IT Employment

Consultants must meet deadlines

If you expect to earn return engagements with companies, you need to meet project deadlines. Here are some tips for making sure you can deliver the goods, but also for handling those situations when you come up short.

Life is full of deadlines. While it's important for internal employees to meet deadlines, there tends to be a little more flexibility. But if you're a consultant, there is no flexibility. You would think that those who depend on jobs from outside companies would realize this, but it's not always the case. Here are some ways to make sure you meet deadlines and that you become a contractor companies want to come back to.

Use common sense

If you find halfway through a project that the company that makes a component you need is backlogged, let your client company know. Don't wait until the day the project is due to end and use the missing component as an excuse. If you tell the client earlier, they can make adjustments for the delay. Also, know your own limitations. Be realistic about what you can and can't deliver.

Learn to say no

I run into this a lot. Someone will go out of his way to pitch a project to me. I accept and then the person doesn't come through on the decided upon day. I understand there are emergencies--sick kids, earthquakes, the bubonic plague--but aside from those, you should be able to deliver what you promise. By missing deadlines a lot, the message you're sending the client is "You're not important enough." It's not the best way to build a relationship.

It is tempting to promise what you're not sure you can deliver just to land a client. But if your gut says a deadline is unrealistic or the expectations are something you don't think you can meet, then ask for a time adjustment or pass on the project. You're not doing anyone any favors by hedging your bets.

Communicate

Some clients won't require a progress report from you, but you should think in those terms anyway. A lot of times the client won't deliver on something you need to get the job done. You should communicate regularly to make sure you get what you need instead of waiting until the last minute and using the client's lapse as an excuse for missing a deadline.

Here are some do's and don'ts from contractor Abbi Perets:

Do's and don'ts

If, despite your very best efforts, 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. Business is business, and the client doesn't care about the nature of your personal issues. 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.
The do's:
  • 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.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

22 comments
Ian Thurston
Ian Thurston

As in, are you using a formal process (to say nothing of software) to manage the process? If you're not, WHY NOT? A project management framework is one very good of ensuring that delays and their causes are identified in timely fashion, in a manner that all can agree on. If you're worried about enemy action (and most of us have experienced that), then the project management framework lets you put resistance on the table in a matter-of-fact fashion.

rwparks.it
rwparks.it

A good contract sets the stage for defining to project and provides resolution for deviation. My brother fully learned the value of spelling things out up front through his video production business. When a client would start requesting changes / additions, he had the power to say OK, but that will cost you. If the client then became offended, he would pull out the contract plan and show them their original goal and objectives. The result - 1. make changes and pay more (sometimes), 2. cancel the deal (rarely happened), 3. go back to the original plan (typical result). Thanks Toni for the pointers. I'm inside IT, and the advice still reminds me to provide right service.

santeewelding
santeewelding

As your personal, self-appointed consultant, I recommend you see to the second half of your second sentence. No comparative is set up, yet, to justify, "more".

tbmay
tbmay

What should I do when the client himself is the reason for the delay? Example: I'm asked to solve a problem because a certain business doesn't have the expertise. However, their IT person resents the fact that someone else is doing it and insists on staying in the middle of it. Making sure he's the middle man for EVERY conversation with vendors and management that has to be made. What if management really likes this person and wants you to keep him in the loop? I absolutely agree we need to be REALISTIC in our promises and the toughest thing to do is tell a client I can't do what they want in THAT timeline. However, when the job would be easily done if certain internal staff were out of the way, how are we to defend ourselves?

tbmay
tbmay

...read your own post above. It sounds to me like you already know the answer to that question. Many clients...the vast majority of mine...want the job done YESTERDAY and haven't the slightest interest in the details and SURE aren't interested in a formal project management approach to the project. We will all agree that's the root of the problem but if you are doing well enough pick only clients who are different, you're doing much better than me. ;) The issue in a nutshell is not taking the blame for what you're not the blame for. If I did something wrong, I'll own the problem and it's for sure I have and will again. However, you said it best, there comes a point where you have to tell the CEO the problem is with his shop.

