Tech & Work

Growing a consulting business means meeting deadlines

Promising to meet a deadline and failing to deliver is a sure way to crash your career as a consultant. Here are the do's and don'ts for making sure missed deadlines don't stall your business.


In the high-tech world, we have a myriad of gadgets that help keep us on track. But even with all the external help, deadlines can still manage to fly by us daily. Missing deadlines can be a costly mistake for consultants because it can hurt current and future business. When you turn in a project late—no matter how much you apologize, no matter what the reason—it’s like you’re telling a client, “I don’t respect you enough to take this job seriously.” And that’s bad business.

Legitimate events can skewer deadlines and alter the best-laid plans. In addition to keeping realistic work loads, consultants have to keep clients informed along the way and re-evaluate deadlines constantly to make sure they stay on target. It’s a career skill that’s a necessity to survive and grow a business.

Use common sense and planning
For example, if you can’t complete a hardware project without a specific chip supplied by a single vendor and the dock workers in Los Angeles are on strike so the ship can’t be unloaded, and the part can’t be delivered—that’s an understandable delay and something a client will understand when you relate the events. But it can become your fault if you simply wait until deadline day and then remember to call the client and explain the situation. The client doesn’t hear the details. He hears only this: I didn’t care enough to call you earlier. Is that the message you want to send?

In this instance, the day you receive word that your shipment might be affected by the strike, make the call to the client. Lay out the facts, express your hope that the strike will end in time for the shipment to arrive on schedule, but provide an alternate plan in case that doesn’t happen. Could you go with a different, more creative solution? Is there any other way to get the chip? Or, can the client live with a different deadline? As long as you plan in advance, you’ll have time to make better decisions, and you’ll keep your client happy.

Learn to say no
It’s hard to say, but telling a client no can actually bring you more business in the long term. By agreeing to unrealistic deadlines and claiming you can do something you know you can’t do, you’re just setting yourself, and your business, up for failure.

The golden rule here is not to agree to unrealistic deadlines. If a client wants you to do something that you know you can’t possibly accomplish in the given time frame, say something like this: “The project you’re suggesting will take me at least five weeks, so there’s no way I can get it to you by the end of this month.” If the deadline is absolutely firm, you have two choices: Pass on the project or raise your prices and outsource part of the job.

Keep communication going
From the moment you take on a new client, make it a habit to keep clients informed of your progress. Even if the client doesn’t request it, provide weekly (or daily, or monthly, depending on the size and types of projects you do) progress reports. You don’t have to sit down and write a book each time you want to update a client—just create a template you can update or send an informal e-mail. That way, if there's a problem, you'll have ample time to brainstorm with the client on how best to handle it.

Also, if the client needs to provide you with key pieces of information so you can complete the project on time, don’t sit back and wait for an e-mail. Keep in touch and remind the client that you can only meet the agreed-on deadline if you receive the data by a certain date.

Do's and don'ts
If, despite your very best efforts, the fates are against you and you’re about to miss a deadline, what do you do? How can you best approach the client and reserve the possibility of future work? First, the don’ts:
  • Don’t make excuses. Everyone suffers personal tragedies. But business is business, and the client doesn’t care about your divorce, a death in the family, or the fact that your kid has the chicken pox and an ear infection. You should have planned ahead.
  • Don’t come to the client with only a problem. In presenting a problem, figure out at least three possible solutions and a new timeline before telling the client.
  • Don’t get defensive. “Well, I would have had it finished if” is not a phrase in any successful consultant’s vocabulary. When dealing with a deadline issue, focus on what you can do, not why you couldn’t do it earlier.

Here are the do’s to keep in mind when dealing with a deadline crisis:
  • Open with a sincere apology.
  • Offer a brief, factual explanation.
  • Propose a new deadline and give the client choices for how to proceed.
  • Show goodwill: If the client was paying premium prices for a rush job, you should refund part or all of that money, so let that be known at the start. And if you’re going to be really late, it’s a goodwill gesture to offer a discount—even if it means you’ll lose a bit of money in the short run. The long-term value of a steady, happy client is worth the cost.

The best part of deadline disasters is that you can learn from them and make sure you never make the same mistake twice. You can make things right, keep the client, and go on to secure even more business—but only as much as you know you can turn in on time.

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