What Stands in the Way of Successful Customer-Centric Projects?

The Five “Gotcha’s” that Plague Most Initiatives

January 5, 2012

Most customer projects encounter five obstacles to success: lack of resources, lack of access to the right customers, no buy-in from execs, inadequate execution, and no tangible results. So how do you overcome these obstacles? Make sure you have the right ammunition to blast through them, know what resources you need throughout the project, what activities you need to undertake, and how to measure the success of each step to determine if you are ready to move on.


There are five common internal organizational pitfalls that plague most projects in which customers are actively engaged. If you want to be truly successful in planning and executing customer-centric projects, you’ll want to plan ahead to avoid these mine fields.

Here, we offer advice on how to mitigate these pitfalls, identifying the ammunition you need to get others to support the project, the resources required to get through each sticking point, the activities you’ll want to take to ensure success, and the success metrics that let you know if you have, in fact, succeeded in overcoming the obstacles in your way.


What Are the Showstoppers in a Customer Project?

As you execute any project, you have a plan, a budget, a timeline, staffing requirements, and the need to “sell” the project internally at each step. You also need to have contingency plans for when things go wrong. That’s typical for any project.

But, when your project requires customer engagement, the stakes are higher. You don’t want to expose your customers to the internal politics, mess ups, and holdups that often delay or derail ongoing projects. You don’t want to leave them feeling that you have wasted their time and good will. You want your customers to end up feeling valued and that positive action will result—and result quickly—from their participation.

Therefore, you need to be doubly sure that you’ve anticipated and planned for the common showstoppers that plague most customer projects. In our over 20 years of working on customer needs analysis, customer advisory boards, customer co-design initiatives and customer-led innovation projects, we’ve encountered five common moments of truth—the “gotcha’s” in a project in which customers are intimately involved:

1. We don’t get the resources we need in time.

2. We can't get quick & easy access to the right customers.

3. We don't have buy-in from key colleagues nor proactive support from key executives.

4. We can’t take action on customer-critical issues in a timely fashion.

5. We don’t have measurable/tangible business results.


Although these gotcha’s may rear their ugly heads, all is not hopeless; there are actions you can take to best prevent or mitigate these showstoppers:

A. Identify the ammunition you should have to convince others to support the project.

B. Understand and secure the resources you’ll need in order to execute the complete project.

C. Plan and schedule the activities you’ll want to take in order to ensure success.

D. Set minimum success metrics for each showstopper so you know whether or not to proceed to the next step.

Minimum Criteria for Success

In order to determine whether or not you’ll be able to prevent or overcome each of these likely showstoppers, you’ll need to think about each one in the context of your specific current project. For each of these critical moments of truth, what would be the minimum conditions under which you could proceed without endangering your relationships with your customers and/or their perception of your brand?

WE DON’T GET THE RESOURCES WE NEED IN TIME. Although a customer project may be planned and given preliminary approval, that doesn’t mean that the resources required for success are budgeted for or guaranteed to be available when you need them. For example, it takes time to recruit and hire the right staff and/or contractors. You can’t travel to visit customer sites if your boss just put a freeze on travel. You can’t plan and host a customer advisory board meeting on a shoestring.

Resources. You need to be clear about the resources (budget, people/skill sets, facilities, outside consultants/services) you will need throughout the project since it is very difficult to ask for more after the budget has been set and you discover you don’t have the right people in place. Ideally you want the following:

• A dedicated full-time staff that do not already have other day jobs so that they can devote 100 percent to the customer project. Depending on the size of your project, this can be two people or more, but don’t try to do projects that involve customers with a single person orchestrating and executing everything! We’ve seen many customer projects fail because one person is put in charge of engaging with customers, and that person usually already has a full-time job!

• A core cross-functional team of committed subject matter experts and stakeholders with the right skill sets (including outside resources when appropriate) to execute the project activities. Whether or not each of these people is devoted to this project full-time, these core team members should be committed to, and measured on, achieving project and customer objectives.

• An extended cross-functional team of subject matter experts and advocates in each relevant function. For example, if your project relates to improving customer service, the chances are pretty good that you’ll need movers and shakers from product development, product marketing, billing, and credit departments to participate actively and to be willing to initiate actions within their own departments that may be outside of the purview of the planned project. (Customers are happy to focus their attention on a particular topic—to help you improve your Web site, to streamline procurement, or to brainstorm new products—but they will also be passionate about issues that may seem to be only tangentially related, like fixing a broken credit approval or returns handling process.)

• Sufficient funds available in a timely manner to hire and staff positions, fund travel and facilities, and host customers. You should be sure to include the cost of specific “deliverables” of the project that are not covered by existing R&D, marketing, or other budgets for actions such as capturing and editing customer videos, holding follow-up customer meetings/webinars/road shows to present results. As a rough rule of thumb, assume that engaging with a group of customers for a year will require an investment of $100,000 or more in addition to staff time and travel and facilities expenses.

Activities. In every customer project, there are activities that include customers, such as interviews, site visits, group meetings, focus groups, design sessions, etc. These are usually well planned, although often sufficient time isn’t anticipated. For example, it takes a good six to eight weeks to prepare, set up logistics, and recruit customers for a Customer Co-design session. It takes six months to recruit, interview, and plan a Customer Advisory Board meeting.

But don’t forget about planning the internal activities, including:

• Setting stakeholders’ and executives’ expectations.

• Preparing and producing materials.

• Holding regular progress meetings with dedicated staff and stakeholders.

• Preparing results and deliverables.

These activities must be considered from the beginning in order to ensure that you have the right resources from the get go. For example, any subject matter expert that you recruit to participate in the project will need to know what is expected of her in terms of time commitment and deliverables. And her boss will need to support her by reallocating some of her other duties. You could skimp on this step, recruiting willy nilly, but once reality sets in, you face ...

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