Agile methods encourage partnering more closely with the business customer to benefit from shorter customer feedback cycles. When this works, it is great; we get quick confirmation of deliverables and engage in collaborative evolution towards the true business requirements as opposed to the originally stated requirements that may have been flawed or incomplete.
Yet poor customer feedback can really undermine progress. Effectively the customer has become a more central member of our project team and just like a poor BA, developer, or QA, the impact of a weak customer link is significant.
Often customer engagement issues stem from confusion over roles and levels of involvement. Perhaps the customer has not been invited into development teams before and may feel uncomfortable speaking out about potential gaps in functionality early in the project when work is still underway. This is why it is important to clearly outline benefits of good feedback and the issues with poor feedback.
For project managers some warning signs of poor customer engagement can be:
1) Little or no customer feedback – If following a demo or promotion of functionality to a test environment for customer review we get very little feedback, then the optimist in us may think “Great, we must have nailed it, there have been no complaints or requests for changes”. Yet, it is more likely that no one has thought about it much or used it in anger. In this instance “No news, is rarely good news” and is instead should be viewed as a warning sign that effective evaluation may not have occurred.
2) Late reporting of errors – If as a release date approaches we see the reporting of errors or requests for change relating to functionality that has been in previous demos, but never commented upon, then it is a sign that this functionality was not seriously reviewed previously. Instead only now, as the release date is approaching does it appear the customer representatives are reviewing seriously. This is a problem since functionality may have been built on top of the early code, and opportunities for change and improvement have now been lost.
3) Wrong Customers – If when you ask the business for project resources they quickly reply “Take Fred, please take Fred!” maybe you don’t want Fred any more than they do. Instead we want the busy people, the knowledgeable people, the ones you have to fight for.
Some strategies to reduce these risks include:
1) Test Drive It – rather than doing a demo and then leaving the new system in a test environment for ad-hoc evaluation; instead hold a lunch-and-learn or workshop to try processing last week’s orders. Or produce a sample batch of reports for all the stakeholders, or anything that forces “a manageable quantity of real-life activity”. If you tell someone to check out a car for sale they can walk around it looking for obvious defects, look inside and under the hood for major faults, but you really need to drive it to see what’s up with it. It is the same with software, do not give opportunities for non test drive evaluations.
2) Promote It – Explain the importance of good customer feedback to the executive group. Outline why it is a critical success factor for the project. We need the best customers we can as their input guides the entre project. Projects should consider paying to backfill the best customer representatives, even if we can free them up for only an extra couple of hours per week that can be extremely valuable. Discuss the implications of building the wrong system or missing something key. Review prospective customers with the CRACK mnemonic in mind.
C – Collaborative – able to work with the team and communicate well
R – Representative – of their business segment, we want characteristic feedback
A – Accountable – to make decisions on the project
C – Committed – to the project, not frequently swapped for someone else who needs re-education
K – Knowledgeable – about their business area, able to answer questions and provide missing details
3) Track It – Just as we report on the important work done by other project roles like developers and QA’s, so we should track and report on the important work done by the customers. How many transactions were put through the system in the test environment this month? How many people logged into the system and tried it? The Hawthorn Effect tells us that we influence what we measure, just through the act of measuring it. Since we will drive more of the measured behaviour, make sure you choose you measurement units wisely. Rather than hours of system usage, perhaps track types of transaction attempted which might be a preferable metric since a broad use of many functions better exercises the application better than many simple transactions.
4) Reward it – just as we need frequent recognition for development team contributions, we also need frequent recognition and thanks for customer contributions. They can be easy to omit as they often report to different managers rather than the project manager, but we need to recognize their contributions. Make sure they are invited to team events; offer to give a project based perspective to their annual review process. Create customer based goals and celebrations for the project, such as: one month’s data processed, 100 observations submitted, most bugs found, etc. In short, examine what we are asking customers for and then reward that behaviour.
So, the good news is that great customer engagement can quickly validate progress, provide valuable insights, and give early warnings about system changes. The bad news is that they may be the hardest to influence component of your team. Hopefully by being aware of some of the common pitfalls to look out for and some strategies for success we can dodge the problems and reap the rewards.