Partnering with Your Customers

Valarie Griep, MBA, PMP - December 2012

Customer partnership is a long-term commitment to a business relationship based on understanding each partner’s expectations and values, dedication to common goals, and trust. Being a partner can redefine the way you interact with your customer. The goal is to move away from the traditional adversarial relationship and into a collaborative and innovative partnership. Partnerships can involve vendor/business alliances, functional department partnerships (e.g. information technology and accounting), projects with internal or external customers, and even political entities or product companies and their users. Each of these relationships are ripe for being improved through a partnership. In this article I’ll talk about customers in the context of projects and from the point of view of the project manager and team.

I’ve found that there are essentially four things we can do to develop these project partnerships, thereby having a more productive and satisfying relationship with others—wherever we encounter them.

1. Foster Communication

“Communicate in the language of the people.” - William Butler Yeats

The first and best thing you can do is listen, listen, listen to your customer. Then ask questions about what you hear. Increase your face time with them in meaningful ways by asking open-ended ‘what if…’ and ‘why…’ questions. This will help you learn to speak their language and begin to see from their perspective. But also do some research to understand the business drivers and challenges not just of your customer but also the industry or function they operate in. In doing this you will be able to couch your solutions in terms of the business issues you must solve.

Avoid excessive use of the jargon of project management if its foreign to them. Always be clear and state your expectations of them and what they can expect from you. When you are accessible to your customers they’ll begin to feel more comfortable to ask you questions and reveal their needs. And when good things begin to happen, celebrate the small victories for what they are: signs of a productive partnership.

2. Display Leadership

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world” - Mahatma Gandhi

Leadership is trying to do the right thing, not just the expedient. Your customer expects you to understand their strategies, vision and goals to truly meet their needs. Read, ask and listen to them. Develop alternatives to meet their goals considering budget and time constraints. And always have the courage to tell them the truth about the project. Know that they don’t always know what the right solution looks like. You must be the leader that crafts the whole package to meet the business problem to be solved.

3. Demonstrate Consistency

“Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible” - Hannah Arendt

Predictability and reliability are the key to demonstrating consistency. A sure way to build that trust is to deliver consistent project execution and results. Let your partner see the progress you are making. Plan how to provide consistent customer experiences. As a simple example, keep to your schedule of publishing project status and keep the format the same, whether the news is good or bad. Another example might be to build in frequent review meetings with them. Consider architecting the ‘big picture’ and developing a road map to end goals with frequent review meetings. The predictability that you show will help you and your team be credible partners.

4. Ensure Transparency

“Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Trust is at the heart of a good partnership and transparency is key to building trust. Provide honest, timely communication whether the news is good or bad. Make sure your metrics are tied to the customer results so that your partners can easily understand and relate to them. Ask them what they should be! Set the expectation that your customers must be actively involved and truly engaged in the decision-making of the project. This should be seen as a joint responsibility. Explain your required processes so they understand why you do what you do and the benefit to the project.

Another significant way to be transparent to your partner is to pilot project deliverables early so they can see the product in action and prove the success to come. Encourage comments, feedback and even overt resistance to the project and its deliverables. Bad news early is good news.

An Example

As an IT director in a global corporation, I was asked to support a historically under-served department in the company. They had many manual processes and a dedicated staff sifting through vast amounts of data and doing spot audits of our sales force’s practices. The technology they used was old and unreliable, and to make up for poor business intelligence capability, they used PC databases and spreadsheets extensively. They felt they were doing alright but in reality, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. When I was assigned to them, I knew very little about their function and challenges so I did some reading about the regulations governing this function on my own. I started going to their staff meetings and did a lot of listening. I then met with the management team individually. Their issues and challenges soon became clear. I began to see specific ways that technology could lift some of their manual burden and allow them the time to interpret the information, not just gather the data and look for the needle in the haystack.

I began to propose simple solutions that involved big payback at small cost in dollars and changes to their routines. We prioritized short term projects and my team delivered beyond their expectations. Now we had their attention and they were much more motivated to work with us and fight for the funding necessary to initiate bigger projects. I initiated a project to lay out the five-year strategic technology plan with a roadmap showing how the end result could be accomplished in multiple, small- to medium-sized projects, each delivering critical components of the overall solution.

In a large, bureaucratic company like ours, I had many reporting requirements and a formal methodology to use. I made very sure I followed the rules only to the extent that they added value. I also explained the processes I had to use to my customers and the rationale for them, such as time-reporting, status reporting, and adherence to enterprise technology standards. This was time my team had to charge to their projects but as they understood the benefits, it was not an issue for them.

As we implemented the projects on the strategic roadmap, we continued to listen and learn from our partners. Trust grew from frequent communication (at one point I was sending a daily voicemail to stakeholders during the final days of testing a new application) and consistent delivery of the work products. Overall, it was a productive and satisfying partnership we built over a period of three short years.

Benefits of Partnership

Leadership, consistency, communication and transparency are four ways to build strong relationships with your customers over time. In the end they will see the value-add that you provide through your consistent leadership and communication, and many issues can be avoided. When problems do appear, you will have a relationship based on mutual trust to fall back on. You will learn more about the business complexities that challenge your partners, which increases your value to them for future projects. When trust is high, relationships are more satisfying and beneficial for each partner. Partnership results in a shared vision and accountability which in turn drives better project results.

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