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Functional Teams

Customer Engagement

Bored Customers 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.



Nice post, Mike. Very valuable information that I can relate to my current situation. There's however one more critical problem we are facing, could you share your thoughts on that:
The knowledgeable customers are reporting to/managed by a coordinator who "controls" the meetings. It is not possible for us to avoid having that person in our meetings or for that matter to have a business decision. And clearly the main users have needs that are NOT entertained by this decision maker. There's no active participation by the users when this controlling person is in the discussions. Your insights will be very helpful.

Mike Griffiths

Hi Bendre,

Thanks for you comment. “Controlling” personalities are a problem in any kind of meeting and in agile review sessions they can drown out or suppress valuable contributions from others. Limiting their input requires good facilitation techniques. If they think they are just contributing then try thanking them for their contributions and asking “Does anyone other than, Fred, have something to add?”. If people will not shut up or give others a chance to speak, try saying there name (an egocentric interrupter) and then diverting conversation to others. If facilitating a session from the front of a room try walking right up to the person talking – most people will find this off putting, but some dominant people I have met are oblivious. If subtle techniques and diversions do not work it is fine to come right out and say that while we value their input we are also looking for the input from others and so we need to divide time appropriately. Please wait while we hear from the others. Talk to them during a break and explain the concern frankly, meet with them before the meeting and explain the importance of group discussion and how you have noticed that some members are reluctant to make their case and so why we need to give them more time. Organize the format so you go around the room canvassing input rather than a free for all discussion that can be dominated. There are lots of things to try before explaining the situation to their peers or boss, but that might be an option too. Just as long as you tackle the issue head on with the individual first.

None of this stuff is easy, it is why they say “the soft stuff is the hard stuff”, be genuine, polite, but persistent. Good luck and let me know how it goes.

Best regards


Mike: we were successful in handling the difficult situation. Appreciate your inputs: http://bendre.wordpress.com/2010/12/25/customer-engagement-the-hard-stuff/
I have added your blog on my blogroll, let me know if that's ok.

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