Want to torpedo your project before it even leaves the dock? I can think of no better way than not listening to your customers. You would really love your job if it weren’t for having to deal with those time-consuming and irritating customers, right? Why would you even want to find out what they need? Why help them add business value by creating the best possible requirements? Have you ever seen a young child stick their fingers in their ears and loudly say “La La La La …” to block out what the other person is saying? The act of not listing to our customers is usually a lot more subtle.
Here are some steps we can take to be better listeners before, during and after sessions with our customers. None if this is “rocket science”. These are well known steps, but often ignored:
Prepare Well to Listen Well:
- Prepare an agenda. Certainly include the basics (attendees, date, time, location, call-in, web-meeting, etc.), but it is critical to list the objectives for the meeting. What do you want to accomplish? How is this meeting going to lead to great requirements that will add business value for the customer?
- Distribute the agenda to all attendees well in advance of the meeting. Include any materials that need to be reviewed prior to the meeting. “Well in advance” is relative to how much material you need the customer to review prior to the meeting. Use common sense and the “golden rule”. Would you want to be given 24 hours notice to review a 350 page software requirements specification?
- If you have models to review, it is helpful to bring hardcopies to the meeting for everyone, even when projecting, so that they can write notes on their copies. Title or number the pages and put numbered identifiers on model steps to make it easy for everyone to be focused on the correct part of the model being discussed.
- Know your audience well, especially if you have worked with them before the scheduled meeting. What are their needs? What are their hot-button issues?
- What are their personality styles? (E.g. controller, promoter, supporter, analyst). How would you tailor your communication style to be the most effective for each customer?
- What are their relevant experience levels? (E.g. novice, experienced but not in domain, experienced in the domain, expert, etc.). How would you tailor your communication style to be the most effective for each customer?
- What are their learning styles? (E.g. written, verbal, visual, mathematical, hands on, etc.). How would you tailor your communication style to be the most effective for each customer?
- If your customers are geographically distributed, including other countries, it will be harder to get to know them. Therefore, it is even more important to work at this ahead of time.
- What can you learn about each of your customers as “a person”? When people feel that you value them as a person, communication will be much improved.
- Customer communications always work best in person, but it is a reality that one-on-one communications and group meetings will often need to be done by phone, web meetings or video conference. All of the earlier items still apply, but will be scaled appropriately. You don’t need to write an agenda for each email or phone call with a customer, but you should still have an objective in your mind before the email or phone call. Don’t waste the customer’s time (and your time too), use it wisely.
- Don’t disrespect your customer’s time at meetings. Allow plenty of time to set up before the meeting. You know what it feels like to go to someone else’s two hour review meeting where the first 30 minutes are spent debugging the projector and web-meeting. The more important the meeting, the more important it is to check out the room and projector far enough in advance to be able to correct any problems or schedule another room. End the meeting on time. And don’t ever show up late for any meetings with customers. If you can’t be prepared for the meeting, then re-schedule it (although short of illness or an emergency, there is no excuse for having to do this.)
- Manage time well by managing it to the agenda. This includes modifying the agenda at the meeting in a controlled manner. Take a clue from “Robert’s Rules of Order” and establish an “order of the day” at the beginning of long meetings to establish times for breaks, lunch and a summary at the end of day. Use a “parking lot” to record important items that are off topic or are taking too long.
- Practice “Active Listening”. Listen to what your customer is saying. If you are thinking about your snappy retort, then you are not really listening. Work at learning their needs relative to business value to help distinguish “wants” from “needs”.
- Manage the people well in your facilitator role.
- Make eye contact with everyone. If you are looking at your feet most of the time or facing the screen to read your slides, people will start to feel de-valued and tune you out.
- Remember that non-verbal communication (body language and tone of voice) count for over 50% of communication (some studies show over 80%).
- Practice fairness. People need to take turns. Elicit participation by all attendees.
- Address bad behavior quickly (E.g. alpha dogs, bullies, wanderers, comedians, etc.)
- Use levels of abstraction to manage complexity. This is the value of using models to understand requirements for a complex system rather than just jumping directly to the detailed requirements.
Reinforce Listening Well by Following-up Well:
- Promptly send minutes of the meeting, including important decisions, open issues (including “parking lot” follow up), assigned action items with due dates and date and time of next meeting.
- If you don’t promptly communicate the action items with an owner and a due date, you are wasting people’s time. You prepared well for the meeting and had great momentum during the meeting. Why blow two weeks of project time by not assigning the action items with a due date? If two people each think the other person is going to address an action item, then it won’t get done.
- It is best if the meeting minutes are sent out by the start of the next business day. Even better is sending them out the same day as the meeting. If you take four days to send out the minutes, people will lose momentum.
- Plan to send a reminder to people with assigned action items about halfway between when the minutes were sent out and when the action items are due.
You have to make people changes to solve people problems. Not listening can become institutionalized. Companies can end up creating an entire culture of deafness to their customer’s needs. Take a look back to late 20th century history for a classic example. Compare how Johnson & Johnson understood their customer’s needs and acted on this understanding versus Ford/Firestone’s actions when a crisis hit. When cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules were determined to be the cause of several deaths in the Chicago area, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson quickly held a press conference and recalled the entire product line, not just the Tylenol in Chicago stores. When there was mounting evidence pointing to their tires being at fault for blowouts that caused fatal accidents, Ford/Firestone played the blame game. They blamed each other. They blamed the weather. They blamed the road surface. They blamed their customers.
Don’t shoot yourself in the foot on your next project! Resolve today to work towards doing the best job of listening to your customers to understand their needs and translate them into the best possible requirements. The choice is yours.
Next time I will look at “Don’t Use Models”