Managing expectations: reality vs the siren song

You’ve got a client, and you’re going to deliver their project significantly later than the due date.

Which would you rather do?

Tell them what they want to hear, that you’ll hit the deadline, and then work to make it knowing it’s a virtual impossibility and you’ll be rushing things, which can lead to careless mistakes…


Tell them a new delivery date that is significantly later than the original expected date, but take the time necessary to complete the job and either hit the date or come in a day or two earlier?

Expectation management is difficult because it often involves communicating information that may not be received very well. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news (you know, “kill the messenger,” ‘n all that…)

It always feels better to tell people what they want to hear, and the client often is lured by the siren song of the lie. The problem is, trust erodes fast, and so does your reputation.

Delivering something late is never a good position in which to find yourself – even if it’s because of unforeseen or uncontrollable circumstances. But lying about your ability to hit a deadline you can’t and then missing again compounds the error, where taking responsibility and communicating a realistic deadline is at least on the road to repairing faith and trust – especially if you hit the deadline.

Having been on the client side of this situation a number of times, I feel the same way. Things do happen on projects that affect the timeline and outcome. If there’s a good explanation and a thoughtful and justifiable new deadline, I’ll take that every time over being told what someone thinks I want to hear.

Remember, if you’re serving a client, not only is your reputation at stake, but so is the reputation of the stakeholder who has to tell the client CEO what’s happening with the status of the project.

The reputation you destroy may not just be your own.

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