Managing Customer Expectations: Customer Fears

Many of us have been the customer for a large project before. Perhaps for a home renovation. Perhaps for implementing a new system or installing new equipment at work. If these projects went well for you, you can probably recognize that the project manager made a significant effort to identify and manage your expectations. This led you to believe, throughout the life of the project, that things were under control. This eased your fears about the ultimate success of the project.

At other times, many of us have been the customer for projects that we constantly feared would fail. Many times, the customer’s expectations can be expressed as their set of fears. A good project manager will recognize that many of the customer’s expectations are based on these worries or fears, and will proactively manage these expectations to reduce the fear and give the customer confidence that the project is under control.

Here are six very common fears that often drive customer expectations, and the steps the project manager should take to address these fears and manage customer expectations.

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A good IT project manager will recognize that many of the customer’s expectations are based on these worries or fears, and will proactively manage these expectations to reduce the fear.

Fear: My Requirements Won’t Be Met

Another flavor of this fear might be, “nobody understands what I really need.” The project manager should manage this expectation by demonstrating a thorough understanding of the customer requirements, and show how each requirement is satisfied within the project plan. At the first meeting with the customer, the project manager should walk through requirements, item by item, with the customer. Then walk through the project plan, step by step, and show where and how each requirement will be met.


Fear: This Won’t Be Completed on Time.

Before meeting with the customer for the first time, the project manager should determine if the customer has any hard completion dates. Must this be completed before the end of the fiscal year? Or before the scheduled audit? Or before licenses expire on the old, legacy system? A hard completion date is a requirement. As the Project Manager walks the customer through the project plan, show how the timeline of the plan will meet the hard completion date requirement. Also discuss the tasks that the customer will be expected to perform, and how completion of these tasks affects the overall timeline. Finally, discuss how time has been built into the schedule to account for contingencies.


Fear: I’m Not Really Sure What This Is Going to Cost

The customer often has this fear when the contract is not fixed. Perhaps the contract cost was expressed as a “cost estimate,” but the customer will be billed for each hour spent. The project manager should take two steps to manage this fear. First, when walking the customer through the project plan, show the estimated cost of each step, and the estimated cumulative cost by the conclusion of each step. Second, report actual spend regularly to the customer and be extremely clear on whether the project is under budget, on budget, or over budget.


Fear: I Won’t Know What’s Going On

This fear is that someone is going to go away, work the project, and return some day in the future and declare it “done.” Address this fear by spelling out a thorough communications plan during the initial discussion, and then by executing that plan. Who will get what communications when? What form will that communication take — emails, phone calls, onsite visits? Make it very clear that the customer can reach out to the project manager at any time for more information or to discuss any issue.


Fear: I Will Not Be in Control

Or, “If I don’t understand what’s happening, or I don’t like what’s happening, what will I do?” In addition to executing a really robust communications plan, the project manager can manage this fear by showing the customer how the checks and balances will work in the project plan. Where are the points at which customer decisions will be required? Where and how will customer testing and acceptance work? Explain what control and flexibility the customer will have if the project is ever over time or over budget.


Fear: I Will Not Have the Flexibility to Change

The larger and longer duration the project, the more likely the 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
  • how changes will be implemented.

Make sure the customer understands that changes introduced in this way could very well 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.

Part of the project manager’s job especially when it comes to IT project management, is to be aware that customer expectations are often driven by fear. By addressing these fears, the project manager better manages customer expectations and helps ensure a successful project.


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