Whether the clients you serve are inside or outside your organization, creating and sustaining customer focus is crucial to your success as an IT department. Countless articles have heralded the destruction of information technology’s ivory tower and the resurrection of an IT service closely aligned with the vision and goals of its customers.

As with most human endeavors however, there is room for improvement. Consider the extent to which your technology department is aligned with your customer’s interests. Take a moment and review a representative sample of the contact points you have with your customers and ask yourself some questions.

What do customers say during post-project reviews about your department? Do your customers have confidence that current projects will be delivered on-time and on-budget? Is communication effective (and respectful) between your department and its customers? If a customer had a chance to restart a recent project, would he or she choose your technology team to run it?

Worried? As a project manager or business analyst, you have a unique opportunity to understand your customer needs, and you can lead your IT department in creating and providing valued products and services. Let’s begin with actions you can take within the context of a project.

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Collaborate with customers

Whether as a project manager or business analyst, you should figure out a way for IT and the customer to collaborate on each project. There are four key points to consider:

  1. Start with a project with joint ownership. Collaborative projects get a good start by having two sponsors — one from customer management, and one from IT management. The people in this sponsorship role have to be high enough in their organization’s food chain to tap resources, allocate funding, and knock down hurdles. Of course, both sponsors have to support the project and be dedicated to seeing the project succeed.
  2. Build a project team that consists of both technologists and customers. Of course, the technologists should know the technology, but the customer’s representatives should be business experts as well.
    Do what ever you can to recruit the subject matter experts who work well with others, who are neither shy nor overbearing, and who are highly motivated to drive a successful project. The concept of a joint project team works remarkably well in each project phase — discovery, design, development, testing, and implementation.
  3. Create joint ownership of the project outcome. Sometimes this dictum means, “Eat your own doggy chow.”

    Many years ago, I knew a software company that provided payroll systems to its customers, but never seemed to use the product to pay its own employees! You can’t stay in business that way, and they didn’t. It will help if you can ante to match the customer’s financial commitment to a project. Be creative.

    For high-profile projects, consider putting your company’s reputation on the table by announcing your joint venture to the media when the project starts, and provide periodic news releases as the project progresses. Have some of the early development be conducted by your technologists at the customer’s site. Consider adopting several of the customer’s technologists, train them, and embed them in the development team. Have some of your development team handle incoming help desk calls for the first few days following implementation.

  4. Remember that if you care about people and can create positive relationships with them, nearly anything is achievable.

Communicate with people

Start first by learning to listen. You must first understand the challenges your customer faces from their perspective. To do so, actively listen to your customer. As the next step, demonstrate your interest in solving each issue by:

  • Empathizing with each issue they identify
  • Considering alternative solutions
  • Identifying one or more workable solutions
  • Making a recommendation based upon known constraints
  • Helping the customer fully understand what you propose

Second, hold open the communication pathways. During your project, talk with stakeholders more often than you have in prior projects. Routinely check-in with stakeholders. A periodic phone call demonstrates that you are interested in their perspective and seek to learn their specific project concerns. These phone calls help you identify new risks and issues before they gain too much steam. Also, check-in with the sponsor from time to time. In addition to regular project status reports to the sponsor, you should hold periodic face-to-face meetings with the sponsor as well.

Manage risks

You can avoid most surprises by searching for trouble in a project. Build time into the project plan to evaluate risk periodically. Consider what stakeholders mentioned when you last talked with them. What worries them? Are there project risks you have not identified? Has the likelihood of a risk’s triggering event increased? What do these risks mean to your customer and the project? What political, economic, or cultural forces threaten the project as you consider the ecosystem outside the project?

As an extension to your role as a communicator, you owe the stakeholders and the sponsor a levelheaded assessment of these risks. Start by discussing these risks with your project team, determine a strategy for handling them, and assign someone to implement the strategy. As necessary, escalate risks to the sponsors in your periodic status report. If you need it, ask for help from them.

Celebrate accomplishments

Smile. Have fun with the project and help the project team have fun too. Although some projects feel like a death march, the positive and energetic attitude you demonstrate is infectious. Have a party (or two). Invite the project team out to lunch from time to time. Even if everyone pays their own way, a lunch is a wonderful way to rebuild enthusiasm and strengthen relationships.

Be sure to reward those who produce results beyond what is expected of them. Whether you have a budget for bonuses or not, a heartfelt, handwritten note of thanks to someone is priceless. Send a card to someone for an innovative idea, a clarifying perspective, or sustained enthusiasm.

Next Steps

We all lose site of our customer’s interests at some point during a project. While these behaviors have helped me stay focused, I cannot suggest you adopt them without first making a fundamental shift in how you and your IT department value customers. You have to get up in the morning and declare to yourself (and the world) that your customers are your most valuable asset. Once you accept this principle, customer focus follows easily. Strive to be your customer’s most valued technology advisor.