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Getting the Customer Involved

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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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