Why 99% of Client Projects Are Late

Last week I talked about managing clients the right way, and the importance of communicating often and setting clear expectations. Why is this so important? Because managing clients is only half of the equation to getting projects delivered on time. The other half is effective project management.

Ever wondered why 99% of client projects get delivered late? It’s one of the most common issues when running a service-based business – delivering a client project on time, and on budget.

How many times have you planned a client project in detail and failed to deliver it on time because there were unforeseen events that happened? It happens to many service-providers, and the key is to recognize that unforeseen events will happen and proactively establish a process to help you with getting projects completed on time and on budget.

In this post, I walk you through the top ten reasons why client projects get delivered late, so you can recognize the most common project management pitfalls by service-providers and avoid them like the plague. Then I share with you six tips you can implement to help you with your project management.

Expanded Video Transcription

So… you’ve done the work, got the contract signed, and you’re enthusiastic about the work that you’re about to deliver. Everything looks perfect and according to plan. Even your clients are excited too.

Naturally, you schedule a kickoff call and the client tells you they’re going to give you all the resources you need to get the project completed on time. You wait… and wait.

You wait even more…

Months later, the project is late, the client is confused, and you’re upset because that means you won’t get paid because your deliverables have not been submitted…

Now you wonder why you took on this project at all, and if this even seemed like a good idea at any point in time. You question your contract writing skills and even question your own sanity. Maybe, you wonder, your clients are conspiring against you? Add on top of that the fact that you need to pay your mortgage and pay your employees. You might have to take a loan to make payroll, all because the project is late.

Here’s the bad thing:

You’ve signed a client contract, and the terms indicate you still need to do the work. It’s just not happening on your timeline, so you need to make adjustments to everything you’re doing. You need to make adjustments to your resources, and to your entire business.

Simply put, you are not having a very good time with this client or project.

So why did this happen? Why are 99% of client projects delivered late?

Ten Reasons Why Client Projects Are Delivered Late

1) You agreed to due dates without due diligence

Client: “When can you get this project completed?”

Agency: “We can get it done in three months. No problem.”

Three months later…

Client: “Why isn’t the project completed? It’s been three months…”

Agency: “Sorry, there were a few things that we didn’t anticipate that happened during the course of the project….”

Sound familiar? It’s one of the most common causes of delivering projects late. The failure to anticipate project risks, and uncertainties. If you’re an optimist, you might have the tendency to agree to a project deadline without doing your due diligence.

Maybe in the back of your mind, you have a sinking suspicion that the project won’t get done in time. But instead of listening to your gut, you listen to your inner-optimist, and think it’s one of the 1% of projects that will get delivered on time. So you sign the client contract anyway, ignoring the warning signs.

Don’t sign a contract without doing due diligence first.

2) Your client put pressure on you

Client: “We really need for this project to succeed in the next six months. Our business is riding on this project for us to meet our revenue projections. Can you do it?”

Agency: “We can do it. No problem. ”

Six months later….

Client: ”WTF?! It’s been six months and we’re not nearly getting the results you promised us. ”

Agency: ”Look, we’ve been doing our best. We’ve had to cut some corners to hit some of the deadlines since we’re doing this project in half of our normal timeframe.”


You don’t want to be in this situation.

Never forgo your normal project management process because a client is putting pressure on you. Allowing a client to pressure you into signing a contract – especially a project based on the premise that it is a Hail Mary pass for their business – doesn’t put you in a position to succeed.

Pressure and shortened timelines means cutting corners on delivering the project. If you can’t achieve your agreed upon milestones – it’s better to NOT sign the contract.

3) Your client’s priorities changed

Two months after the client contract is signed….

Client: “Why are we doing this project again? Our goal for Q2 is to decrease our refund rate not increase revenue. We’re good on revenue.”

Agency: “Well, when we signed the contract two months ago you told me that revenue was your #1 priority, that’s why we’re doing this project.”

Client: “Oh, we had a change in priorities about a month-and-a-half ago.”

Agency: “Great, wish someone would have told us….”

This scenario happens all the time. Client priorities change especially if the client took more than a month or two to get the contract signed. During your initial kick-off call with your client, confirm what their #1 goal is with the project. Align their goal with the project outcome, and avoid wasted time on work the client might not want.

4) You under-estimated the effort involved

Client: “How long do you think it will take you to get this project completed?”

Agency: *winging it* “Three months, tops.”

Three months later…

Client: “Hey, why is the project not completed yet?”

Agency: “I thought with 2 employees we could get this delivered, but the scope of the project increased and I don’t have the additional resources to devote to this project.”

Failing to account for the right number of resources to dedicate to a client project is another common cause of projects not getting delivered on time.

Maybe you didn’t spread out your sales cycle, so you have to deliver all these projects at one time. Or maybe you don’t have a system to prioritize each project, and you respond to “squeaky wheel” clients – which pushes your other projects even further behind.

Playing catch up is not fun, and you’re going to have some unhappy clients when you fall behind. Is it better to make your newest client unhappy? Or to alienate those who are already unhappy with your work?

