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Avoiding Signoff Hell

This article is much more partner focused than my normal blog posts at DynamicAccounting.net so Dwight has graciously given me the opportunity to guest post here.

If there is one thing that project managers and consultants dread, it’s getting client signoffs. I don’t mean signoffs on sales documents. I mean signoffs on the completion milestones as the project progresses. Let’s face it, signoffs are a form of confrontation and most people hate confrontation. This leads to reluctance to ask for signoffs. Couple that with clients who withhold signoff in a bid hold partners hostage and end users scared to take responsibility for anything and it’s easy to end up in signoff hell.

Every partner has been through signoff hell and I think that we have found some ways to at least mitigate the problem for everyone. I make no claim to having created these processes, I’ve simply seen how well they work and tried to document and refine them. My experience is using these techniques with Dynamics GP implementations but there is no reason why they won’t work with other products. The process steps are:

1)      Figure out if there is a problem. – Use signature tripwires early in a project.

With a new client, how does a partner figure out if this client will have a problem with signoffs? The answer is to use tripwires. Early on, in the first phase of a project, build in several artificial signature points. Make them meaningless items that anyone would sign off on. Use something like reaffirming already confirmed dates, signoff that the kickoff meeting happened, etc. Whenever possible push these signatures lower in the client organization. This also builds confidence when asking for signoffs because a signoff is expected.

  • If multiple levels of people at the client organization sign off without a problem, you may be able to safely move to signoffs at major milestones.
  • If people balk at signing these innocuous documents, it’s time to increase the amount of signatures required on this project.

2)      Houston we have a signature problem. – Increase the volume and frequency of signatures.

The solution to the problem of obtaining client signatures is to get more of them, more often. I know that this sounds counter intuitive but it’s not. The core problem is that users see signoffs as scary events with potentially negative consequences. The key is to turn signoffs into a routine.

  • Communicate that for complete project documentation, there are going to be a lot of little items to be signed off on. Failure to provide timely signatures will impact the timeline and the cost. Communicate this often, especially in front of senior management.
  • Get every little thing signed. After a while, management gets tired of the roadblocks and they get tired of hearing about it in the status meeting. In this way, the client figures out how to make signatures happen.
  • Workout with management who can provide alternative signatures to deal with signature bottlenecks from vacation or business travel.
  • Steer documents that could be signed by several people to the one(s) most likely to sign.
  • Don’t skip the big milestone signatures either. These are much easier to get signed with a pile of signed sub-steps behind the document. This signature also provides some protection should a partner miss getting a sub-step signed.

Partners will have to push a little. Some people refuse to take responsibility no matter what but they start to look pretty silly pushing minor signatures up to their manager over and over.  Usually, a manager at the client fixes this for a specific problem user.

3)      What if they still won’t sign? – Ask what the items and concerns preventing signature are.

When the client still won’t sign a particular document, it’s time to dig deeper. Clients often have very good reasons not to sign documents. The concern may be open items, completeness or understanding of a process. The key is to understand what it will take the client to sign.

  • Ask the client, what items or concerns are keeping them from signing the document. This forces a clarification of the issue. The key is to get direct answers not vague generalities.
  • Address those items if possible right then and there and get a signature.
  • If addressing the open items immediately is not possible, split the document to be signed into two documents, one for signature and one for the open items. This keeps progress moving while providing peace of mind that a critical item won’t be missed. It also forces documentation of the specific issues or missing elements. This provides a commitment to sign once these items are addressed.
  • Alternatively, ask them to sign and note any exceptions. This doesn’t provide the same level of comfort as two documents but it does force documentation of the specific issues to be addressed.

Part of this process is to get problem items to move to the surface quickly. Some of these items may need to be escalated to the client or the partner’s management. It’s easier to resolve difficult items when they are found earlier and frequent signatures requirements force these items to the top.

4)      What not to do. – Don’t manipulate.

All of this advice assumes a competent, professional partner working hard to implement ERP software. This is not a license to bully or manipulate clients

  • Bullying users to sign a document is unethical, don’t do it. The point of this document is to help build a culture at the client that is comfortable overcoming fear and moving forward with the process. Bulldozing through the process and bullying people to sign will not provide the desired result.
  • Don’t manipulate clients by sliding in a difficult document with a pile of easy to sign documents. An ERP implementation should be an open process. Slipping documents past customers won’t work for long.
  • Don’t end run an approver. If there is a primary approver for a document and they are available, don’t use an alternate approve just because they are more likely to sign. Also, don’t go over an approver’s head to get a signature. Ultimately, you may need to go to a manager to overcome a user who is blocking the approval process, but that is different conversation. You are not trying to raise the approval up a level; you are trying to keep the process moving forward.

The best part of this approach is that it works just fine with Microsoft’s Sure Step project management approach. Getting a signature on each Sure Step document is a great place to start. You may need even more granular signatures depending on the project and the client. There is relief from signoff hell and it’s not as hard as people think.

Categories: Managing Clients

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