I'm about to miss a deadline. What is the best way to handle this?
March 31, 2014 9:24 AM   Subscribe

I've taken on a freelance project which was due today. It isn't finished. What next?

The project has taken about three months so far and I've already extended the deadline by a month. I have delivered approximately two-thirds of the project to the client. I now think I have about five days' worth of very hard work left before I can even hope to be finished, but today is the due date. The client knows that the work isn't finished yet, but I am not sure how to tackle discussing the extent of the problem with him (ie, that it's going to be at least another 5 days). Further, I am feeling pretty burned out now after working day and night for the past couple of months. To make things worse, I'm not convinced of the quality of my work and am not sure what the client thinks of what he's seen so far. I'm feeling frazzled and nervous and it's making it hard to concentrate on the things I still have to do.Frankly, I feel like ditching the whole thing, but this is really not an option. Apart from anything else, I need the money! Do you have any words of wisdom or experience to motivate me and/or help me deal with the client?

Please, be gentle, I can think of enough ways I haven't handled this well.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Is there something about the project that made it take more time than you planned? You probably already know this, but that would be something to emphasize. If going into detail about what is going on reassures him that the project will be done right, it will help.

Also, a LOT depends on the consequences for your client of this being late. Basically anything you can do to help him ameliorate negative impact to him.
posted by BibiRose at 9:30 AM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

You need to let your customer know ASAP that this isn't going to happen.

Give him/her a status report and deliver everything you have to them so far.

You may need to adjust your billing appropriately, even writing off some portion of the work you HAVE delivered.

Give them an option to let you go.

"I realize that the delivery of the project has not met your expectations. I will understand if you'd prefer to have another vendor complete the work. I will be happy to share my work product with another vendor should you decide to move in that direction. Based upon what I have been able to accomplish, and what has been done, I believe that $X is fair payment. If you want me to finish the project, I forsee 10 more days of work ahead."

You have to be gracious and let it go, if that's what the customer wants.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:38 AM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

This kind of situation sucks and I'm really sorry you have to deal with it.

The most important thing is to be concise, professional, and politely apologetic without making excuses. Don't borrow trouble by suggesting that you think the work you've done isn't good enough -- that's for the client to decide, and if they want you to fix something they can tell you themselves. Also, DO NOT make any further promises you aren't 100% sure you can keep. If you think it's going to take you 5 days, tell them it will take two weeks. And then deliver the work early, if at all possible.

The entire email should be less than 100 words.

Something like,

"SUBECT: Quick update on PROJECT


Unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to send PROJECT to you this afternoon. I made some miscalculations regarding the schedule, and I apologize for any inconvenience this might cause on your end.

I'll have PROJECT to you no later than DATE. In the meantime, please feel free to pass along any notes or questions you might have regarding WORK THAT'S ALREADY BEEN TURNED IN.

Thank you, and again, apologies for the delay.


posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:38 AM on March 31, 2014 [8 favorites]

Be gentle to yourself! The Berlin Airport was scheduled to be opened in 2010, and currently they think they'll get it done by 2016, maybe. Project estimation is hard, don't waste time on self-flagellation, that's only going to make it worse. Whatever mistake you made on this, it has happened in the past, focus on doing the right thing now.
posted by dhoe at 9:38 AM on March 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

five days' worth of very hard work left

Other people will be able to give you more concrete advice on how to approach this with your client.

What jumped out at me is that you've already had to extend the deadline once and you sound pretty overworked. Unless the client is making a lot of adjustments mid-project, perhaps you should rethink your time estimate.

When you have the conversation, give them a new due date and (without telling them) build in some extra time for things to go wrong. If nothing goes wrong, happy surprise: you deliver it ahead of time.

Apologize and be sincere. Definitely explain any factors that led to the missed deadline, but be careful not to do this in a way that casts blame on anyone else, or makes you sound as if you are avoiding responsibility.

End on a positive note: in the end you are planning to deliver something good to the client. You still will be able to do that, it will just be later than expected. Remind yourself to be proud of your work, and let that come through.
posted by bunderful at 9:42 AM on March 31, 2014 [8 favorites]

Tell him right away that this is happening; don't put off the inevitable.

Under-promise, over-deliver on your extended timeline; even if you think it will take 5 days, tell him it will take 10. This way he'll either be pleased when you're finished sooner than expected, or forewarned if it takes you longer than you think it will.

Offer him a discount up front for his troubles.

(And treat yourself to some R&R when you're done. This stuff happens to the best of us, don't let it get you down.)
posted by schroedingersgirl at 9:42 AM on March 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh brother, have I ever been where you are.

In fact, I have been on both sides of this problem; both the person who was late, and the person waiting for the work.

