Who Is My Customer? And What's My Relationship?

Mark Mullaly is president of Interthink Consulting Incorporated, an organizational development and change firm specializing in the creation of effective organizational project management solutions. Since 1990, it has worked with companies throughout North America to develop, enhance and implement effective project management tools, processes, structures and capabilities. Mark was most recently co-lead investigator of the Value of Project Management research project sponsored by PMI. You can read more of his writing at markmullaly.com.

It is difficult for project managers to know, at times, who our customer actually is. It is also extremely important to understand, at all times, who our customer actually is. And--as so often is the case--when something is difficult but important, we are prone to get things wrong. Often with rather disastrous consequences.

Why is it hard to identify customers? In part, this is because there are so very many people that want to be the customers of our projects. Certainly, our projects can have a great many stakeholders. As we have already discussed earlier this year, stakeholder management is a concept that offers its own problems and perils to the project manager. But is someone a customer just because they are a stakeholder? Or worse, is someone a customer just because they want to have a say in what your project does and how it is delivered? One hopes--if only for our sanity--that this isn't the case.

If we cast about for a definition of “customer”, the Merriam-Webster online dictionary would suggest that we are referring to, "Someone who buys goods or services from a business." Or, alternatively, "A person who has a particular quality." Interestingly, neither of these are particularly helpful in and of themselves. While the idea of a customer as someone who buys goods or services is relatively well understood by the general …

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"One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important."

- Bertrand Russell