The customer and the sponsor – why we should care about the different roles

When you compare the terms customer and sponsor, the two almost sound redundant. When you think sponsor, most often money or funding comes to mind. When you think customer, well, that’s when things can be a little gray. In project management, not only are the roles distinct, but it is vitally important that the roles are defined and clarified. A project needs to clearly define both the customer and sponsor to successfully achieve the goals.

Why does it matter?

Keep reading to see the difference.

“A project needs to clearly define both the customer and sponsor to successfully achieve the goals.”

The sponsor

The sponsor is the individual (or the organization) who is the driver to ensuring project success. Sometimes referred to as the “champion,” the sponsor provides the financial resources, serves as the spokesperson to upper echelons in the organization, and promotes the benefits of the project. Most importantly, the sponsor is the go-to person who serves as the escalation path for the project manager for issues that are beyond the control (and pay grade) of the project manager.

Oftentimes this role is assumed by a senior executive who has the authority and the clout to meet the abovementioned attributes.

Perfect world: this person gleefully assumes the “champion” role without reservation and they are a staunch supporter of the project, removing any roadblocks that stand in the way of project success.

Reality: oftentimes this person is the reluctant sponsor who barely has time for the project manager with one major requirement: “just get it done.” (See earlier blog post on the “stuckee” project manager.)

The customer

The customer is responsible for approving the project’s product, service or result. In essence, they have to live with the end result of the project. The customer’s responsibility is to maintain and sustain the project result into the operations of the organization. For that reason, the customer should be the ultimate sign-off on the project deliverables.

Perfect world: this person (or functional department) has been involved from project inception and remains involved at every milestone of project deliverable review and acceptance. The customer provides their feedback knowing that ultimately their final say is what matters most to ensure sustainability after project closure.

Reality: there was an oversight in discerning the voice of the customer. It is not until we’re three-quarters of the way into the project that the project team realizes that the functional manager should be involved in the approval of deliverables. Realizing we’re too far gone in the project, we use guilt and fear of being behind schedule if the customer does not accept what has already been approved by the sponsor.

“The sponsor may be saying “yes” (or no) to a requirement that doesn’t really impact them in the long run when the project is over. However, the customer has to pick up the pieces if the project result does not meet specifications at the department level. ”

Again, why does it matter?

Hopefully from the scenarios of perfect world vs. reality, the difference is clear(er) and distinguishing the roles can have a huge impact on your projects. The sponsor’s focus is so high level and strategic, their concern is not about the minutiae of detail. The sponsor may be saying “yes” (or no) to a requirement that doesn’t really impact them in the long run when the project is over. However, the customer has to pick up the pieces if the project result does not meet specifications at the department level.

Better practice tips

I myself have been guilty of not clarifying the roles, and I paid for it dearly when the customer’s concerns caused significant delays in the project. All eyes were on me.

Sure, the sponsor and customer can be one in the same person, typically on small scale projects.

However, the oversight tends to happen when the project is just big enough that the distinction needs to be made between the roles. I’ve been there. Here’s what I’ve implemented to better define the roles, clarify the roles, and gain buy-in:

Define the roles during project kick-off – In the kick-off meeting slide deck, I include a couple of slides regarding the major project roles so we can have the conversation EARLY. The slides are not always needed, but the question is always asked, “who has the final sign-off—the customer or sponsor?” Usually that gets a conversation going about “what’s the difference?”

Clarify roles through the project charter – To the extent that I can, I make sure to put the clarification in writing in a formal project document. Better practice is to include information in the charter on key project roles, authority levels among the different project roles, and on who has the final sign-off on deliverables. The project charter is my go-to document to reference when there is confusion about project roles.

Gain buy-in through the project plan – Once it is clear who serves in the role as the sponsor vs. the customer, this information is repeated throughout the project plan. The repetition in the plan helps to keep everyone on the same page.

Let’s be clear: I do these steps to cover my…bases. I certainly have experienced a time when the charter was deemed not necessary—I still created one to document the roles. I’ve found through application, a bit of persuasion, and consistency actually saved everyone on the project from a lot of confusion, frustration, and heartburn.

What about you? Have you faced a similar issue with the sponsor and customer roles on your projects? Please leave your comments below.