Who is the project customer?

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Customer-Centric Project Management

This is an edited extract from my new book Customer-Centric Project Management, co-authored with Phil Peplow, which has just been released (Gower, 2012).

As any project manager will know, projects do not exist in a vacuum. They are created from the need to fulfil an organizational objective such as generating more revenue or improving brand awareness. Projects happen because someone – an individual or a committee – deems that this particular initiative will deliver some kind of business benefit. Typically, the person who stands to gain the most value from a project becomes the project sponsor. For example, the Sales Director would sponsor a project to install new customer management software, providing the sales team with more opportunities to cross-sell to the existing customer base. The sponsor receives the output from the project and wants to do something with it to achieve those organizational objectives.

Creating a successful project team involves ensuring excellent links between the ‘permanent’ project employees – those who work predominantly in a projectized way such as project managers and business analysts – and those who have joined a project team on a secondment basis as a subject matter expert or stakeholder. Project teams are made up of wide groups of diverse professionals, and ensuring that stakeholders are engaged in the project process is essential to the success of the project. Close working relationships with the project customer are important.

Introducing the project customer

Project customers are those stakeholders with a significant vested interest in the outcome of the project. This includes the project sponsor and any other executive providing resources for the project. It could also include those who will be the customer of the end product, for example, the Senior User in PRINCE2 terminology.

In many respects, it doesn’t really matter how you define customer, or how many customers your project has. What is important is that by shifting the terminology of the project team from ‘stakeholder’ to ‘customer’ the team starts thinking about the people involved as individuals who require a service from the project management team, as well as a deliverable at the end of the project. That is the mindset change for customer-centric project management.

The customer defines what ‘value’ means to them

This attitude change makes project managers more aware of how what they do delivers value for the project’s internal or external customer. Capturing value criteria is essential, and these should be directly related to what the customer feels is important. ‘Value’ means different things to different people so each of your customers will have a different interpretation of why and how they will get value from working with a project manager on this initiative.

Customer-centric project management captures these value criteria and aligns the goals of the project and the services of the project manager with the requirements and needs of the most important people on the project: the customers. Projects are done by people, for other people, and maintaining a two-way dialogue is essential to ensure that what is delivered is fit for purpose and meets the customers’ expectations, especially as value is a property that emerges over time and is context-dependant.

Taking a customer-centric approach to project management requires maintaining dialogue and understanding what is important to project stakeholders. They cannot be seen as a low-level annoyance factor; a group of people who submit change requests and make ‘unreasonable’ demands. Partnering with project customers should minimize the changes that the project manager considers unexpected and make the working relationship better.

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