Dealing with a missed deadline in 10 effective steps

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Contrary to what they say in their sales pitch, effective freelancers don’t always meet their deadlines. What they do, however, is communicate with their clients when things go wrong.

Many freelancers glibly rattle off the old adage, “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission,” when going ahead with a course of action that will completely undermine their ability to deliver on time. Unfortunately, for freelancers, forgiveness isn’t always that easy to come by either – and often, one badly managed mistake can cost them a career’s worth of repeat business.

I don’t always meet my deadlines. I work towards them. I generally do what I need to in advance. But sometimes, other people don’t do what they’re supposed to, or life happens, or another job will get in the way, and I’ll have to let the next deadline whoosh by.

So I let the client know that it’s going to happen, because I believe that communicating is always more effective than not communicating. In most cases, my client is so grateful to be getting the call rather than having to chase me, that it’s actually quite a pleasant experience. Oh, and I always call – never email or text.

Here are the ten steps to getting forgiveness, in advance:

Be early. Warn your client in advance of missing the deadline, rather than on the day, so that other plans can be made or other freelancers pressurised.

Don’t make it personal. If your kid is sick, or your nanny hasn’t arrived, just say something like, “I’m not able to…” unless the crisis really is a big one that’s not going to repeat like a death or a car accident. Don’t become that freelancer with the kid who’s always sick.

Be straightforward. Tell the facts of the story simply. Don’t make a drama out of it. If there is a business reason, like an unavailable spokesperson, just let the client know.

Be in control and have a plan. Don’t tell your client you don’t know what to do. Be cool. Tell them calmly and confidently that things got away from you, but here is how you plan to fix them.

Don’t try to get them to make you feel better. You’ve messed them around. Don’t call expecting sympathy and then get annoyed that they were a bit put out. Deliver the news and take what’s coming to you.

Be apologetic. You’ve messed them around. You may feel defensive and indignant because you’re under pressure, but you agreed to the work; it’s your duty to deliver it. If you didn’t, say sorry. If they’re grumpy, suck it up.

Provide options. This is one of the secrets of toddler management, but it works quite well on adults too. When you give your client the plan on how to deal with it, give them options about which alternative they’d prefer. I sometimes do the, “I can work late tonight to deliver it if you need it right away, but if there’s any wiggle room, I can deliver by lunchtime tomorrow,” option. They almost always let me do the lunchtime thing, but I have to be prepared to work at night if they do need it first thing.

Give updates. If the missed deadline requires you to take a couple of days sorting it out, let your client know how it’s going. “I’ve just interviewed the spokesperson…” makes them confident that you’re on the job and aren’t going to flake out a second time.

Be sure you deliver. Once you’ve apologised and made plans to sort it out, make sure you do deliver on the new deadline.

Don’t do it again. If your client wasn’t pleased with you, you probably won’t do it again. If they were nice about it, you might be inclined to. Don’t. Nice people are the ones who are most likely to get annoyed when taken for granted.

Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer and communications consultant, and a member of the Southern African Freelancers’ Association (Safrea) Oversight Committee. You can follow @safrea or @georginaguedes on Twitter. 

  • Roxanne

    Good sensible advice, Georgi, especially the ‘be early’ one. If authors or designers let me down and it becomes impossible to deliver on time, I’ve always let clients know well in advance of the deadline – and I’ve never had an unreasonable response in nearly 14 years. Clients don’t want to be bombarded with info, but trust me, this is something they want to know!

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