generapharm
generapharm

I am not an IT consultant...I am in Pharmaceuticals and it seems we live in a different world. People come to me after they have wasted months trying to solve problems in-house. By this time, urgent has no meaning, panic is the order of the day. The Teleconference emphasizes time as the critical factor. You then wait five days for the contract, another week for the data you require giving a new meaning to the word "urgent". At this stage you have to work in negative time units as the only way to meet the dead-line. Why does everything always sound so well planned in IT consulting??????

toni.bowers
toni.bowers

I've read and reread the sentence. I typed "or" instead of "of" but I don't see any comparative involving "more."

tbmay
tbmay

Thanks for the replies. bspallino, your tactic of assigning the obstructionist to the project, assuming he has some ownership in it's success, is a great idea if he is really accountable and doesn't get to make a calculation that goes something like, "If I sabotage this project this consultant will look bad and I won't have to worry about him any more. I really don't think it's important and they're not going to fire ME." This isn't a problem only consultants deal with. It's a problem for fellow employees too. I bring it up only because we're talking about timelines and consultants having no choice but to hit the deadline 100% of the time. No excuses. I actually agree with her so I'm quite interested in how others would deal with it because it's not an A + B = C thing. My own approach is to be very careful what I agree to and absolutely REFUSE to be pressured into an agreement in which I see potential potholes. And yes, I do make a point to make as good a judgement as I can of the people I will directly need information from before I agree to anything. If it's a new client, that's not easy and I will certainly not always be right.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

"middle man for EVERY conversation with vendors and management" Well they are the IT department, so - that is their JOB. They no doubt are the ones that decided to hire you. How about this - You work WITH them? What business / IT department in their right mind would let somebody external to the organisation start dealing with vendors and management unchecked? This is the age old problem with consultants thinking the should only deal at the CEO level.

toni.bowers
toni.bowers

A delay caused in some way by the client itself is a whole other topic and one that will covered in a future piece. I don't know all the dynamics but I think I would mention to the business head that you understand the need for the IT person to be involved in all meetings and conversations but, or course, that will increase the timeline for the project because it's an extra component you usually don't have to allow for. That way, you won't have to take the decision and subsequent delays on the chin yourself.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

1st answer: Be honest but diplomatic... "The current client reporting structure has resulted in a number of delays which exceeded our allowance for delays from your side." 2nd answer: Get over it. First, it should be in your risk management plan. Second, every client wants to have their people involved in the decisions. Unless this particular client is trying to impose conditions that are contrary to the contract, don't worry about it. (And yes, I have seen situations where the existing IT person inserted conditions that reversed the contract. In which case you treat it as a violation and deal with it that way.) Glen Ford,PMP http://www.TrainingNOW.ca http://www.LearningCreators.com/blog/

crimper
crimper

.....at least during planning. It's when you introduce Humans and Computers into the project that the fun starts.

santeewelding
santeewelding

"...there tends to be a little more flexibility" than, what? You make it plain as you go on, but not formally up until then.

tbmay
tbmay

...to get irritated over this friend. I spent most of my career as "internal" IT so I am very sympathetic to your position. My basic point of contention was with the idea of excuses. An estimate is made in good faith and is undermined by the a fluid and imperfect environment. Sometimes the consultant is to blame. Fair enough. Sometimes it's not that simple.