I can tell you that the worst thing for your client is uncertainty. As shitty as it is (and believe me, I understand how shitty it is) you need to be completely, painfully honest about where you are and how long it will take.

When I say painfully honest, I mean this: If you're anything like me, you're constantly making promises to yourself about how much work you can get done, then failing to keep those promises. You have to be brutally honest about how much work you are actually going to do in a day, not how much you think you can or should be able to theoretically do.

Make a realistic estimate, then send your client a brief email updating them on your progress.

Then, if the nature of your work allows you to do this: Quit your email client, or close the browser. Do not check your email until the work is done. You've told the client what they need to know. Your job is not to listen to their response. Your job is to get the work done. When I get to the point where you are, I'll quit email for days at a time -- sometimes I'll have a friend look at my inbox and tell me if there's anything I absolutely need to know -- just to focus on the work.

Feeling bad about missing the deadline does not help you work. The client doesn't care if you feel bad. They want the work done.

Send that email, take some deep breaths, and get it done.

You can do this. I believe in you.
posted by Sokka shot first at 9:43 AM on March 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

Can you tell us some more about the nature of the work? For example, missed deadlines are ridiculously common in software, often enough due to changing project scope or unforseen technical difficulties and constraints for which the developer cannot reasonably be held accountable (and of course this is commonly used as an excuse by those lured by the Dark Side).

What is at stake for the client here? What will your extra five days cost them? Your options for handling this are different if you are asking them to just sit on their hands for five more days, versus asking them to miss their own commitment to a third party.

Is the project partially usable as is? Can you show them your work so far, and give them some peace of mind that things are actually getting done?

Your most pressing need is to convince them you are on top of the situation: you know why you are late, and you have a realistic plan for fixing things. It is also very important to ask for an adequate extension, one that you can justify and realistically keep: if five more days translates into five days of no sleep, worry and overcaffeination - you need to ask for seven or ten.
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:49 AM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

schroedingersgirl: " Under-promise, over-deliver on your extended timeline; even if you think it will take 5 days, tell him it will take 10. This way he'll either be pleased when you're finished sooner than expected, or forewarned if it takes you longer than you think it will."

Emphasizing this. Most people will produce their best work when they're not (as you say you are) working long hours, frazzled, overworked and anxious. Remove a little pressure if you can. You're already late. Give yourself an extra day or five to do the job well, without stressing yourself more.
posted by zarq at 9:51 AM on March 31, 2014 [6 favorites]

This is one of my least favorite situations, to put it mildly. Just reading this is stressful.

But it will pass. Keep you eye on the prize. The prize being in five/ten days from now, this will be over. This will, at some point, be in your pasts and not your future. Maybe try on that feeling for awhile. It might help you ease up on the stress and overwhelm.

Also, I agree with the above saying that it would be best to do it as soon as possible. I had to write an email today that was going to disappoint someone that I previoulsy said yes to and had to change it to a no. I still feel not-so-great about it, but I have to say, the fact that it is now in the past, really, really helps.

Good luck to you!
posted by Vaike at 10:10 AM on March 31, 2014

Narrative Priorities has a great model for your note.

Send this sooner than later, within the next 30 minutes if you can. Really, worrying about this is 10X more stressful than what the actual fallout could possibly be.

You will learn, you will recover. This isn't the first time anyone's ever been in this situation, but it can be the last time you let yourself be.
posted by mochapickle at 10:13 AM on March 31, 2014

If you tell them 10 days, still shoot to finish in five (I say as a veteran procrastinator).
posted by salvia at 10:14 AM on March 31, 2014

I do freelance work, and sometimes it's just hard to calculate how long something will take to finish. I find that if I miscalculated, clients are usually pretty understanding (or seem to be) as long as I give them updates on what's happening, and let them know in advance as much as possible.

Also, you can reiterate that you want to do a thorough and quality job, so you can't rush it even though you realize the importance of deadlines and regret not meeting the set deadline.
posted by bearette at 10:29 AM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Take a deep breath and finish. Ask for more time and be willing to accept that you may not get paid extra for it. Do your best and then put it behind you.
posted by melangell at 10:56 AM on March 31, 2014

five days' worth of very hard work left
pretty burned out now

Agree that 5 days is too tight a deadline. Make it 7 or 10.

Can you outsource parts of the work? Ideally, that would be someone whose work you know and trust, but it might help to get parts of the overall project even from other sources (websites full of freelancers). This way you'd only have to put the last touches on the material before you hand it in.
posted by travelwithcats at 12:01 PM on March 31, 2014

« Older Advice for hotel/resort booking with AmEx rewards?   |   Neighborhoods near Cambridge? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.