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5 Types of Project Customer (And How To Manage Them)

project-customeraI prefer talking about customers than stakeholders, even if the people involved do work in the same company as me. It’s part of the way I deliver projects (or try to) and by adopting a customer-focused mentality then I think I’m more likely to focus on value rather than outputs.

Whether you choose to call them stakeholders, or go with customers like me, they come in all shapes and sizes. Here are five types of project customer that you may come across, along with some tips about how to manage them.

1. The Customer Who Won’t Commit

This is a stakeholder who frequently comes up with new requirements and submits changes. They might even use the official change management process, but more often than not they’ll expect that because they have mentioned it in an email or while you were both at the office coffee machine, that’s enough.

Trust me, it’s never enough.

Record and analyse all the changes that they propose and help them see the impact of changing their mind so often. They might still want all their changes to go ahead, but at least you’ll have a clear idea of how it is going to impact the schedule and budget and – most importantly – have those impacts approved so you aren’t trying to deliver more with the same money within the same time.

2. The Customer Who Is Too Busy

This stakeholder doesn’t reply to your emails. They don’t return your calls (or if they do, it’s at a time when they know that you aren’t going to be available to take the call and they leave the briefest of messages). They accept your meeting invites and then decline the night before.

They are busy. I get it. I’m busy too. But for projects that are important to me, and for work that pays the bills, I make the time. And I can’t help feeling that they should too. After all, why should my team and I be slogging away delivering something when the person who is ultimately going to benefit can’t find a moment to prioritise answering a query or making a decision?

The impact of a customer whom you can’t get hold of is that your project slows down. Without their input or sign off at critical times you can’t move forward. You shouldn’t expect your team to act in the absence of critical decisions so whole workstreams might come to a halt.

Leave messages for your customer to explain that. Make it easy for them to get back to you and let them know the impact of any delay. Ask your sponsor to get involved, assuming that the person causing the problem is not your sponsor. Ultimately, if they can’t give the project the time it requires, they should be nominating someone else to be the main point of contact for that team.

3. The Customer Who Micro-Manages

Micro-managing is another way to really slow down a project. It’s when you have to run every decision past your customer. They are the kind of stakeholder who wants to come to every project meeting, and because they have diary commitments like everyone else, you can’t meet as quickly as you would like.

I’ve even met stakeholders who insist on reviewing the technical spec even if they have no idea of what they are actually reading (I’m pretty sure that he wasn’t an IT developer in a previous job).

You’ll have to use your negotiation skills to make sure that you set boundaries you can both work to. Explain that there are certain things that you can get on with without needing their involvement. Talk about the kind of things where their input really does add value and be honest about how much their involvement in other areas is slowing you down. Make sure that they get project reports that are detailed enough for their needs.

You may still have to live with them micro-managing, and if they are paying you there isn’t a lot more you can do about it, but you should adjust your project schedule accordingly.

4. The Customer Who Doesn’t Know What He Wants

This type of stakeholder changes their mind frequently but not with clear requests: it’s all very woolly. This problem is most acute at the beginning of the project when you are trying to get started and are finding it almost impossible to pin down what you should do.

You may have clear objectives and a project vision, which is great, but the difficulty comes in trying to work out how to get there.

You need the help of a business analyst – someone who is an expert at eliciting business requirements. You should also plan enough time in the project initiation and planning phases to really work out exactly what is required, and if you can, build in some cost contingency because you’ll have scoped something incorrectly. When your customer can’t tell you what he or she wants, you aren’t going to be able to deliver that outcome. They need to know this, and what they are risking by being so vague.

5. The Customer Who Wants It Faster

Most project stakeholders want it faster. And why wouldn’t you? If you can deliver faster you’ll normally unlock the business benefits more quickly and get those savings/extra sales/lower staff turnover or whatever faster.

But it becomes a problem for you as a project manager when the customer doesn’t understand just how long things take, or refuses to believe you. For example, they ask you to cut the time for testing, when your estimating over the last 6 projects like this one show that you really do need the full month.

Be clear. Let them see the workings of the project. help them understand where your estimates hav come from. This is a situation that you can turn around, and if you have good stakeholder relationships you should be able to do so relatively easily with a few honest discussions. And be honest yourself too: how much padding is in those estimates? There might be a compromise to be had that involves making your contingency time and schedule buffers transparent and then moving dates up as you don’t use them.

Project customers generally are committed to the project and want to see it be a success. But from time to time in your career as a project manager you’ll come across stakeholders who aren’t as easy to work with. Great communication skills, time and patience are a good start in making sure those customers understand the project and everything that you are trying to do. Talking to them about the nature of project work can be a good way to open lines of communication. While it might take longer than you had hoped, the results will be better and you’ll build great ongoing relationships with your stakeholder community.

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin is a career project and programme manager with over a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services. She's also a content strategist, award-winning blogger and author of several books about project management. Find her online at A Girl's Guide to Project Management

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