How many times have you heard that? “Oh, I’m not going to hold you to this, but just a ball park figure?” Sounds even more familiar? And now the clincher, “You know our systems, surely you have an idea.” Trying to answer this sort of question from the client too soon causes enormous headaches in projects.
Cost is something that is never a black and white answer. Cost of the same project will differ markedly depending on what technology and process choices you make, what functional and non-functional standards you sign up to, how much of the subject matter expertise your clients are willing to provide to the project team and even some mundane things like what time of year you want the project to be implemented. A cost estimate therefore must accompany the scope, assumptions and conditions that it is based upon.
Many times you will have technical staff working with clients that will be put on the spot by these kinds of questions. They will have the best interest of the client and their own organisations by trying to answer the question. Unfortunately, this sets the expectation of cost from the client’s point of view. Some of the technical staff may be very skilled in their own responsibilities, but may lack the full project life cycle knowledge. Therefore the risk of underestimating or completely missing required activities is high.
In all likelihood the client has not had the time to frame what it is that they want. If they have a figure to go by, they will form the scope in due course and wrap that around the figure. This happens inevitably, even if there is significant gap between any cost figures you may have provided and when they had the time to form scope. There may not be any malice involved at all. This is how we as human beings operate – piece together bits of information to build the picture.
If you try to reset the expectations of the client at this point, it is tricky. There is always a chance to give the impression that now that they are interested, you are trying to squeeze them. Chance to set the correct expectation has long gone. By trying to be helpful, you have a situation on your hands.
You may come up with the same situation with your sales staff as well. They may be the ones that are responsible for communicating costs to your customers. Your challenges will be equally as pronounced if they miss the caveats. There is a fine balance between the cost appetite a customer has and the benefits they wish to gain from a project. In the quest of landing a sale you should not set a project up for failure. If the project is a keenly desired one for which your organisation is happy to make a loss on, then your management must be in a position to knowingly take the risk on. This should not come as a surprise during the project.
How can you go about ensuring the correct expectations at the outset? The first thing I make a policy on is to never provide estimates on the spot. I have only seen bad outcomes in trying to do that. Have standard estimating methodologies that you follow. The methodology may be different depending on the type of project you are managing – i.e. software development, construction, policy development etc. But there must be a methodology. Document the risks, assumptions and constraints that accompany the particular estimate. This way once the customer has had the time to think of the whole solution and the cost is different than the first one you provided, you can have an open and honest discussion on why that has transpired. This must extend to the whole team. Train them to tell the client that they will take the information back and follow up with an estimate.
First impressions do last long with customers – especially when costs and timelines are involved.