Managing the launch of software, mobile apps or games can be both an art and a science. Project owners of software development projects often need to balance both the needs of the client and the bandwidth of their team to create timelines and help everyone stick to them. But timeline projections are rarely 100% accurate as dozens of moving pieces need to fall into place in order for a project to remain on schedule. While many clients understand this, even the best ones are prone to introducing scope creep.
From changes in project direction or specifications to not sharing vital resources or providing timely feedback, even the smallest deviation from clients can lead to major project delays. When this happens, it’s costly for both agencies and businesses. While some clients understand this, others may be unaware and the onus falls on you, the project owner, to communicate the problem.
However, breaking it to a client that they’re holding up the project can feel like navigating a minefield. While on one hand, if the project is never-ending you won’t get paid for your services, on the other hand you want to avoid putting any strain on the client relationship.
Here are 4 tips on how to communicate with clients that they’re the reason a project has been delayed:
1. Start with flexibility in your timeline.
The way you design your timeline at the start of a project can help you avoid complications down the road. One way to do this is by building buffers around deadlines to give you and the client flexibility in the case that progress is interrupted. Your client may be dealing with indecisive stakeholders on their end, urgent situations that flare up or even personal matters. Creating a timeline that has some flexibility is a way you can plan for this possibility. You can use tools like Assembla to illustrate timelines and status of projects. Here’s a snapshot of Assembla’s product roadmap that illustrates features and due dates:
Another way that you can design your timeline for flexibility is by giving clients a set window of time to fulfill next steps, rather than a firm deadline. For example, after delivering an initial wireframe, tell the client that you’ll need approval within a 7 day period and create calendar reminders that alerts each stakeholder when their feedback is needed. This way they have time to make sure every stakeholder has the opportunity to weigh in.
Whatever you do, don’t procrastinate. Because projects are often so fast-moving, it’s important to take care of potential challenges early. As one example, here’s what Sean Butler, director of legal at Cisco, recommends for getting over one major hurdle—compliance.
2. There’s no such thing as over communication.
Despite building flexibility into your timeline and giving clients plenty of time to submit feedback, projects may still run off course. If you start to anticipate that the project will be delayed, it’s better to inform the client sooner rather than later.
While it’s natural to want to present an optimistic front to clients, they hired you for your experience and you’ll earn more credibility by being candid upfront. This also gives clients the ability to make the decisions that will steer their project in the right direction.
One way to do this is by submitting weekly or even daily project updates. In your email, make sure to identify what you need from them to progress the project as well as keep them in the loop as you adjust the timeline based on the delay. If you’re using the Assembla app, you can quickly @ mention users in tickets to let someone know about specifics of a task. Many times, clients just want to know that activities are occurring.
Include links to documents that show project details and make it easy for them to provide feedback. You can use tools like Google Form, for example, where questions are clearly outlined with respective comment boxes so stakeholders can quickly and easily provide feedback.
Consider chat communication in addition to email. You can easily create a new Slack channel for certain projects. I work with an agency on some projects and we communicate daily via Slack. This is helpful when they have a quick question for me on requirements that I can quickly answer instead of waiting on an email to be read and answered.
Here’s a resource from HBR that offers tips for handling these difficult conversations.
3. Identify and document the source of delay.
Before you can bring a solution to your client, you’ll need to understand what’s causing the holdup on their end. First, examine your communications with the client carefully and look to see if there is anything you could have done differently. Was there a miscommunication? Take responsibility for anything you could have done differently, even if it was minor. This can help both you and your client communicate better moving forward.
If most of the delays came from the client, see if you can understand the root cause. Did they take too long to share important resources and submit feedback or was there a change in direction that derailed the project? Your client may also be dealing with internal pressures that have slowed the project down. If you don’t know what’s causing the delay, have a candid conversation with your client and ask them what you can do to help expedite the process. When communicating with clients about the delay, acknowledging the cause of delay and empathizing with the client will help you secure their trust and find a solution.
One methodology that development teams may find helpful is the ‘5 Whys,’ which offers a constructive, q&a based path to identifying the source of a problem. Here’s the exact process that Buffer uses.
4. Present potential solutions.
When clients are the cause of a project delay, they will especially value an agency that can help them sort out a solution. Now that you’ve identified the cause of the delays, give clients three different options to choose from to get the project back on track. They can be:
- Option A: Meet the deadline but charge for additional hours to meet that deadline.
- Option B: Meet the deadline but slightly reduce the project’s deliverables to make it easier to meet the launch date.
- Option C: Extend the deadline by X days and keep payment and deliverables same as initially proposed.
Providing 3 options with clear outcomes can help reduce time spent on trying to come to a solution.
It’s important to remember that keeping complex timelines on schedule is a balancing act which is why building in some buffers and empathizing with the client is key to maintaining a positive relationship. If the delays were on your end, you’d want the same benefit of the doubt. Of course, it’s not always easy to communicate these issues, especially when there is a lot of pressure, which is why these best practices can come in handy should you need to let a client know that they’re holding up productivity.
Here are some suggestions for talking about less-than-perfect solutions from Kathryn Kuhn, director of agility services at Rally Software.
Have a creative technique to try?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below. How can you say no more constructively to improve collaboration? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.