Project Management Institute

The customer inquiry


by Paula K. Martin and Karen Tate, PMP, Contributing Editors

YOU'VE FIGURED OUT WHO the customer is. Now you need to find out what he really needs from your project. What does he want? And, how do you go about getting this information? First of all, we need to differentiate between needs and wants. A need is a problem the customer is experiencing or an opportunity he wants to take advantage of. A want is a specific solution or a characteristic of that solution. You need to determine both his needs and wants.

The place to begin is with a structured customer inquiry process. In this process, the project team sits with the customer to find out firsthand what his needs and wants are. As with any structured process, there are rules for making it work:

Prepare for the inquiry ahead of time.

Let the customer do the talking.

Record the information elicited from the customer exactly as stated.

Do not provide any feedback on whether the wants are realistic. This is handled in a follow-up meeting.

Preparation for the inquiry involves defining roles—who will be the interviewer (usually the project leader) and who will act as the recorder (usually a team member). The team should then develop their questions for the customer. You'll need a room for the inquiry that provides lots of wall space so that the information captured can be posted on the wall. Then the agenda and ground rules should be issued, and you're ready to begin.

The purpose of the inquiry process is to draw out the customer's requirements. The best way to conduct the inquiry process is as follows. The project leader asks the customer the questions. One or more members of the project team act as recorders, writing down what is said on self-sticky notes and posting them on banner paper that is taped to the wall. The rest of the team listens. The project leader should start with a question that asks for clarification on what exactly the customer is expecting as a final deliverable from the project. Record exactly what is said. Next ask about the need, “What is the problem that this deliverable will help you solve, or what is the opportunity this deliverable will help you take advantage of?”


Paula Martin and Karen Tate, co-founders of project management training and consulting firm MartinTate, specialize in team-based project management. They are also the authors of the Project Management Memory Jogger (available through the PMI Online Bookstore). A project plan template can be found on their website can be reached at +513-563-3010 or +877-563-3010. Send comments on this column to

Once you have established the need, come back to the final deliverable and ask about the desired characteristics for the final deliverable. “What do you want this final deliverable to do? To look like? What features are you looking for?” As you elicit these wants (also called desired characteristics), record each one on a self-sticky note and place it on the banner paper. If you don't understand what the customer is asking for, probe for clarity. Do not argue with the customer. Don't reply that he doesn't really need these things or point out that his requests are abysmally unrealistic. Simply listen and record. Continue to probe until the customer is satisfied that his needs and wants have been recorded.

Next, ask the customer, “If the project was resource constrained, which of these desired characteristics would you be willing to give up?” Mark these as “nice to haves.” Then ask, “Which of these characteristics must be included if the project is to be worthwhile at all? Which ones are you under no conditions willing to live without?” These are the “must haves.” Mark the remaining characteristics as “highly desirable.”

Finally, ask your customer to rate your present product or service and/or your competitor's product/service against each of the desired characteristics.

THAT'S IT. YOU'VE just gathered the basic information you'll need to draft a list of features and functions and to assess the resource requirements for the three categories of characteristics. You've captured the voice of the customer, and you're off to a good start in your project planning. ■

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December 2000 PM Network



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