IPMA International Project Management Association
10 November 2017 / 8:29

4 Fallacies of Typical Project Management Thinking – Part 4 – The Customer is Always Right

Written by Ryan Downing

This series concludes with a final project management scenario that I feel conventional wisdom needs to be re-examined as it does not always produce a successful outcome in the project.

#4 – The Customer is Always Right

Ever since 1909 when Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London, started using the phrase “the customer is always right”, it has become a popular motto of business to convince customers that they will receive excellent service.  While it is important for services organizations to treat their customers with respect and try to delight them, I feel that it has become an excuse for project managers to allow the customers to dictate how their projects should be run.

Let me give you an example from a recent project that I was a part of.  There was a customer who needed some additional assistance using the software they had purchased.  They convinced my boss that the reason they needed help was because their initial training was not good enough and the software was not in tune with their business needs.  My boss agreed and allowed the team to go to the customer’s site for a couple of days – for no charge.

After this had happened once, the customer had it in their mind that they were the ones running the show and asked several more times for onsite help at either no charge or a deeply discounted rate.  Since the precedent had been set, it was difficult to tell them no and they took full advantage of the control they had to get what they wanted from my organization.

Looking back, I realize that in that situation, my team and I had surrendered control of the project in the name of pleasing the customer.  Then once they realized they had the upper hand, they were the ones managing the project instead of myself.

A couple of years later, this same customer needed us to implement different software.  By this time, we had a better process in place and were doing a better job managing the customers.  Shortly after the project started, they tried again to assert themselves and get my company to give them free service time.  However this time, instead of giving up control in the project, we pushed back on them and said they had signed off on each of the milestone exit criteria so additional time would come with a cost.  They wound up backing off and my company did not lose money on this project like with the one earlier.

This experience taught me that successful project managers need to be able to provide exceptional customer service without relinquishing control of their projects.  They need to not only manage the project plan and issue lists, but also the people.

The best way I have found to do this is to start with a very detailed project plan that outlines everything that has to be done along with timelines in which to get those tasks completed.  The work that the customer needs to complete needs to be clearly expressed to them with an expected completion date.  By doing this, the project manager is dictating what comes next and how long it needs to take to get done.  They are the ones in control of the process.

If a customer tries working ahead because they feel they know better, the project manager can tell them that they have not completed the prerequisites to move to that task and the project team will not work with them until they have the prior tasks completed.  Or if the customer does not get their work done on time, the project manager lets them know that the timeline and budget are getting extended out due to their inability to meet the project milestones.  This ensures that the project manager and not the customer will be running the project.

I believe there are project coordinators and project managers.  Most people in the profession are project coordinators – they can make sure items are being checked off the list – but they really are not in control of their projects.  True project managers are individuals that can manage a list but more importantly, can manage people.  They can put themselves in their customers’ shoes and serve them well without allowing them to dictate how the project will be run.

To conclude, project managers are essential to moving their objectives to a positive outcome.  Each project is different and requires a unique approach to make it successful.  I would encourage all project managers to not be so rigid in their thinking.  They should learn different techniques and philosophies to build their own knowledge toolkit so that they can determine which principles should be used depending on the type of project they are managing.  This ability to adapt will set them up to guide their projects to positive conclusion for all the stakeholders.


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Sandra Misic

Author of this post

Sandra currently works as Assistant to the IPMA President and Executive Director. Since joining IPMA in 2012, Sandra worked in FMCG sector for Procter&Gamble. She holds Master in Economics from Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Zagreb. After graduation she continued at the same University the doctoral programme in Business Economics. Her particular research interest is behavioral economics.