How to tell client I'm blowing another deadline?
July 16, 2017 9:46 AM   Subscribe

I have to tell my client/employer tomorrow that I'm still not finished with what turns out to be an unexpectedly huge project. I need scripts. I'm kind of angry with them for dumping this on me, but I want to keep working for them if possible.

I'm doing contract animation for an online courseware company. I'm technically an employee of their employment agency/vendor, but it's remote work and the work volume is irregular. They onboarded me and then it was a month before they had any work for me. I am prohibited from going into overtime, so no days over 8 hours, no weeks over 40 hours and no more than 6 days in a row.

I did one 17-second project first, and they loved it, then I generated a set of static images for one of their designers, and they accepted my first submittal with no changes required.

Typically they have designers laying out the slides and generating assets, then the animators fly the text bits on, animate graphs etc. Each of their learning tracks has a well-defined style guide.

They asked me if I had time to do 9 segments which includes some on-camera instructor parts (already shot and edited, but requiring onscreen graphics for most of the host segments). This particular set is meant to be in a specific retro movie genre style, different from the style as defined for the learning track that this set is part of. They first reached out on a Saturday, finally told me to go ahead the following Monday, and they were hoping to have the first pass done by Friday morning for review.

I thought it would be similar in workflow to the other stuff I've worked on/seen, so the timeline seemed a bit rushed but not irrational. They said there was a style guide for this new style, but they couldn't access it right away and they wanted me to get started. I ran with the style as I understood it and did a portion of one segment. Then they provided the style guide late in the day on Wednesday, and it was not very good - it didn't really hit the style they had named in any way, except in one example it featured an article of clothing typically associated with the genre. It also had a very limited color palette. Their standard fonts don't play in the named style. The onscreen instructor video is of a quality I would consider rehearsal-level at best, it has several stylistic and technical issues, but whatever.

I redid the same portion accoring to the new style guide and submitted both just to see where they wanted to go, and they loved my initial sample and directed me to continue with that instead of using the style guide.

It became clear that the deadline was not feasible. I let my contact know (all communication is via Slack) and she said the deadline could be pushed, it was more of a want than a need. I worked all weekend, and the more I delved into the project the more of a boondoggle it became. There were no designs. There was a powerpoint document with "slides" that roughly describe a handful of visuals and some onscreen text, but it's all hand-drawn and not in the style they want, so it doesn't rise to the level of being a design document, it's more of an information flow document (and there's plenty missing from it). I'll be working my way through a segment and realize there's a throwaway note that necessitates a half day of work for 10 seconds of onscreen time.

Their first contact with me about this was two weeks ago, and I'm not even halfway done with the first pass.

I am to blame for not carefully reviewing the project and figuring out how huge it was at the very beginning, and how under-prepped the job was compared to their standard workflow, but the deadline was so tight I thought I could just start and work my way through it. I was definitely not prepared for the amount of assets I needed to generate from scratch. They don't have any stock imagery or video for me to use, but the job requires lots of imagery besides the standard text and charts and graphs they normally use.

I haven't had a break, I'm working hours I can't bill for, and I'm about to blow through another deadline.

The scope of this project is objectively unreasonable given the timeframe they were hoping for and the condition of the job materials when they pulled the trigger. If I had done the homework to understand the scope at the outset I would have told them it would take three weeks to finish the first pass. I've been apologetic via Slack and have promised to get the job done, but it's just impossible. My contact has acknowledged that having me start without the style guide and not having designs for me was problematic bordering on unfair.

I do want to continue working for them. I have learned a valuable lesson through this project, and I feel better-equipped to take a closer look at projects they offfer before committing to their deadlines.

I need help figuring out how to approach communicating with them about this. I'm sleep-deprived and kind of angry at them for their failure to understand what they were asking for, and for their spotty (poor) communication about... essentially everything (I have to beg for answers for everything, including really basic questions one has when starting with a new client). But I'm also responsible for failing to adequately assess the scope of the project and set reasonable expectations. I don't want my anger to leak out, but I need to get the time required to finish this and hopefully not have them ghost on me after it's over.

