Stakeholder roles: The Customer

Whenever a project exists, somebody will be paying for it. And whoever pays usually gets the first and last word on product description, budget, and the criteria by which success will be measured. Although other stakeholders may try to squeeze in extra requirements, the final say on the product will come from the customer, because this customer is paying the bills.

This sounds simple enough—the customer is the one who pays the bills—but in reality, identifying the customer is not always that simple.

Consider a project manager who is given the task of installing Microsoft Windows 98 on all the desktop computers in her company. Since there are a number of possible options when installing this operating system, the question arises: Who should decide which options will be installed?

Should this decision come from the 335 employees using the computers? Is this group the customer? Or is the president of the company, who is funding the project, the logical choice?

In this case, the project manager must go beyond the question, Who is the customer? and instead ask, What process should I use in determining the installation requirements, and who should be involved in making the cost/benefit trade-off decisions?

As this example demonstrates, accurately identifying the customer on a project can be difficult. In a large and diverse customer group, it can be unclear exactly who has the authority to represent the group. Here are some guidelines for dealing with different customer groups:

The project manager must distinguish between the people with final authority over product requirements, those who must be consulted as the requirements are developed, and those who simply need to be informed what the requirements are. Where there is a known customer, such as on defense, construction, professional service, or information system projects, it might seem easy to identify this stakeholder. But problems arise from the fact that so many people in the customer organization are anxious to offer product requirements, while so few of them will actually be paying the bills.

In the case of industries whose products have many customers (automobiles, software, appliances, etc.), the project manager must ascertain which departments should be included as stakeholders. In companies like these, there are so many ultimate customers that the project must develop alternate “customer representatives.” Marketing departments often fill this role by performing market research on what the next product should be, but problems may arise when other departments also want to be included.

In public sector projects, project managers need to follow tho customs and laws governing public works projects. These municipal projects present special challenges, because the customer group is composed of all the citizens who will use tho utility, road, or other service built by the project. Citizens also fund the project.

“Do I need to listen to all my stakeholders?” lamented a project manager for a major municipal government. “There are over 200,000 people who’ll be affected by the sewage treatment system we’re installing!”

Fortunately, his answer existed in the laws describing the public comment process used in his municipality. These laws lay out an orderly process for including the citizen stakeholders in public hearings on the proposed project.

Despite this legitimate process, however, it’s important to note that public works projects are very often contentious; they can be held up by lawsuits from citizen groups or become political footballs. A project manager can only put out information on the project, follow the rules, and hope for the best.

Customers contribute funding and product requirements. Determining who fills the role of customer can present real challenges to a project manager. In making this determination, a manager must be guided by two basic questions:

  1. Who is authorized to make decisions about the product?
  2. Who will pay for this project?

Here is the link to go back to the main article of the series on identifying project stakeholders.

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I am a Project Management practitioner with more than 5 years experience in hardware and software implementation projects. Also a bit of a geek and a great WordPress enthusiast. I hope you enjoy the content, and I encourage you to share your knowledge with the world.

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