Blog Post

Losing Gracefully: What to Do When You Can't Deliver

snake-eyesMuch as we wish it wasn’t true, on occasion we take on a contract that gets us in over our heads. Especially when we’re just starting, out or are unfamiliar with the field or industry in which we’re working. Obviously realizing that you can’t deliver what the client is expecting, and what you originally agreed to produce, can be a very stressful experience. It may even seem like it’s the end of your professional life.

It most likely isn’t, so don’t panic. There are steps you can take to mitigate the damage and come out as clean as possible on the other side.

I’ve run into this situation on two previous occasions. Once, I brought it on myself; the other time, the firm I was working for passed me a project due to staff transitions that had already been handed off so many times there was no clear record of who began it. The following tips come from what I learned from both experiences.

Review Your Initial Commitment

Before you resign yourself to failure, make sure you aren’t mistakenly writing off a success. The parameters of an engagement have a tendency to shift once you’re underway, and you end up doing work that you never planned or promised to do in the first place. The temptation is just to keep working as long as the client is willing to pay you, regardless of scope changes, but that’s not always the best way to go about it.

If you’ve already accomplished what you intended, and you haven’t renegotiated based on a scope change, you might want to bring it up with your client, especially if you feel you’re getting out of your depth. Better to cut your losses and suggest another service provider with expertise in the new area. Your client will think better of you than if you carried the project through to completion but did a sub-par job.

Provide a Transition Package

If you have to leave work half-done, your client will likely want to have it completed either in-house, or by someone else. You can make that person’s job a lot easier, and soothe your client, by preparing a hand-off package. This can contain any number of things depending on what you’re working on, but make sure to detail your workflow to date, what has and hasn’t been accomplished, and what might need to be reviewed or corrected.

A smooth hand-off is especially important if you’re giving the project to someone else in a firm that you work for, but it’s a definite must either way. It proves to your client that you’re a consummate professional, even if this particular situation is beyond your expertise.

Propose a Solution You Can Provide

Just because you may not be able to give the client exactly what they want doesn’t mean you can’t come up with another, possibly better solution. There are often more than one means to an end, and providing a client with alternatives will also show them that you’re committed to the project and trying to exhaust all possibilities before throwing in the towel.

Be careful how you frame alternative suggestions. Some clients will respect your opinion immediately because they hired you. Others, though, will be quite set about how and what they want you to deliver, so proposing alternatives will be a delicate matter.


In the best of all worlds, we’d all finish all of our contracts with a 100 percent satisfied customer, who got exactly what they were looking for. In fact, that’s not always possible. Falling short is a depressing event for any freelancer or contractor, but with a little care, it can be just another unpleasant memory and not a career-ending disaster.

What do you do when you can’t deliver on a project?

Image by flickr user purpletwinkie.

3 Responses to “Losing Gracefully: What to Do When You Can't Deliver”

  1. While managing a major telephone company’s business services, one of the things I put in place were several meetings to communicate and educate the customer during the whole sales and installation process.

    Installation meeting
    Progress meeting
    Final review meeting
    Emergency meetings if needed.

    This allows both parties to discuss questions & concerns, if both parties are aware that there are always unforeseen obstacles that may occur. A revised contract can be written to deal with these obstacles.

    This is called a change order and states further charges may occur. If everyone is in agreement the job continues. If not the original contract explains the division of cost & responsibilities of work completed so far.

    What this does is puts the fault on the situation and not on either party of the business transaction.

    You are going into the deal with the expectation that there may be changes and there may be further actions or companies involved to resolve these issues.

    The best solution is to have a good corporate lawyer build a standard contract for YOUR business niche with these features in the contract.

    This makes bailing out just a part of the process. Plan for change and it is much easier to regroup and move on.

  2. I’ve been through this twice in recent history — once, like the previous commenter, I was freelancer #4. I was sort of relieved to learn that it wasn’t me. The other time, it turned out the client was totally satisfied with my work, but I wasn’t satisfied with the way the relationship was managed.

    I want to be successful every time, but it’s good to remember that the reason a project is or isn’t successful has two sides.

  3. I had the case of the latter — I was the third or fourth writer and I quickly learned why. The client wanted content that no good web writer would produce. It was the kind of content not meant for a corporate web site. I hated admitting defeat, but I had to tell myself I was better off.

    Sometimes dropping a client is the best thing we can do for ourselves. Of course, try to do what you can to make it easier for the client in getting a replacement.

    The energy you drain in working on an assignment that gives you no joy — can easily be replaced with TWO clients because you enjoy the work and have more energy. It’s less tempting to put off work when it’s a good experience.