How to Save a Client Relationship When You Miss a Deadline

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



Does your agency have a punctuality problem?

client panics when missing a deadline

Missing deadlines is about more than a simple failure to deliver at a specific date and time. For an agency, it's much more serious to keep a client waiting. Trust -- the key to any agency-client relationship -- is built on the agency doing what it says it can and will do. It's earned through each small interaction. 

If you miss a deadline, it's easy for all the trust you've earned to be quickly disregarded. Clients will begin to doubt if those future results you promised will actually materialize.

If you want to minimize the damage caused by missed deadlines, follow these key steps:

5 Steps to Take When You Miss a Client Deadline 

1) Alert the Client

Once you realize that you’re never going to make that Friday end-of-day deadline, you should discuss it with the client as soon as possible. Depending on the impact of the missed deadline, you may need to either call or email the client with this information.

In some cases, the client will be grateful for a small extension on their own deadlines associated with the project -- though it’s doubtful they will share this relief with you.

This is one reason why you should outline the risks to the project’s completion during the initial scoping phase. When things don’t go as planned, you can point to the known risks and discuss a plan to move forward with the client, rather than feeling like your team made a huge mistake.

2) Be Transparent

If you don’t know what went wrong, find out. Did the project or account manager fail to take into account a key requirement when setting deadlines? Was there an unforeseen issue with the technology? Did a member of the team need to take some unexpected personal time?

You don’t need to make this a lengthy confession, but to retain trust, clarify the problem and what you are doing to solve it. Show the client that you are open to a discussion about the mistake.

3) Take Responsibility & Don’t Place Blame

While there are some things that are out of your agency’s control, the project’s timeline and quality are still ultimately your responsibility. You alone are accountable for results -- clients rarely give points for “nearly there” work. Responsibility is about looking forward, not about blaming someone for missed deadlines or poorly communicated objectives.

Showing that you understand this is part of maintaining or working to build back up the trust you broke when you failed to deliver a project at the pre-agreed upon deadline.

4) Set a New (Realistic) Deadline

Before you communicate the delay to the client, consider when you can complete the deliverable. This new deadline shouldn’t be rushed, if possible. It need to meet quality standards. Don’t put your team in a situation where they deliver low quality work that is also late.

Once you agree upon this deadline, stick to it -- even if it means your team needs to work extra hours to get the project done on-time.

However, this could be a situation where a missed deadline just won't work for the client's timeline. You could determine a plan for cutting features or elements so that your team can get the project done within the original timeline. It’s not perfect, but if you can revise the scope (and reduce the cost), the client may walk away satisfied with the results.

5) Prevent Future Problems

Once you’ve made it past the project, audit the situation. What caused the setbacks? Was there a lack of communication? How could your team have known earlier that the team would miss a deadline?

Hold a project post-mortem to discuss the issues, and give the team the opportunity to express their own opinions on what went wrong and how the team could have prevented the situation.

This might mean you need to recruit a few more freelancers who can fill in for capacity issues, add new questions to your project estimating/scoping process, revise your new client onboarding workflow, or set more realistic deadlines.

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