you because they’ll need a scapegoat and ultimately they brought you in to run the project.

You could refuse to do the work based on your knowledge that the customer’s proposed solution won’t solve their need and is basically a waste of time and money.  What that will get you is empty pockets and a reputation with this company that will probably mean you’ll never hear from them again.