How do you know what your customer/client really wants before you start work on their project? Just saying you always meet with the client at the start of the project sets a low bar. Often, they are clearer about what they don’t want than knowing what they do want. Just hearing their demands and expectations is not enough. It takes extra effort to understand the the underlying needs that drive the demands and expectations. So how do you have an initial discussion that will set the course for project success?

To illustrate the difference between good and great discussions, we have created 2 animated videos for the same project situation. In each video a project manager has requested a meeting with a client to discuss the new design project and what the client’s expectations are for the project team.

  1. Note your reactions to what each person says or does
  2. Would you have said or done things differently, how?
  3. What was done effectively?

Let’s look at a typical discussion at the start of a project in the first video:

Some of the effective tools that the PM used in the video included:

  1. Stating the purpose and focus of the discussion
  2. Asking for the Client’s input
  3. Active listening when the Client was talking
  4. Perception checking and summarizing the Client’s demands before completing the discussion

The question is, was that enough to clearly define the client’s expectations and needs, or was there more to be learned?

Let’s look at the situation again with the PM applying some additional tools:

The additional tools that the PM used in the second video included:

1. Open-ended probing questions to find out the drivers for:

  • the schedule end date  (required to obtain funding)
  • cost-to-complete monthly (avoid unexpected last minute scope changes)
  • face to face meetings (Keep up to speed – no surprises)

2. Asked for examples of work products, methods and tools that the client liked:

  • Multiple evaluation criteria matrix

As a result of using these tools more of the underlying needs and drivers were learned. In addition, a new potential conflict between 2 of the Client’s needs was discovered that would need to be resolved as part of the early planning.

  • Shorter design schedule and a desire to visit multiple operating facilities during design

The second discussion did not take significantly more time, but it was more focused on clarifying expectations and demands so the underlying needs, drivers and potential implications could be explored and understood. They will surface eventually on a project and could be unwelcome surprises, so starting off with in-depth discussions is the best way to kick-off a project!

“It’s better to know some of the questions than all the answers”

James Thurber

Join this conversation by sharing your experiences with defining client expectations and needs on projects or check out our Project Management Training Page for more information.