By Jim Harris

Getting valuable information from your client takes the patience, persistence, and mindset of a prospector. Searching for and finding those nuggets of client information will yield the project’s mother lode.

In 1849 came the cry: “There’s gold in them there hills!” and the California gold rush was on. The forty-niners were a special breed—determined to do what it took to dig and uncover the gold they were told was there. Relentless in their determination, they were undaunted by any difficulty, hazard, or the amount of time that stood in the way of achieving their goal.

The persistence of the prospectors was focused not on the task but on the object they were mining. The payoff for their efforts and relentless fervor was big for some. So too can be the consultant’s payoff if you apply the same tactics and mindset to mining valuable information from your clients.

The “gold” you mine from the depths of the clients’ minds amounts to the requirements and expectations to achieve their vision(s). You begin your task knowing that your success at mining this precious information will directly affect the success of the project. The digging for this priceless information must be well planned and executed, with a focus on detailing the client’s requirements, critical activities, and expectations.

The mother lode you are prospecting for is what the client’s vision is composed of, not the how to make the vision. To make the vision a reality, you must fully understand what the goal of the vision is. This process is slow, methodic, and business-oriented.

The prospecting team consists of sales, project management, and a business strategist who knows the client’s business and is also familiar with the overall technologies used by the business endeavor. The team objective is to acquire a solid understanding of how the client does business today and the change the client wants to make.

Prospecting methods may vary, but they result in the identification of the client’s requirements and expectations. Thus, data mining is a task that should not be rushed. Just like digging for California gold, it takes time, patience, and persistence.

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Take the time to get to know your clients and to help them become comfortable with you. Gain their trust and confidence so that they regard you as an extension of their staff who has a fresh look on the situation. Talk to them about their vision and why they believe it’s the best way for their company to achieve its goals.

In due course, your clients will provide you with a list of things they feel they need. When you review this list, remember that they have been thinking about this longer than you have. What they are providing is the result of some “blue sky” thinking. In most cases, their requirements and expectations are two different things. In reality, their list consists of “wants” (nice to have), not necessarily what they “need” (must have) to achieve their goal.

It is your responsibility to make sure your clients do not get their needs and wants confused. List their needs in order of importance and relate them to achieving their goals. Do the same for their wants, providing a path of improvements to their initial vision.

Show concern and understanding about client situations. You are providing an opportunity for them to tell their story because you came to listen. As clients unfold their tales of woes, be attentive and show empathy. This is your first exposure to the situation they have been living with for some time without a solution.

Be patient as clients explain their situation, difficulties, and business environment. Clients know what they want to say but may find it difficult to articulate their thoughts. Be inquisitive and ask for clarification if you do not fully understand what the client is saying. There are many interview techniques that can help achieve full understanding.

If you are discussing a process or format, draw a picture—after all, a picture can be worth a thousand words. Restate what you have heard. If appropriate, tie the current topic back to a related process or requirement that was previously discussed. Remember, you are prospecting—so don’t be too timid to dig.

It will take infinite persistence to gain full understanding of your client’s business. Conducting some preliminary research on the business the client is pursuing and the current business environment will provide a good information base before you meet with the client. Be an eager student and absorb all you can about your client. (In my article, “Keep a Lid on It,” I point out the effect of not completely understanding the client’s business environment and how this misunderstanding can contribute to project cost overruns.)

Let your clients explain what they do for a living, their products, and their competition to better understand your client’s present situation. Discussion topics should include competition, product technology, market penetration, etc., and how important these topics are to the client and how they affect the current situation. This information will provide the framework to define the business issues the client wishes to resolve, as well as some guidelines to help shape your subsequent recommendations.

As you build your understanding of the client’s present situation, you’ll be able to identify the business issues involved. Discuss each issue in detail and relate it back to the business environment. This process will probably uncover other issues related to the initial issue, but these should be addressed as individual issues. Again, take your time and be persistent.

Hitting the mother lode
You have prospected, dug, analyzed, and dug some more. You have navigated the twists and turns, and your time, patience, and persistence have now uncovered precious nuggets of information.

As you collect the results of your efforts, your task now takes on greater importance. You must take the various bits of data—large and small, general and specific—and craft a document that defines the project and provides it with a total value. Using the various data elements you have collected, you must produce a document that defines the project requirements and expectations and identifies major milestones and deliverables.

The project definition will document to your clients an organized presentation of the project’s overall objective, recommended course(s) of action, the pros and cons of available technology associated with each course of action, the impact on their business (if implemented), expected deliverables, resource requirements, timeline, and risks.

Jointly reviewing this project definition with your client and your team will yield a baseline project document that provides the project team, sponsor, and stakeholders with a common understanding of the project and expectation about when the project should be completed.

Finally, this document will serve as a common reference point throughout the project for its objective and supporting business case. You will have hit the project mother lode!

Jim Harris has more than 30 years of managerial and technical experience in IT system planning, implementation, and operations in both government and commercial sectors. He is presently the director for the planning and program development of IT enhancements for a major U.S. airline and is a regular contributor to gantthead.

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This article was originally published on gantthead on May 17, 2001.