Consulting 101 Series: Working Around an Unreasonable Deadline

Client expectations don’t always meet up with reality in the consulting business. So what do you do when a client expects the project you were hired for to be finished much sooner than is possible? Here are 4 steps for handling an unrealistic deadline.

We have all been handed tasks or projects or consulting requests with deadlines that just didn’t seem possible. It’s frustratingly painful, but it’s how quick we can think, what steps we set in motion to try to remedy the mess we’ve been handed or found ourselves in, and how we chose to move forward that ends up really defining how the engagement is going to go, and probably whether we will ever do business with this client again.

One software customization and implementation project I took on a few years ago had a 180 day go live date. I immediately stated that I didn’t believe that was possible. My team – after some detailed analysis – fully agreed. But the customer – one of the big players in aviation – had already committed to a firm rollout date that was 6 months out through several highly visible press releases to major aviation sites and publications. So, based on that information having been shared internationally, there wasn’t much that could be changed – the implementation date wasn’t really movable.

Given a situation to the one I laid out above, what do you do? For starters, you may want to have a nice long conversation with the account manager or sales guy who closed the deal and for some crazy reason gave the customer the idea that 180 days was a possible deadline to meet (so hopefully it will never happen again). But THEN what do you do?

Here’s what I did and, in general, the steps I took:

Reset customer expectations. First, if you suspect there may be a problem with the deadline, address that with the project client as soon as you possibly can. You don’t have to say “We absolutely can’t meet that deadline,” but it’s ok to give them a heads-up that you forsee their set-in-stone deadline as a potential problem.

Figure out what can be moved to “next phase.” This should always be your next step in discussions with the client. Usually, on just about any engagement, there are the immediate “must haves” and the secondary “nice to haves.” Negotiate to move enough of those “nice to haves” out to a later phase so that the “must have” functionality can be ready within the required or promised window on the project schedule. The key is to try not to force your client into paying more to get what they need by the deadline. They should still get all of the functionality they were promised for the same price if at all possible – even if it takes two projects to get there.

Work through the holidays and add staff. Finally, do whatever it takes to get it done – if at all possible – by the deadline originally promised. For me – on the aviation project – it meant taking my team to Phoenix over Christmas for two weeks to speed up the final work and roll through user acceptance testing and be ready on time for go-live. It wasn’t a memorable holiday in the good sense, but we made it. And at least to some degree, I think the customer appreciated it.


It’s never fun being faced with something you simply believe can not be accomplished. At least not without some major restructuring and negotiation, possibly some lost revenue or free work, or a frustrated customer who may not want to do business with you again. You just have to keep the lines of communication flowing, be upfront and honest about your concerns and negotiate with the client’s satisfaction in mind. It’s not a time to be selfish. Think of it more as a time of giving, than taking away. 

Disclaimer: The content on this page is for information purposes only and does not constitute legal, tax, or accounting advice. If you have specific questions about any of these topics, seek the counsel of a licensed professional.

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