Program Managers often feel like their customers are daily planning on making their life miserable. As a program hits stressing points, we are often prone to associate the customer, our key stakeholder, to the number one reason for our program management struggle. We quickly forget that, after all, the customer is the one acquiring the product or service that we are planning on delivering. So, how can someone knowingly sabotage their own product or service? The customer is not your saboteur; your perception of the issue(s) being affronted may be the problem.
- Put yourself in your customer’s place - Why are they acting the way they are? What is their top priority? and Why? The more effort you put into understanding the customer requests, the closer you are to reduce tensions and confusions.
- Solve their immediate needs, on time - What can you do today to get them moving forward? What can you do to get them on your good side? Everyone has a top priority need; you need to find what's stopping your customer's progress and solve the situation as fast as possible and on time. This may require additional funding from the customer (in case of missed or unplanned scope), but it should always be solved on time. Like it or not, as a program manager, you are responsible for the success or failure of your program. With that in mind, the focus should be on "How do you move your program from a stressing point to a positive and planned path?"
- Communicate, communicate, communicate - Communication is the No.1 task of a program manager. The harder the program execution becomes, the stronger the communication with the stakeholders needs to be. Increase engagement with the customer if needed. During stressful times, increase meeting frequency and visibility, making sure that everyone is on the same page.
- Educate your customer - The customer should be fully aware of what they are procuring from you. If not, provide more details. Never assume the customer is fully knowledgeable of the product or service being procured. A Requirement Traceability and Verification Matrix (often referred to as RTM or RTVM) formally and contractually define the acquisition. Nevertheless, additional information should be provided to the customer in order to help them get a full familiarization of the acquired product or service. Provide additional items such as marketing presentations, facility tours, demonstrations, and exhibitions as needed. An educated customer is like a free marketing Billboard; they will advertise for you wherever they go.
NOTE: There is a high chance that your customer is also reporting to someone higher up in the program stakeholder chain. Hence, the reason why you need to understand and be familiarized with the global stakeholder relations in your program. You are just one fish in the pond; your customer is your direct target, but not your end target. See the big picture and it will help you remain aligned with your customer's plan and achieve a successful overall program execution.