Tips for Successful Project Delivery: Customer Engagement, Respect and Communication

What if a professional athlete set a standard where winning was not enough? Instead, they had to achieve a personal best or break a previous record year after year.

What if a new theme park opened on schedule, with no delays, and offered tickets to the first one million visitors to return at any time and bring up to 100 guests at no additional charge?

Welcome to my world. As an IT provider, I face the similar challenge: that is, delivering a project experience to customers that will not only achieve all project goals, but also blow them away.

I have delivered on hundreds of projects for customers in my career and I have seen projects go smoothly and poorly. I have seen projects end with both the customer and the provider feeling a sense of accomplishment, and I have seen projects drag on for months, even years and then dwindle out almost as if customer and provider conceded defeat for any of the following reasons:

  • lofty project goals
  • misjudged budgets
  • technology that couldn’t be wrangled in

Sound familiar to anyone? These are some of the reasons why PMI (pmi.org) reports that 89 percent of projects at high-performing organizations meet their original goals and business intent, compared with just 36 percent at low-performing organizations.

The Cost of Poor Performance

Those low-performing organizations also lose 12 times more money than high-performers.

My customers include professionals in all aspects of IT service delivery. Their business and IT needs are great because so much depends on the success of these projects-their budgets, their revenue goals, their own staffing decisions, their perceptions to upper management, and the perceptions of other customers.

But what many people don’t realize is the poorly performing projects hurt both customers and providers equally. Obviously the customer is frustrated and perhaps feels slighted in what they are getting versus what they are paying for. These kinds of projects severely impact the provider as well. The provider’s number one priority is to deliver on the scope of the project to the customer. That has to be the most important principle for a provider, held above all else, because a project that ends with an unsatisfied customer is a complete waste of everyone’s time. However, a very close second priority is delivering a project quickly and efficiently, even when there is no time pressure from the customer.

Long-running projects incur overhead in several forms. As projects run late, the provider may now have more concurrent active projects. Their engineers have to split their time and attention between two or more projects which can result in lower quality. The longer the project goes on, the more disconnected the team can become, momentum slips, and decisions made early on can start to be questioned. Changes in direction often delay the project even longer and more meetings are likely to occur. For a typical small project with just five resources, a two-month delay can easily incur 50 hours of additional time.

I have found that successful projects that avoid these pitfalls and end in mutual accomplishment always require both parties to be fully engaged and invested. Since the nature of project delivery is a client/merchant one, it is up to us as IT service providers to ensure that engagement happens and to drive mutual investment in the outcome.

Customer Engagement

First, let me expand on the benefits of customer’s remaining actively invested in their projects. When a customer signs a statement of work (SOW) for a project, they agree to pay some amount to have work done. Whenever money changes hands like this, a sense of entitlement on the customer’s part can sometimes emerge that often goes like this: “I did my part by paying you, now you go deliver on what I paid for”.

I want to be clear and say this is perfectly understandable and not completely unreasonable. However, as providers striving to fully deliver on customer needs and goals, we need the customer to remain engaged and part of the process. I call it everyone in the boat and the metaphor is interesting to me because you can think of it as the project team bringing the customer to the goals rather than bringing the goals to the customer. In the boat, the provider is the captain and crew of a private cruise liner and the customer is the pampered passenger with input on where the yacht goes.

In the end, however you conceptualize it, a customer that is engaged in a project is less likely to be critical of decisions made about direction and design and more likely to feel some ownership in the outcome. A customer who is part of the process is less likely to criticize than one who remains distant as an observer. In my experience, projects with high customer involvement always end smoothly with a sense of mutual accomplishment. They often build lasting business relationships between provider and customer.

Let’s examine some tactics to improve customer engagement and buy-in. The following two main methods get customers engaged in projects, help keep them engaged, and improve efficiency as you work.

Method 1: Build Trust and Respect Between Project Team and Customer at the Start

Building mutual respect is a key to smooth projects. Mutual respect means that decisions can be made about the project constructively and without dissent. There are several aspects to building a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.

First Impressions: The old cliché is true; there’s only one chance at a first impression. Moreover, a good first impression only lasts as long as you live up to it. The minute you falter, the good first impression is gone, so it is critical that you stay consistent in your positive interactions. Do your homework and make sure all project team members know the project inside and out and are ready to speak authoritatively on their parts before engaging the customer’s team.

Mutual Decision Making: Next opportunity for building trust and respect is the experience you bring the customer in mutual decision making. As the provider, it’s important to take the time to lead them through the decision process. Where there are no customer opinions, backfill with yours. When a customer has a strong opinion on a topic try to yield to their desires. When the customer desires are not aligned with your agenda (best practices or efficient execution) then you must engage them in dialogue. That dialogue must always be grounded in respect for the customer’s point of view and focused on a mutually beneficial resolution focused on the goal not the execution (the what, and not the how).

Respect for Time: While keeping the customer involved, we never want to waste their time. Guide them to focus their attention on the important parts of the project and not the mundane details. Customer’s should be engaged in decisions about whether or not to do something but not necessarily about how exactly to do that thing. Customer’s should be appraised of the how, but in more of a review format to build buy-in for execution.

Execution: One sure-fire way to lose respect of the customer is to fail to execute. Always do what you say will you do, when you say you will do it. As mentioned above, mess this up once and you’ve lost the game. For that reason, it is very important that you are realistic about what you say you will do and when you will do it. Set yourself up for this, you are in control of the expectation and the execution. If you have a perfect track record of execution, the customer won’t have a reason to question your plan.

Method 2: Communication

The what, when, and how of communication can really make a difference in projects. Separate customers will react in different ways to your communication methods. For example, one might prefer a regular status update in e-mail while another one expects to view a milestone report with a summary of weekly achievements.

Goals: The very first communication engagement should be about establishing project goals. This may or may not be adequately defined in the presales process so it’s the first opportunity to interact. If the goals have already been adequately defined, then the provider’s role here is to articulate these goals back to the customer to make sure customer and provider share the same vision of the goals. If they are not the same vision, or the goals have not been adequately defined, this engagement is the first opportunity for customer and provider to collaborate and build mutual trust/respect.

Level of Detail: Meaningful ongoing communication should be tailored to the individual customer. There is no right way to go about it. Too much can be a turnoff for customers and will result in them disconnecting, too little and they’re wondering if you’re making any progress at all. I personally like the more frequent informal contact with periodic formal updates. Keeping with respecting the customers time concept, the updates must be meaningful and relate back to their business needs, not related to gory details of execution. Consider a daily dashboard with a series of weekly reports.

Creativity vs. Execution:

Good project delivery creates a line between creativity (design) and execution (plan). Customers lose faith if you are months into a project and need to redesign some work item every week. Attempt to get all design details done and communicate about those design decisions up front. As a provider, walk through the whole execution conceptually and figure out all the questions that need answering first. Engage the customer in a high-level walkthrough of the project and derive answer to those questions. During the design stage, gather information and understanding from sessions with the customer but organize the designs into work plans away from them to save time (yours and theirs). Present and review for final approval. Once you both agree on all design elements, close the design discussion, and begin executing to a plan/timeline. For large projects, break this cycle up into chunks if appropriate.

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