Ian Thurston
Ian Thurston

With some clients, MOST of the delays I experience are due to changes in their internal processes: a key stakeholder leaves, someone gets ill, another consultant is slow to deliver and the followup from my client to the other consultant is slow. Knowing that in advance, I apply extra windage to time estimates for these clients. Notwithstanding, I've had a client-side player consistently blame me for delays caused by their lack of follow through. Comes a time when you have to say to the CEO "This just ain't so. YOU need to fix this."

bspallino
bspallino

Hey TB, I've run into this quite a bit. Many times, when you're brought in because of a unique skill set that is not available in-house, you're viewed as a "gun slinger" and a threat - often people feel they'd have been capable of delivering on your assignment. But, I always approach these engagements as a knowledge-transfer opportunity. Rational people can "get" this, recognize the op, and take advantage of it. Those that don't are generally obstructionist, a trait that's usually apparent to their direct supervisor. I try to get these people officially assigned to the project. This way, they have deliverables for which they are responsible. If your help is required to get them done, they tend to recognize your value to their "survival". In any event, I always report, in writing, on a weekly basis, whether required or not. There is always a way to include instances where someone is being an impediment to progress (without naming names) that will eventually get the attention of their manager.

brian
brian

The thing that always seems to kill timelines is scope creep and lack of clearly defined deliverables. It's nearly impossible to hit a moving target. That being said, there is the need for some flexibility built into the process or you're just another "corporate IT" type.When I was in the corporate world (Pharma R&D) we would often outsource because our internal IT was so rigid there was no room for creativity or initiative.

mcswan454
mcswan454

I understand. In these situations, you must define the deliverables with the customer. You also define the checkpoints to verify that you're on target with the project. You're the consultant, and unfortunately, sometimes you may have to manage your customer. If you are prepared (of course you are) to fulfill your obligation, "they" might make things difficult, but you can get around that and still provide your services. This may be COMPLETELY WRONG (what I am to say next), but you may need to use their office politics against them to achieve the goals of both providing services, and assuring the customer of your abilities, such that they will call upon you again. That presumes you'd want to work for/with them again. You own/run a business. You're not Mommy/Daddy for your customer, but you might need to be. I'm probably wrong here, and expect to get flamed, but whatever methods are needed for you to perform your task in a professional manner, I don't feel you have much choice. And yeah, from personal experience. Do the customer dirty? NEVER. Ensure that I'm not getting hamstrung? Absolutely. You've asked me to solve a problem, and you're paying me to do it, even if YOU don't like the idea. If I am any kind of professional, can I really let your politics interfere with the task? I'd better not. I could, but then, I become too involved in an environment I shan't be in after the job is done. That IT guy will STILL be there; their politics also. You, however, will have demonstrated your competence as a Consultant, earned a decent paycheck (I hope), and can go to sleep that night. Let them have their drama... It sounds as if it's getting close to you. And if that's the case, unless you have a good business reason to continue, you can always say NO. M.

four49
four49

I suppose you'd have to make your deadline contingent on when you get the information you need (ie, coding completed 5 days from receipt of information as opposed to 5 days from beginning of project).

tbmay
tbmay

But "they" are not always, or even USUALLY of a uniform mind....office politics and all. In the instances I have been stalled by this issue, the person primarily responsible for the stalling was NOT the person who hired me. Read...THREAT, THREAT, THREAT.... IT departments themselves are eaten up with competition for status, promotion, etc. In fact, EVERY department is. Toni's article was about consultant deadlines and I felt another dynamic should be discussed in the context of timelines. My point had nothing to do with knowledge sharing or keeping internal staff from learning new skills. So, my interest was in how you she would approach that situation if she were in the business of consulting.

mcswan454
mcswan454

If the poor IT guy is worried about his position and influence, it is really HIS problem. You are expected and paid to provide a solution that was NOT available in house, otherwise, WHY would they have bothered you to begin with? So, as you perform what you're excellent at, let the IT guy learn a bit along the way. He really cannot cause you too many problems, as it would violate terms you've agreed to with the company, and they WON'T have that going on for long. I should say something else, but... M.

tbmay
tbmay

....shoots a hole in the whole idea of always being on time with no excuses. There's theory and there's the really real world. Every client is different and sometimes you learn the hard way the business relationship can't work.