Understand your clients’ priorities
In some situations, clients urgently need documents reviewed or other work completed by a certain date – if not, a major transaction might fall through. But at other times, clients might put a certain date on some work just as a rough idea of when they’d like the work completed – but in fact, nothing major hangs on things coming through by then.
Which type of situation is your client in? The best thing to do is to have a conversation with the client early on when you are agreeing on the terms of the job. Even if it doesn’t seem strictly relevant to the specific task at hand, it’s good to understand as much as you can about the transaction, deal, case or problem your client is working through – keep your client on the phone for an extra couple of minutes to chat around the issue and see what you can find. Then, if a delay does look likely, you’ll have a good idea of what the consequences might be for your client. It’ll help you prioritize your work – otherwise, you might end up going hard into the night on a job for a client who didn’t especially need it completed by then anyway, at the expense of angering a client with a truly urgent matter.
If you can, hand over something
Many pieces of work consist of multiple parts that can be broken down. If you definitely aren’t going to get the job done on time, can you at least get part of it done? Which is the most urgent for the client? There may be one part of the overall task which they need completed in order to move on to the next stage of whatever project they are working on – they may be perfectly happy as long as you completed this now and get the rest to them later. Don’t be afraid to have a conversation with your client about this.
Probably the most important tip is to communicate with your client as soon as you feel you may not meet the deadline. The reasons for this are obvious – but the advice nonetheless often goes unheeded. Telling your client that you won’t meet their expectations is a stressful conversation, and it’s natural to want to put it off. But the longer things go on, the more your client will be relying on the work coming in by that date. Bite the bullet and get communicating as soon as a risk of delay emerges.
Be careful with what you take on
Of course, this might not be helpful to say once the situation has arisen, but in the long run the best thing to do is to plan so that you have plenty of time for all your tasks. This might involve resisting pressure from clients who insist that tasks are completed by ever more unrealistic dates – if you really feel that their demands are not attainable, then it’s better to hold your ground to start with, rather than agreeing to something you’re not going to achieve and ending up disappointing them.
Humans are notoriously bad at judging how long tasks will take, which is probably part of why we get ourselves into predicaments like being about to miss a deadline in the first place. It’s happened to all of us – but with some good communication, acknowledgment of your clients’ priorities, and some empathy for your client, you’ll be able to manage the situation as well as possible.