When we underestimate how much effort a project requires, everything starts to slip into chaos.

5) You have too much work due at one time

Oops, I had too much work due that I couldn’t remember to complete point number 5 while recording the video… don’t be like me!

6) Your client isn’t participating

Agency: “To kick-off the project, I need a few stakeholders. The CIO, the lead developer, and your project manager. Can we schedule calls with all of them? ”

Client: “Sure, I’ll work on that.”

A month later…

Agency: “We’ve had over 5 meetings in the past month and we still don’t have the system credentials to get the project started…”

Client: “We’re working on that, but it’s up to the various departments within the company to grant access to system credentials you need. Every department has a different process. Sorry for the delay… But seriously, why haven’t you done EVERYTHING stated in your contract?”

This is all too common, especially when you work with big companies that have multiple departments and layers of red tape. During the initial kickoff call, you might request access to certain information or systems, but to get that information it might require wading through different company departments that have different processes to grant access. This can lead to a million meetings where nothing gets done.

Be very clear with what the various project stakeholders need to do even if it’s at the point where you need to write this into the contract, and if it doesn’t get done, then the client still pays for the work completed.

7) Your team isn’t delivering on time

Agency: “We need to get this project delivered ASAP – we’re late. What’s the status?”

Subcontractor: “We are working on it… we will get our deliverable completed in 3 days.”

Agency: “But you told me you were going to have it done by today?”

Subcontractor: “We had some issues on our end with getting the data to complete the deliverable.”

Working with subcontractors can often be frustrating, but it’s a reality in the agency business that you have to accept. If you want to get client work delivered on time, then both your internal in-house team and subcontractors need to be able to deliver things on time.

If you can’t deliver, even if it’s outside of your company, you risk looking bad in front of your clients. Clients don’t care if it’s someone else’s fault. They expect delivery either way!

The key here is to set realistic expectations, which can be difficult for new subcontractors, because they tend to always picture the best-case scenario and underestimate the number of variables that go into a successful project. This happens all the time with subcontractors. 

If you can’t get things done internally, and your subcontractors can’t deliver, then you’re not going to look very good in front of your clients.

8) You have no process in place

Client: “So, you can grow our website traffic by 20% within 3 months?”

Start-up Agency: “Sure, I can do it. No problem”

Three months later…

Client: “We’re behind in our projections by 50%. What’s going on?”

Start-up Agency: “As you know, we just launched our agency and I’m creating from scratch the process to get the project completed. I didn’t think it would take this long. Mea culpa.”

This scenario is common for start-up agencies, because you’re starting everything from scratch. With no process in place, you will not deliver your client projects on time. If you’re starting your agency, I highly recommend building out your standard operating procedures for the services you provide. This will allow you to maximize your productivity, and ensure a consistent process for delivering client work on time.

9) You are in over your head

Client: “This is one of our major projects for the quarter, can you deliver?”

Agency: “Sure, I can do it.”

Mid-way through the quarter….

Agency: “I don’t think this project is going to get done during the quarter. The scope has increased by 40% since we started, and it’s our first time doing something like this.”

Client: “…”

This scenario is closely related to not having a process. Maybe you’re just in over your head and signed a contract for a project that is the most ambitious you’ve ever undertaken.

When you’re in over your head, you don’t deliver projects on time. On the other hand, sometimes as agency owners, we need to get in over our heads in order to move forward. The key is to set expectations.

10) You promise next time will be different

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.

I think that most agency owners are insane, and they’re driven to insanity because they fail to make changes to their business.

Things will not “get better next time” if you don’t implement a process for improvement. Hoping that next time things will be different – without a process or clear expectations – will end up in failure to deliver projects on time.

If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, then you’ll be just like the 99% of agencies who deliver projects late.

Six Tips To Get Your Client Projects Delivered On Time

1) Set expectations

Set expectations with your clients and tell them exactly what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it and how they need to be involved with it.

2) Establish milestones

Put milestones into your contract and your project plan. Be explicit about how action items affect the deliverability of the project, and who is responsible for completing tasks. Consider adding a financial repercussion for failure to deliver on time.

3) Improve your account and expectation management

Make improvements to your account management process, and your expectation management systems. Make sure that you set better expectations and if needed, put a dedicated Account Manager on the account.

4) Ask better questions

Ask better questions early and often. Don’t get blindsided for failing to ask the key questions that will clarify the project scope.

5) Tightly define your services

Define the scope of your services as detailed as possible, so that it is easier to repeat over and over again.

6) Make delivery part of your company DNA

In the end, you want to be on time and under budget (or at least on budget). This is not just a dream, it’s a process.

Getting client projects delivered on time and under budget is the holy grail of any service-based business. It’s also the key to long lasting client relationships and success.

Do you have any tips on how to improve the deliverability of client projects? Post a comment on the blog and share. I read every post.

This post and video was episode 48 in our 90 Day Challenge digital marketing series.

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