Is the customer really ready?

 A potential project customer comes to your organization with an implementation need. Your account manager works through the process of documenting some requirements, working up an estimate, puts together a generic resource plan, prepares a final proposal and price and then finalizes the contract. And usually this all happens before the project manager even gets involved – unfortunately.   But at this point in time – and often because the customer is the one with the need and with the money – you would expect that the customer is ready to get started. They understand their need, they know their requirements, and they know what level of involvement they’ll need to provide in order to get the work done. Right? Is this always true? Umm…no. In fact, it’s rarely true. In my years of project management in professional services organizations, it’s usually not the case.
So how do you know if your customer is really ready for the upcoming project? What are you looking for? This is critical because if it’s just not there – if you’re not seeing it – then you absolutely must go back to whatever project plan or schedule that the account manager put together and priced the project from and you must add in more planning which, of course, means more dollars. And this will be more change orders at the immediate start of the project…unfortunately. And that’s something that usually doesn’t make the customer very happy…so do it cautiously.
Here’s what I believe, from my experience, you need your customer to come to the table with to know that they are ready to progress through normal project planning on the upcoming engagement:
Subject matter experts (SMEs) for you to access. Unquestionably, you and your project team will need access to some end users and subject matter experts to answer questions, to work with during test prep time, etc. You’re going to have questions and the project sponsor won’t always be there to answer them. You need access to these customer experts. And these people need to be identified up front and need to be prepared to be adhoc members of the customer’s project team.
High-level requirements and business processes. If the customer comes to the table with no requirements planned and no business processes already mapped out is a huge red flag for you and your team. Certainly you should expect to help them to some degree with requirements – and it’s absolutely necessary for you to help them flesh out more detailed requirements in the planning phase – but when they come to the project with nothing it’s time to put on the brakes. The amount of time you’re going to then add back into the schedule to help them at least get to ground zero will be large. You’ll need to negotiate a large change order to handle this effort.
A project sponsor who will be your go-to person throughout the project. Dealing with several project stakeholders is just a way of life for the project manager. That’s fine – and one of those stakeholders may, indeed, be the project sponsor. But if not, there needs to be a primary counterpart on the customer’s side to you as the project sponsor. Someone you can go to to get things done on their side. Someone to enforce accountability and direct activity because there will be customer assignments.
The core project team in place. If you’re dealing solely with the project sponsor at the kickoff meeting, then your customer may be very unprepared for what’s coming. You don’t want too many individuals from the customer side involved at a kickoff meeting – things can get out of hand. But the customer needs to have a core team of their own to assist you and your team in putting more detail into the project, identifying issues and risks, and verifying the project schedule that you’re proposing.
That’s my list – I invite our readers to provide more signs from their experience as well because I know this is definitely not a comprehensive list of these signs. These are just a few of the things that I think the customer needs to have in place as the project kicks off. If they aren’t ready, then seek to delay the start of the project for a week or two while they get ready. Let them know that if they don’t do that, then the project will just take longer, probably cost more, and will invite risks that just don’t need to be there. 

This is a guest post from Brad Egeland who is an IT/Project Management consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience leading initiatives in Manufacturing, Government Contracting, Gaming and Hospitality, Retail Operations, Aviation and Airline, Pharmaceutical, Start-ups, Healthcare, Higher Education, Non-profit, High-Tech, Engineering and general IT. Brad is married, a father of 9, and living in sunny Las Vegas, NV. Visit Brad's site at