They love my work so far, and I feel like I'm really turning this set of pieces into something special, but it's taking forever and I've hit a wall.

What do I say tomorrow, when I tell them I'm only halfway done?
posted by under_petticoat_rule to Work & Money (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Tell them now, not tomorrow. Use the contructive parts of your AskMe post and cut out the complaints.

There were no designs. There was a powerpoint document with "slides" that roughly describe a handful of visuals and some onscreen text, but it's all hand-drawn and not in the style they want, so it doesn't rise to the level of being a design document, it's more of an information flow document (and there's plenty missing from it). I'll be working my way through a segment and realize there's a throwaway note that necessitates a half day of work for 10 seconds of onscreen time.

This sounds like a real disconnect between you and the client. So ask them now to give you what they were supposed to have given you at the beginning. That will help them understand the delay and justify an extension.

I redid the same portion accoring to the new style guide and submitted both just to see where they wanted to go, and they loved my initial sample and directed me to continue with that instead of using the style guide.

You can refer to this and tell them that the rest of the project will be just as good, but since that portion of the project took 1 week(?), the full project will take X weeks. You hope they understand that you've had to take more responsibility for the design work than in the project as they originally understood it.
posted by JimN2TAW at 10:09 AM on July 16


It was a revelation to me when I eliminated the word "sorry" from business communications and replace it with "thank you". So, instead of "sorry I do not have the deliverables you are expecting" it would be "thank you for acknowledging the unfinished prep work would result in the need for the deadline to be extended. here is the work I have done up to this point. I can move forward with XYZ when you give me direction on ABC. I can give you an accurate timeline when I recieve ABC." (And build time into that timeline to compensate for the unbilled hours). You might also want to take time to redo your procedures - what items you specifically need from your client before you can give them an accurate quote for deadlines. And then use that documentation.

I'm sorry you are dealing with this, it really sucks to feel like you have let someone down when really a systemic issue let you down first.
posted by saucysault at 10:13 AM on July 16 [28 favorites]


It sounds like there's a bunch of shifting sands in this project, I would recommend not internalizing the delay so much. Pursuant to saucysault's comment, and because they said the deadline was a "want, not a need," giving them an (now) educated guess for the entire project is going to relieve a lot of the pressure. You aren't untalented and you have reasons, not excuses.

Because they seem a bit...flying by the seat of their pants, productionwise, you can start to frame your communications in terms of process and best practices. It may simply be that they had previously worked with even more seat-of-pants contributors, so your insight into good process would hopefully be seen as business value.

Also, one thing I learned from my terrible freelancing career is not to let them impose a deadline unless there's a very good reason (sudden tradeshow invite, investor meeting, or something like that). You're the pro, you tell them how long what they want will take, especially if you're banned from overtime.
posted by rhizome at 11:01 AM on July 16 [1 favorite]


Yeah—beyond the script, I think adjusting your mental state is paramount. You've spent the last week winding yourself up more and more as the enormity of the task became evident, straight out of the boiling frog parable. You've carried out the initial assault and properly assessed the need to retreat and regroup for another go at it, and you lived to fight another day, so put out of your mind any notion that you've done anything other than a fabulous job.

To elaborate on rhizome's metaphor, it's like you were tasked with building a skyscraper somewhere, then found out when you got there that the construction site was on top of quicksand, and still managed to build half a fucking skyscraper. You almost want to look at it as though you're a separate person picking up the project from you-from-last-week: thank God that guy got a solid foundation set, it's clear sailing from here on out. Get your head in a place where you're genuinely feeling optimism and go into the conversation with the attitude that you're delivering good news for them.
posted by XMLicious at 12:43 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


I wanted to thank everyone who responded, they were very reasonable about it and everything's OK. My lead showed my work around the office and she said other leads are asking when I'll be available for more work. It's so hard getting a read on situations working remotely, so I appreciate the reality check.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 3:31 PM on July 20 [3 favorites]


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