How to survive a last-minute deadline

November 25, 2014

It’s late Friday afternoon and the weekend is so close you can almost taste it. You are are looking forward to your sister’s special 30th birthday dinner tonight. All seems to be going to plan until you receive a last-minute phone call from your client. She is requesting crucial changes on collateral that she signed off on earlier that day (and that you have already sent to print).

The thoughts running through your head will likely follow these lines:

  • Why wouldn’t she give me more notice?
  • Doesn’t she understand the implications of making changes at this late stage?
  • Doesn’t she appreciate how long these changes will take me/us to do?
  • Doesn’t she care that I have a life outside of work?

Last-minute deadlines are something we all have to deal with (it goes with the territory of our industry). The good news is that there are a number of things you can do to ease the pain of the moment.

Things that can be actioned in advance:
  • Educate your client: Some clients do not understand how our processes work and the time various tasks will take. It’s your job – as your client’s primary point of contact – to educate them.
  • Create a project timeline: Right at the beginning of your project, create a clear timeline. You could record the timeline in an email, in a spreadsheet or on a Gantt chart. The timeline should show critical milestones and deadlines. Remember to allow yourself a buffer to offset any time over-runs. You should also identify any deadlines that are immovable (e.g. due to legal requirements). Time management may not be one of your client’s strengths, so you may have to help them to keep the project on track.
  • Discuss the consequences: Once your client understands the process and the timeline, it becomes easier to have a conversation around the consequences of not hitting milestones and deadlines. It’s best to talk this through during the process (as soon as you notice timelines going awry), rather than at the end. If the delays are due to an internal issue, then you’ll need to apologise, do what you can to correct the situation, and mitigate the fall-out. If your client causes a delay, you need to make it clear that you are doing all you can to meet the deadline, but sometimes it may not be possible.
  • Communicate: If you notice certain clients have a habit of requesting last-minute work, then you need to nip this in the bud. Some clients may not be aware that their requests are unreasonable, so it is important that they understand how last-minute changes will impact a wide range of people. As you discuss processes and implications, make sure you also offer solutions and suggestions (e.g. setting and sticking to a timeline).
  • Establish deterrents: Sometimes a verbal “plea” isn’t enough to stop last-minute pressure from clients. You could consider implementing a “late fee” policy, whereby your client incurs a financial penalty for last-minute requests.

Things that can be actioned in the midst of the situation:
  • Calm down: You cannot work well when you are in a heightened state of emotion, or having a panic attack.
  • Adjust your attitude: Last minute requests hit us all. It won’t help either yourself or your workmates if your attitude is negative and sullen.
  • Ask questions:
    • Is it critical that these changes are made now? Why? (“Urgent” for some people is not always urgent).
    • What would be the consequence of not making the changes right now?
    • What resources can I gather to get these tasks completed quickly?
    • Is it possible to get one of my colleagues to make the changes for me?
    • Is it possible to make the alterations either later in the evening or in the weekend, so that the files are ready to send first thing Monday morning?
    • Could suggesting a later deadline help your client? For example, “With a few more hours we could…”.
  • Say “no” (for yourself): Only you can decide if saying “no” is the best course of action in a given situation. Sometimes it’s a case of weighing up professional and personal priorities. Saying “no” may carry consequences that jeopardise your job, but there will be times when your personal life will need to come first.
  • Say “no” (for your team): If you know that saying “yes” to a last minute change is going to put unnecessary or untenable pressure on your team or your suppliers, then you may need to say no. We all want to get the best outcome for our clients, but there is a point at which requests become too late to action.
  • Focus on your action plan: What if you’ve flexed your negotiation skills, but find you just have to knuckle-down and make the changes? Ensure you know exactly what you need to do, then power through the work as quickly as possible without letting other tasks (or colleagues, or social media) distract you. 

… and don’t forget to demand a chocolate fish for your last-minute efforts!


A modified version of this blog post first appeared on the Design Assembly website | 25 November 2014.


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