How to gather all the info you need from your client before starting a project

By TRISOFT team

Every respectable business leader knows it — there are certain rules to developing a successful project and one of the most important is gathering the complete information for a great start. Or, should we say, the utopic one is gathering the complete information :) Truth is this is rarely the case, since no project is like the others and no client like those before or after him, so what you really need to do is learn to adapt to the requirements and make the best of what you do have.

But let us build a bit more on how the process should ideally work.

In an ideal world

First of all, before you start working on a project — no matter its nature — you’ll need to linger a bit over defining and understanding the requests, as well as the scope of the work. This initial stage of the process is definitely as important as the work on the project itself, as it determines the very basis on which you and your team will be building to the desires of the client.

If you’re one of the super lucky fellas out there that nobody ever knows but only from urban myths, you will have a well prepared customer and you might receive from him lots and lots of materials and clear, detailed instructions that will help you understand where you should be starting. If you’re one of the luckier rest though, you will have to fight for yourself in order to ensure a happy client and repeat business, and struggle to gather as much information as you can in the beginning of the process.

The challenge of the discovery

Although you and the client may have a general understanding of what will be involved in getting the project done, the details and process can be tricky. The more information you can acquire, the better you’ll be able to set expectations about the pace and scope of the project. We may call this process the discovery, as besides what you know, you will surely have to dig deeper just to obtain exactly what you need.

You should definitely start with asking a lot of questions. The answers will serve as a reference for nearly every step that will follow, being designed to communicate clearly and concisely to yourself and everyone in your team:

  • What are the client’s wishes and goals?
  • What is the plan to carry these out?
  • How much is the entire project going to cost?
  • How many hours are allocated to each individual task?
  • Who are the team members, and what are their responsibilities?
  • What are the client’s responsibilities?
  • What are the specific project deliverables (both client and team), when are they due, and what are the budgetary and scheduling impacts of missing deadlines?
  • What are the immediate measurable goals of the project? Are there any long-range goals?

Avoid the refrain

There’s a common refrain that gets uttered at the end of less successful projects, and that is “The requirements weren’t clear”. Fingers start pointing, blame gets thrown around, and no one ends up happy and neither the problem resolved. Thankfully, the process we are describing is meant to alleviate this problem. At TRISOFT, efficient requirements gathering is both an art and a science we have been studying in order to improve our ways and the outcome of our efforts.

Here are some guideline we have extracted and which we trust will help you find the right path to please your clients with the most thoroughly designed projects:

1. Establish goals and objectives up front

Although this step may sound redundant and old news, it still keeps its charm and purpose alive. So have the big pre-project talks with the client, with his representatives, with anyone who can give you hints on what you are supposed to do. Then write down what you have decided and get your client to sign off on it. Without clearly stated goals and objectives, you will be lacking a framework to guide future decision-making on the project and that is something you should try to avoid.

Find out what the customer wants out of the project. Do they have solid ideas for what their purpose it or are their ideas more vague and in search of confirmations from your side? Of course, you are there to assist and provide your own professional input on every matter, so take this job seriously. The client isn’t supposed to know everything. On the contrary. It is in your power too to turn a confused client into a cooperative one. Getting your clients to nail down what their goals are is important in producing an outcome that they’ll be satisfied with.

2. Be transparent

Once you understand the requirements and your client does too, try to make sure you clear everything up with the team and the customer also. So after every meeting, go through your notes and organize your work so that everyone is on the same page. Being transparent like that not only helps make sure the entire team has the same prerogatives, but also fosters a sense of control over what could go wrong.

Not to mention that is kind of covers the whole issue of someone saying “hey, you agreed to X but it’s not here”. If it’s not written, it didn’t happen.

3. Budget and schedule

For starters, to some clients budgeting may be a sensitive, taboo topic. Many clients feel like if they share their budget with you before you give them your offer, they will be overcharged. What they don’t usually understand is that having the clear information about what kind of budget you have to work with, you will be able to customize your service properly, so that they receive the most benefit for their money. This is an essential part you need to emphasize in the discussion with your client. And it’s good to be prepared to meet some resistance as well.

The second point, the schedule, is extremely important as well. Some clients have absolutely no idea how long it takes to design a great project. They don’t understand that good work takes time, so all they care about is that they have certain deadlines they want to meet. So it’s important to find out why they want things to fit within a certain schedule and whether that schedule is flexible or not.

In both respects — budget and schedule — be true and realistic with your client. If you know you can’t do something within a certain budget or schedule, tell them up front. Offer alternative solutions, if possible. You may find that by working with them and within the restrictions they have, you form a better working relationship and plenty of repeat and referral business.

4. Get details

Even if your client is open and thorough in giving you the information you need to start good, don’t assume you understand it all from the beginning. Even if it seems obvious. An apparently simple requirement such as ‘we need a blog’ can mask all sorts of underlying requests. What kind of a blog is that? What type of fields does it cover? How many categories does it need? How will they be displayed? Is there an RSS feed? Who will be the authors and what is their level of technical proficiency? And so on, and so forth.

The trick is always in the details, so gather as many as you can, ask a lot of questions and don’t rely on assumptions.

5. Confirm, confirm, confirm

Throughout the entire discovery process and later in the process as well, one essential point you need to address and remember is always having the clients’ confirmation and go ahead for your steps. This means you need to keep a close connection with them at all times, explain what you are doing and how you are doing it and make sure they agree and follow your plan as well. You don’t want to find out somewhere midway the project that your work is not exactly what your customer has imagined. Lack of communication is an alarm trigger you need to fix as quickly as possible, if you come across it. So get actual confirmation from your client that you are representing the requirements correctly, then move on to putting into practice.

Remember That You Didn’t Get Everything

However impressive your skills as a project organizer are, it’s wise to remember that even the most perfectionists of all can miss things. It comes from being human — both yourself, your team and your clients. Some of you or maybe all of you are bound to make mistakes, to forget things, to change their priorities and influence the course of a project. Things can shift, but the good part is that if you plan ahead you can minimize the risks and make sure your team is focusing on the right set of priorities that match actual requirements.

Getting answers

It can get overwhelming for businesses to answer all sorts of questions before building solidly on a project. In TRISOFT’s experience, some clients love it while others will hardly pay any attention to it. Your job is to spend as much time as you’ve got available trying to find out exactly what they need to do and why. This is how you are more likely to produce high quality services that your customers will appreciate. There’s obviously a lot more that can be said about the art and science of requirements gathering, but hopefully what we have depicted above has given you some helpful tools to manage this process successfully.

Good luck out there!