9 Topics to Discuss with the Customer at the Beginning of Every Project

We all know how important it is to start any significant effort on the right foot. This is particularly true for projects in which, as is often the case, either the project manager or the customer liaison (who I will refer to as the “customer”) are not the same people who negotiated and signed the contract. The very beginning of the project is the time for both parties to review the project documents together, make sure they both agree on what is to be done, and uncover and resolve any undocumented expectations that either party has. 

Managing Customer Expectations: 9 Topics to Discuss

By discussing the following nine issues, both parties contribute to starting the project on the right foot, and significantly increase the likelihood of successful project completion.


1. Critical Success Factors

Is it possible to complete a project on time, on budget, and within scope, yet still have an unsatisfied customer? Yes, this situation is possible, and, unfortunately, all too common. Why? Because the customer is measuring “success” by some other factors outside of time, budget, and scope. Perhaps it’s extremely important to the customer that end customers never experience an outage, or that “phase three must be completed before hurricane season begins in June,” or that “we must never get a noise complaint from the neighbors.” Determine these critical success factors by discussing with the customer the completion of this statement: “This project will be considered a complete success if, upon completion, __________”


2. Definition of Project Completion

This definition is often a matter of consolidating into one place a description or list of events and deliverables that complete this statement: “This project will be considered finished, and the customer may be sent the final bill, when ___________” Ideally this could simply state, “when all in-scope work has been completed.” But it’s helpful to actually spell out that in-scope work as a list of major tasks that have been completed, deliverables that have been provided, events that have taken place, sign-offs that have been received, etc. With this definition in place from the beginning of the project, it’s much easier to agree that the project is complete at the end.


3. In Scope, and Out of Scope

The contract will usually do a pretty good job of spelling out the work to be done, often in a section called “Statement of Work” or “Scope of Work,” and often abbreviated as “SOW.” Still, discuss what work will be done (i.e., what is “in scope”) and what work will not be done (what is “out of scope”). This discussion will often expose unwritten “expectations” from the customer that can be addressed now to avoid a disappointed customer at the end.


4. Customer Responsibilities

Along with the discussion of the work that is in scope and out of scope, it’s important to list the specific tasks the customer will be responsible for. Perhaps, for example, the customer is responsible for having permanent power delivered to the building by a specific date, or for identifying and providing two rack units of rack space by a particular date. If there is any in-scope work that depends on the customer having completed some prerequisite task, spell out and discuss those tasks.


5. Deliverables

Every deliverable listed in the SOW should be discussed at the beginning of the project. This discussion will lead to an understanding of the form each deliverable needs to take, and the manner in which each should be “delivered.” For example, the SOW may simply specify that the project will “document the new network configuration.” What form will this take? Is this a Word or Excel document? What detail will be included? Will the project manager simply turn over these documents, or does the customer expect a “walk through” or “presentation” of some kind?


6. Schedule

The customer always wants to know as soon as possible what will be happening when. Discuss the schedule now. In addition to discussing who will be doing what and when, be sure to discuss each point in the timeline where a task from the customer responsibilities discussion must be completed, each point where the customer will notice change, and each time where the customer will be otherwise impacted (service outages, for example).


7. Risks and Mitigation

The earlier discussion of critical success factors will help to identify what the customer considers the highest risks that need attention. A specific discussion of risks to the project will help to identify the big worries or concerns of the customer, and will highlight other ways the project can be adversely impacted. This discussion should then cover how each of these risks will be managed: either by taking early steps to avoid the risk altogether, by taking steps to reduce the impact of the risk if it does occur, or by having a “plan B” to follow if the risk occurs. This discussion provides the customer with confidence that the project is under control and in good hands.


8. Billing

The customer never wants to be surprised by an unexpected bill. Discuss how billing will work for the project. Will bills be sent monthly to cover time spent each month? Will bills be sent at the end of specified phases, at fixed amounts? Or will one bill for the entire project be sent at the conclusion of the project? As mentioned earlier, the customer may not be the same person who negotiated the contract, so it’s best to be clear and specific at the beginning of the project about how billing will work.


9. Project Change Management

The larger and longer duration of the project, the more likely customer requirements will change. Or the more likely that someone got some requirements wrong, or that something important was not addressed. It’s best for all parties if these issues are found and addressed very early, but the customer is concerned about his or her ability and flexibility to change during project execution if needed. To address and manage this fear, the project manager should discuss with the customer very early how the project change management process will work: how the customer will request changes, how the approval process will work, and how changes will be implemented. Make sure the customer understands that changes introduced in this way could impact the budget and the overall timeline. Also discuss the kinds of changes that cannot be addressed. For example, some contracts contain project tasks that are sold as a “package.” The customer may not be able to “line item veto” specific tasks.


Managing Expectations

A good discussion of these nine topics by the project manager and the customer are essential to managing expectations. This discussion will help ensure that all parties are working toward the same objectives, and will help reduce the likelihood of a major misunderstanding in the middle or at the end of the project.



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