It’s the goal (dare I say dream?) of every project manager who has ever donned the PM hat to delivery exactly what the customer wants. That feeling of accomplishment at the end of the engagement when the customer says, “well done” is so good and yet so rarely heard. Praise is not something the project manager should be holding out for – it’s not heard that often no matter how successful the engagement.Back to the topic…giving the customer what they want. To really give the customer what they want, do we give them what they ask for? To do so would be to rely on one huge assumption… that the customer actually KNOWS what they want or need. If you’re like me, your experience has told you differently. Not that customers are clueless. It’s just that they aren’t the project experts – they notice symptoms which they often identify as ‘the problem.’ Worse, they may have a group of subject matter experts (SMEs) who don’t concur with the project sponsor and have identified other symptoms as problems – leaving you with several proposed problems, none of which are the real issue.The task at hand for you and your team, is to dig deep and find out what the real need is. That’s why you’re the hired gun experts and they are the customer. So what steps do you take to make that happen? Because, believe me, it won’t happen by itself, and it likely won’t be easy. First you have to convince the customer that this problem they think they have that needs to be solved may merely be a symptom of the real problem or issue. You have to convince the customer that it is worth their time and dollars to not just move forward developing a solution to meet the problem they originally identified without digging deeper. Amid all of their disbelief in the true need for project management and the dollars it costs – you have to convince them to spend time and effort on extended planning time to further define requirements, further interview SMEs, and ensure that there isn’t a different issue that is creating this need or problem.Through my learning experiences, I’ve come up with this three step process to cut through the mess and get down to business with the customer on verifying the problem they think they have or identifying the real problem:#1 – Ask the project sponsor what caused them to get to this point of needIt’s not enough, of course, just to listen to the project sponsor tell you what they need. It’s up to you to ask the tough questions to try to get to the real need. I once met with a very ‘aware’ CIO of an organization with three subsidiaries who was trying to get to the best CRM solution for all three. When I came in, they were using three different homegrown solutions that couldn’t really talk to each other, yet all three organizations served similar – and in some cases the same – customers. One of the first things he discussed with me was the notion that he wanted me to ask the questions that would drive all of us to fully understand the problem and get us to the best possible solution. He’s one of the few that ‘got it’ right away.#2 – Gather the available SMEs and ask questionsAfter grilling the project sponsor for as much information as possible, it’s time to meet with all of the available SMEs to dig deeper into the real need that is presenting itself. Remember, it may be that the original identified problem is the true need, but you should never assume this until you’ve exhausted your investigative options with all interested parties. These SMEs – who are often some of the actual future end users of the new solution – are going to be very interested in having you arrive at the best possible project implementation for them so they are usually very willing participants in this discussion. Ask them the hard questions – ask them how things worked before, what isn’t working well for them in their current situation, and why they are now creating this project. Your goal, of course, is to try to figure out what the true need is.Example: One customer of mine stated that they needed a better product release process because customers were often unhappy with the end product. Upon further investigation, it was all about quality. Their customers were unhappy because their end product was often problematic. What they really needed was an overhaul of their quality control and quality assurance processes and policies as well as testing processes. By further pinpointing what the real issue is, we were better able to focus our collective efforts and not waste time replacing processes that were working fine.#3 – Hold one or more joint planning sessions with the sponsor and SMEsHere the goal is to take all of the information you’ve gathered so far from the project sponsor and the SMEs together with your expert analysis and sit down with these interested parties to figure out what the real problem is that needs addressed. You’re basically trying to eliminate as many possible ‘problems’ as you can to wade through those items that are just symptoms and get down to the real project need.