How to recover gracefully when you’ve blown a deadline

Every company strives to meet deadlines, but problems inevitably crop up. We asked the experts for their advice

Toronto streetcars

Bombardier has repeatedly blown deadlines for delivering new streetcars (left) to the Toronto Transit Commission. (Fred Lum/Globe and Mail/CP)

Bombardier recently drew the ire of the Toronto Transit Commission for repeated delays in delivering streetcars. We asked the experts how companies can better prepare clients for blown deadlines. Here’s how the manufacturer could have eased the damage:

Don’t pretend things are rosy

“Nothing solves a deadline problem like speeding things up and getting things done on time. That said, if there is a real problem in the process that’s limiting your ability to deliver on time, you need to be proactive in reaching out to the client to talk about what’s going on. You need to make sure the client is fully abreast of the situation, and you need to demonstrate that you’re doing everything you can to speed up the process. It’s really important that you establish an open relationship with them. You want to be forthright. You should view your customer as your partner, and the last thing you want is them to be surprised at the 11th hour that deadlines are slipping.”

—Mike Van Soelen, Managing principal, Navigator, Toronto

Apologize early, apologize often

“In sales, you need to acknowledge the problem. I had an unhappy client. When he brought his concerns to me at a conference, I agreed with him and apologized. By the look on his face, I could see he was surprised. But when we had trouble making contact with him after, it suggested there was still a problem. So, I personally reached out to him again, this time by email. I apologized again, took accountability for the situation and offered him some compensation. He responded within two hours, and we had a meeting last week.”

—Kevin Higgins, CEO, Fusion Learning, Toronto

Make creative overtures

“Once you’ve apologized and taken accountability for the situation, you have to see what you can offer in terms of compensation. Your solution should be both proactive and creative. If you can’t do what they want and you can’t offer what you initially promised, you have to find a third way. Here’s a transit-appropriate example: Say you have a train that is delayed and you have all these people standing around on the platform, waiting, perhaps late for a job interview or something else important. Are you simply going to make an announcement and say the train is not coming? Or are you going to find a way to manage the problem and actually help those customers? Maybe it’s calling taxis for people; maybe it’s offering refunds. The goal is to make sure the customer feels heard and attended to. That’s the type of thing a company in this position should be employing.”

—Elaine Allison, Customer service expert, Positive Presentations Plus, Vancouver

Stop over-promising

“It’s really important that at the beginning, during the negotiation phase, you make sure you can actually meet the obligations you’re committing to in a contract. Too many times, you see people get contracts from across the table and they’re so eager for the business, they’ll just sign it. Or you’ll see a disconnect between legal, sales and operations. So the sales team will say, ‘Yeah, we can do that,’ and then, once the ink is dry, operations sees the contract and says, ‘Oh crap, no we can’t.’ But once you’ve signed a contract, you’ve created a binding relationship between the parties, and that governs the relationship—not just your expectations on deliverables but also what the consequences are. If the client decides to take legal action and you ultimately end up in court, you’ve already lost. Absent an act of God, there’s very little defence you can advance to justify why you failed to deliver the widgets on time. Going to court means the end of the client relationship—it’s not like you’re going to get any other business out of the customer. And you’re handing over the decision-making process to a judge who gets to impose a decision on the parties, rather than going into negotiation and arbitration, wherein you can find a solution that works for everybody.”

—Daniel Nelson, Senior partner, Civis Law, Toronto