When Customer Expectations Must be Reset

We all hope that customer expectations have been accurately set coming out of the sales process. Ideally, the customer will have a draft project schedule in hand, a budget (i.e., contract/price), Statement of Work (SOW), and hopefully their own list of business processes and high-level requirements that they’ve shared with sales to get to this point of the project – deal signed and complete and ready for Kickoff (link).

Often a customer will say “we need this project completed in ‘x’ number of weeks.” You want to accommodate the customer as much as possible. After all, they are the customer and they’re paying for it. But it’s a dangerous trap to fall into when you agree to any sort of customer proposed timeline before you have a detailed understanding of the customer’s affected business processes, the requirements of the project and the resources for the project. 

The Crazy Promise

I led a project for a major airline that had been given the impression by our sales team that the implementation of an enterprise solution could be done within 90 days of Kickoff. Never mind that the configurable/customizable system…

  • Had never been implemented for an airline industry customer
  • Usually took 6-12 months to implement in known industries
  • Was targeting UAT and deployment over major holidays when resources from both organizations were planning time off

The airline managed to coerce Sales into agreeing to basically ‘guarantee’ the 90-day implementation timeline. Remember, this is without any involvement from Project Management – I would never have agreed to the 90-day timeline if I had a say in it. The airline also put out a press release in the airline industry that they were implementing this enterprise-wide system in 90 days…no pressure!

The Project

A project that starts off with unreasonable expectations from the customer definitely does a disservice to the customer. Not only can major problems be experienced, but also other issues like timeline crisis, major scope issues, requirements changes, and budget overruns are all highly likely occurrences on a project of this nature.

In my example project, we hit the 90-day mark while still only about 2/3 of the way complete. The customer’s expectations had long since been reset, but because so much had been promised to the customer they were, needless to say, not happy during most of the engagement. We added resources, went onsite for some rapid configuration work, and therefore began to run into the very predictable budget issues along with the timeline issues we were already experiencing.

Summary / call for input

For this project, in the end the outcome was a fully implemented and workable solution. However, customer satisfaction began low and never really recovered. The original deadline was missed by 3 full months. The budget went $38,000 over and due to issues on the customer side, it was never successfully embraced and deployed in the organization and is still floundering in terms of usage and internal deployment to this day.

Customer satisfaction is everything and if your project starts out with unreasonable customer expectations, run! Seriously though…work hard to bring reality in to focus. Educate the customer; work with the customer to reset the project timeline expectations based on the known requirements. Work with them to reset the budget expectations based on the known requirements. 

What about our readers – any horror stories to share where customer expectations were out of sync with what you knew to be the case when you took over the project? What did you do – how did you stay in good graces with the project client? Please share and discuss.


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