August 11, 2011
by George Saines
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Categories:
Culture

Managing Client Expectations Amid Shifting Deadlines

Estimating development time is notoriously difficult, and when moving deadlines are added to the mix, shift happens.

Estimating development time for clients is difficult enough without having to second guess deadlines. Yet despite the best efforts, if your company has a healthy deal flow, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll eventually have a project deadline shift.

It seems an inexorable law of nature that deadlines always move forward. Projects slated for 10 weeks suddenly become 6 week sprints, and 4 week projects suddenly turn into 14 days of pain. Shifting deadlines cause a lot of stress even when clients and project managers communicate perfectly, but they are an absolute nightmare if either party doesn’t take responsibility early to communicate a new set of expectations.

Since I have the most experience managing projects, I’ll speak from the perspective of a project manager. Here are 3 steps that I have found to significantly reduce stress when clients need to alter the delivery schedule:

1. Do not commit to new milestones without internal communication.

When I was in the 4th grade, my best friend and I spent most of our free time together. Normally I would call him on the phone and while still talking, ask my parents if I could do whatever he and I were planning (normally riding bikes). With my friend on the line I would ask “Mom and Dad, can I go out bike-riding with Casey in an hour?” This approach often made my parents frustrated. I would be made to hang up, talk to them, and call back.

That little story might seem unrelated, but it is very similar to a client calling to say they need to release 4 weeks earlier than planned. Even if nobody could have predicted a change in the schedule, as the manager of that project, you now have a problem. You and your colleagues likely have other projects in the pipe, an abundance of work for that period, a vacation day or two, and a web of unseen working commitments.

The client will be under more pressure still and wants to hear you say “okay, no problem, we can get that done 4 weeks early.” Even if you think your team can do it, never make that assumption when speaking with a client. The best way to handle the situation is tell the client you have to talk with the team members and get back to them. Then, start talking with your team.

2. Consult with team members.

Internal discussion is especially necessary when there are aspects of a project that the project manager doesn’t understand 100%. A lack of understanding could be due to the limitations of a particular PM or the vastness of the project, but the person doing the coding is almost always in a better place than a manager to evaluate changes in engineering specs and deadlines.

In the case of a 4 week project adjustment, the operative question is how to balance the altered client interests with the original contract. Can features be cut? Can other projects be sidelined for a week? Are people willing to work overtime? Obviously the desirability of answers to these questions will depend on your specific situation, but the important part is to have the discussion. This will get everyone on the same page and present a unified front to the client. It’s more professional presentation and management.

3. Clearly communicate internal resolutions to the client.

After the internal meeting, contact the client and communicate the talking points in clear, direct statements. It’s easy, especially when under pressure from clients, to waffle, but resist the urge. A statement like “I spoke to the team and we aren’t sure the deployment schedule is realistic given the change in the deadline” is terrible because it isn’t crystal clear. What you mean to say in this case is “we cannot deploy on time.” So why not say it? Obviously don’t be rude, but straight-forward, simple communication will avoid future misunderstanding.

Simply go through what your team can realistically achieve in plain language, making sure to address the most critical deliverables. I have found it is best to lead with the items that won’t get done to client satisfaction, and conclude with items that will. The balancing affect of good and bad news tends to lean more in favor of positive reactions when those are the last things mentioned.

Conclusion

The easiest way to make your team members hate you and client take business elsewhere is to over promise and under deliver on a tight schedule. When deadlines change mid-project, the project outcome is immediately restricted to a less desirable set of outcomes. Using the communication techniques outlined above, however, project managers can often turn bad situations into opportunities for glowing client stories. Sticking to mutual expectations is what drives client satisfaction, and even when circumstances conspire to restrict expectations, you can still impress.

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