Project Management Institute

Extra Effort

How to Prevent Customer Disruptions from Derailing Projects

By Waqar Hussain, PMP

If you manage projects that include external stakeholders such as customers, you probably have experienced less-than-ideal project management practices on the customer end.

At my IT services company, which generates most of its revenue from customer-facing projects, this issue comes up frequently. Finishing projects on time, within budget and with high quality is more than a metric for us. Any delay for any reason can directly impact our revenues—and the whole organization.

As a result, we must proactively address the challenges customers pose to our projects. Here are three approaches we take to complete projects delayed or complicated by client-side problems.

We frequently manage projects in which some tasks need to be executed by the customer. That means the project manager has little or no control over them.

I learned how devastating this arrangement can be to project timelines once when a client with 10 projects running in parallel put them all on hold before acceptance testing. It turned out the client didn't have available end users who could test the system. Meanwhile, I had planned only for our own tasks and trusted the customer to handle its commitments.

After that, I increased my planning visits to the client for a few months and started planning whole projects from top to bottom. I began engaging their key end users in planning sessions to connect the dots between different projects, so they could work in parallel as much as possible. To help avoid such situations in the future, I proactively trained that client to manage multiple projects with limited resources. And I persuaded the organization to launch a project management office.

Being hands-on contributes to a strong relationship with customers.

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Engage During Delays

When the customer is delayed in handling its part of the project, work can grind to a halt. Resources can be reallocated to other projects. The tricky part is reactivating a team when the client is ready to move forward again. The key is to keep the project on the radar of team members and other stake-holders via updates.

I once managed a banking project that a client put on hold for more than a month. The team lead, one of the key stakeholders in the project, diverted my project's resources to other initiatives. However, I made sure to keep the team lead engaged by updating him about issues, such as regulatory penalties incurred by the client due to the delay. As a result, when the client restarted the project, the team lead already knew the customer's pain points and was able to quickly and appropriately reassign resources.

It's not easy to manage a project at the customer end while having little or no authority. But by properly managing stakeholders, you should be able to mitigate the impact of delays and deliver project success.

Pick Up the Customer's Slack

Our project managers are willing to take on the customer's responsibilities to complete a project. That might mean helping the customer find the right hardware vendor to keep the project on schedule or helping resolve post-implementation issues to ensure benefits are realized.

Recently, one of our customers was facing internal network-related issues, which delayed the start of our integration testing. To keep the project moving, we requested that our own network experts help the customer's network team. Although that added cost and effort, we had some reserves to handle it, and it resulted in a successful project.

Being hands-on contributes to a strong relationship with customers—and makes it more likely they'll come back for more projects. PM

img Waqar Hussain, PMP, is a project manager at TPS, Karachi, Pakistan.

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