Ask a Project Manager: My Client Missed Their Deadline…Again!
I work for a smallish web development company. We do our best to hit deadlines, but often when we fall behind it’s because of the client’s failure to do their part of the project on time. In particular, it’s getting access to creative materials like their brand fonts, or access to data or content that we require to move forward.
It’s also around decisions and approvals. They don’t seem to realize that if they take longer than planned to let us know their final position, we can’t continue with the project. What tips do you have for solving this problem?”
This situation is more common than you might think, especially where the client is not used to working with project managers or services firms like your own. I’ve certainly been in situations where the customer’s own delay has had an impact on our ability to complete the work, so I understand where you are coming from and the frustration it can cause to your team.
Here are some suggestions to help.
Set expectations early.
You probably have a kick off meeting already for each project (if not, start doing that as a matter of course). Use the time in the meeting to set expectations about deliverables on both sides. Take the opportunity to get ultimate clarity on what it is you need them to do. Agree turnaround times for decisions.
With these assumptions set, you will hopefully have a better chance of them following through.
Document the meeting, the assumptions, the roles and responsibilities and share this paperwork with the client for signature. You could even make it part of your statement of work or project brief.
If it isn’t too late, consider adding relevant clauses to your contracts that relate to how you deal with late deliverables from clients and what the escalation route should be within the client organization should this happen.
Build in contingency.
If this is a regular occurrence, you can build in contingency to your plans. Ask for assets like brand fonts and logos as soon as the ink is dry on the contract. Get moving on the elements that you know normally cause an issue for you on projects.
You won’t be able to do this on things like decisions, but some things can be delivered early, even if you then don’t need to use them for several weeks.
However, let’s be realistic. Sometimes the people at that meeting commit to things that they then aren’t responsible for following through on. They might be the wrong people to make those commitments. Or life might get in the way and when the time comes they still fail to do what is required of them.
Remind them of their responsibilities.
If your client fails to follow through on their side of the bargain, remind them of what they signed up for and gently explain why it’s important that deadlines are hit.
This might work, especially if it’s coupled with project reporting that points out you are waiting on the client for the next deliverable, or input to the next deliverable.
Be clear and specific in project reporting, stating what will happen if deliverables or decisions are not forthcoming. Some consequences of late client impact would be:
- Loss of project resources as they go to work on other initiatives
- Project delays
- Increased cost (You can only suggest this if there really is an increased cost. If you’re on a fixed fee project, you’ll have to review your contract to see what wiggle room you have to increase costs.)
- Activation of punitive contract clauses
In my experience, loss of resources is the main one that gets clients to speed up. If they know they are going to lose a key resource, who knows the project and their business, and have to start working with someone else from scratch in a few weeks when they have finally made the decision, then they tend to speed up.
Keep communication channels open.
Keep talking to them, especially as deadlines approach. You can put weekly calls in place during critical times of the project. This gives you a regular touch point to remind them of their upcoming decision points and gives them time to get organized.
At really important times in the project, you can move to daily calls. Anything that keeps reminding them that there is a decision due and that the work is waiting on them before being able to move forward. Document your calls, even if it’s a quick email afterwards to the people in the discussion. That way, everyone has a record of next steps and outstanding actions. Then refer to that list at the start of the next call. Sometimes the continual chasing is all that’s required.
Listen for problems.
Sometimes the delay isn’t due to the person you are in contact with daily. It might be that they can’t get time with their manager or the decision maker. Listen out for where you think you are speaking to the wrong person in the hierarchy so that you can redirect communication to the right place.
Make sure you’ve got a clear communication channel to the next person up the chain at the client organization in case you need to escalate. If you can’t manage the escalation yourself, talk to your boss or someone in an account management role who could do it for you. You want to see this project be a success, just like your client does, but equally you don’t want your project team sitting around waiting for a decision that isn’t coming this week.
Challenge your own behavior.
Time for some inward thinking. What are you doing that could be making it hard for the client to hit deadlines? Is the communication not there? Are the deadlines woolly? Does your delivery team brush off queries with “Oh, we don’t need to worry about that yet” comments when you’d prefer they said nothing?
Failure to deliver isn’t always the sole fault of the client, so have a little look at your process and management style to see if you could make any improvements on your side too.
I am not a fan of incentives or punitive contract clauses. I believe that by the time you’re waving the contract and pointing out where they aren’t fulfilling their side of the bargain, your relationship is already broken.
It’s better to try to spot these things early. Use your negotiation skills, influence, explain. And at the end of the day, work out if you really want this client to have your business. If you’ve tried everything and you aren’t seeing any improvements, then maybe they aren’t the kind of customer you want to work with again.