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Getting the Customer Involved

by Vikas Hazrati on Dec 28, 2010 |

Agile methods place a strong emphasis on customer feedback and interaction. Projects with involved customers have much higher chances of success than projects which lack customer interaction. So, how do Agile teams keep the customer involved.

Mike Griffiths mentioned the following warning signs of poor customer engagement

  • Little or no customer feedback – No news, is rarely good news. Situations where during or after a demo the customer does not communicate should be seen as a red flag.
  • Late reporting of errors – errors are reported closer to a release than during the demo.
  • Wrong Customers – The real customers were always in the background and they surface only around a release.

Rob Keefer suggested that sometimes the lack of customer involvement is an education issue. Business representatives might not fully understand the importance of their role in the development effort and hence foresee any involvement as a possible waste of time. Jfaughnan mentioned one of the most quoted reasons for lack of customer involvement,

Our customers are in health care and tend to be busy, expensive, and hard to schedule.

Rob suggested the following ways of keeping the customer involved,

  • Identify a single representative – it is difficult to work with a steering committee. Identify one person who understands the business needs and can communicate them effectively to the group.
  • Plan strategically – instead of planning meetings in the common conference room, plan them in the business representative's office.
  • Use personas - to understand the business needs and drive the collaboration. Though imaginary, the tool can be used effectively to derive precise understanding and communication.

Likewise, Mike suggested the following strategies,

  • Test drive it – do a lunch-and-learn session or a workshop with real data rather than just a demo.
  • Promote it – explain the importance of good customer feedback.
  • Track it – track and report the important work done by the customers apart from the work done by developers and QA.
  • Reward it – recognize the contribution made by the customers by inviting them team events and sending them a notification when a milestone is reached, for example 100th report generate by the system.

Jared Richardson suggested that one of the best ways to keep the customer involved is constant communication.

When I mention this topic in my talks, I like to ask developers who collaborates with their customers. Nearly everyone always raises their hands with a great deal of enthusiasm and pride. I ask them to leave their hands up if they've spoken to their customers in the last week. With much shame, nearly every hand drops.

In a related post on InfoQ, Jenni (Dow) Jepsen suggested interesting ways to engage with the customer and create a successful product.

Thus, it is essential to realize that insufficient customer involvement is hazardous to the project. The key lies in identifying the pitfalls, keeping the customer involved and making sure that it is the right customer. Mike suggested that one should review a prospective customer with the CRACK mnemonic.

C – Collaborative – able to work with the team and communicate well
R – Representative – of their business segment, we want characteristic feedback
A – Accountable – to make decisions on the project
C – Committed – to the project, not frequently swapped for someone else who needs re-education
K – Knowledgeable – about their business area, able to answer questions and provide missing details

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Be prepared to back off a bit from "agile" if necessary by Dave Nicolette

In my personal experience, I've found projects in which the real customer was directly and actively engaged have proceeded with fewer hiccups and fewer misunderstandings than others, and have delivered a good result, often early and with a strong focus on high-value features. That's just anecdotal, of course.

In most projects, it seems that it isn't practical for the customer to participate actively and continuously throughout the development process. In some cases, the recommendations given in the article can be helpful, especially when the organization is new to adaptive methods and people simply aren't sure what to do.

In other cases, no amount of wheedling or rewarding or what-have-you will change the fact that key stakeholders are not available to the project team most of the time. It may be an organizational structure issue or simply a question of the overall scope of the initiative; either way, it's beyond the scope of "agile" at the individual team level. In those cases, we have to do our best to come up with a fallback solution that provides the team with the best information we can get, with feedback at whatever rate is feasible, and just deal with it.

Poor Customer Engagement is a sign of Poor Governance by Chris Matts

From my experience, poor or the wrong customer engagement is a sign of poor project governance. If you make sure you have the right business investors involved in the project, they will ensure that the proper customers are involved and that the project focuses on delivering the right value.

Our Next Step by Wolfgang Wiedenroth

I am the ScrumMaster at big agency, which builds the website for a huge company. Having a customer that size let's people(in this case the ProductOwner) think inviting the customer is impossible.
Today my boss called to tell me he talked to different employees in charge of projects we are working on, if they would be interested in joining our review. Guess what, every single one thought it would be a great idea!
I am so happy about it, because I always tried to get the product owner ask for it. Now I can't wait for it and am looking for helpful advises. Thank you for summarizing the different ideas I am pretty sure it will help.

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