I’ve discussed the effective listening issue previously. In order to avoid miscommunication, misunderstanding, and heading down the wrong path with something, it is imperative that we listen carefully to our team members and to our customer. We know this…and we all try hard to practice this.

So let’s examine things that our customer says or does and try to figure out what they’re really trying to tell us.

What the Customer Says

Have you ever been told by your customer that “that’s not what Sales told us”? Or have you been told by your customer that they needed Phase 3 implemented in place of Phase 2 and Phase 2 pushed out to the Phase 3 timeframe? Have they ever said, we’re still gathering our internal requirements from our SMEs and we’ll fine-tune things as we go along?

What They Really Mean

I have heard each of these things and other similar requests and pieces of information from my customers at one time or another. They are telling you something. Deep down, the customer is telling you indirectly that they’re ill-prepared to start this engagement and therefore risk and issue assessment better be a top priority because you’re going to have a few of them to deal with.

A customer who didn’t iron things out well with Sales isn’t truly ready to start. If possible, you – as the PM – need to step back, have another Sales-to-Professional Services handoff meeting and postpone the start of the project long enough to figure out what you’re walking into.

A customer who hasn’t mapped out their needs, requirements, and business processes well enough for a multi million dollar enterprise-wide implementation to know what phase needs to be implemented when is clearly not fully prepared. Yes, things can change on their end of the business that can switch their priorities around slightly, but for some of these large implementations we’re all dealing with clients who have spent considerable time preparing and acquiring funding. Major changes like switching phases around – which can have major project, budget, and personnel implications – should not be taking place at that late date.

And certainly a customer who is still fine-tuning their requirements while meeting with you to document functional requirements clearly wasn’t ready to get started. Again, this is an example where it is best to halt the project, send the customer back to perform further work on requirements, and then proceed.

Point of View

Now clearly I’m writing this from the Project Manager’s standpoint and what’s best for the delivery team and what’s best for the overall success of the project. I’m not writing this from a customer satisfaction standpoint, or from the standpoint of your organization’s bottom line or the executive management viewpoint. I’m fully aware that most of the time your management is not going to support the notion of pulling the plug on the project to give the customer more time to prepare – especially if that is not a request coming from your customer.

How We Have to Respond

So, how do we make this work? Well, since we’re all Supermen and Superwomen in Professional Services organizations, we just DO make it work. But seriously, we put our heads down and push forward with the customer to fully define what it is they need. Additional requirements definition, switching phases around, more training, etc. etc. Whatever they need, we try to accommodate.

We still need to pay attention to the timeline and budget and identify where change orders are needed and present those to the customer. But when we’re flexing for the customer, those things that require more time or money are easier to push through with the customer anyway.