It doesn’t take much for a project to get out of hand. Clients often have a poor understanding of what they can realistically expect to gain from a project, and those expectations can quickly snowball if they go unchecked, causing dissatisfaction, frustration, and conflict. Clearly defining the project goals and expected results with your client should be the first step of any project, a lesson my colleague Lindsay learned the hard way.

Lindsay works in application support and is responsible for enhancing a client’s sales division application to modify how sales commissions are paid. Recently, she sought my advice on how best to manage her customer’s expectations.

“Our business customers aren’t being realistic,” Lindsay told me. “They want to completely automate the commission payment process and allow the salespeople to view information through the Web. We can’t do everything they want. We are dealing with enhancing a legacy system. I need your advice on how to better manage their expectations.”

“The place to start is the project definition,” I said. “Did you create one for this project?”

“No, we didn’t,” Lindsay said sheepishly. “We didn’t think we needed one for an enhancement.”

“How about business requirements?” I asked. “Do you have anything that was formally approved coming out of your analysis?”

“We met with the customers to gather their requirements, but we don’t have much that was formally documented.”

I thought for a few moments. “Well, you asked me for advice on how to better manage the expectations of your customer,” I said. “The problem is that you and your customer have never been in agreement on what your project was going to produce. You can’t manage expectations effectively unless you had a common expectation to begin with.”

Mentor advice
It may be obvious, but the first and most important step to managing expectations is to establish a common understanding of the solution that is to be delivered. Normally, this is done by having the customer approve two documents: the project definition and the business requirements. By approving these documents, the customer signifies that they understand what is to be delivered and are in agreement with it.

Once you establish a common expectation of the project’s results, you then need to proactively communicate with your client about the status of the project and any issues or risks associated with the work. Send your client status reports or e-mail updates, and call informal meetings to keep them up-to-date. Then if, as the project progresses, you or your client determine that the agreed-upon expectations cannot be met, the customer should already be aware of the problem. If you both agree to go ahead with the project under new terms, you must then update the project definition, business requirements, and any other documentation regarding the project goals and projected results.

In Lindsay’s case, her team has never had a formal agreement with the customer on the definition of the work (scope, objectives, risk, deliverables, etc.). The team also failed to set a common expectation for the features and functions that would be delivered. It’s no wonder, then, that the customer has “unrealistic” expectations. Since the project is well under way, it’s probably too late to go all the way back to the project definition. Lindsay can still document the business requirements, however. Once the requirements are on the table, she can discuss what will be delivered and, just as importantly, what will not be delivered. Lindsay can then clear up any misperceptions with the client and make the needed revisions to the business requirements. Then, when the customer approves the document, Lindsay will have a better foundation from which to manage the client’s expectations in the future.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America, and has developed a project-management methodology called TenStep.

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