When freelance projects go wrong, keep calm and communicate


When you win a new client and start working on a fresh freelance project, it can be one of the most exciting times for any freelancer.

You spent time and effort putting together a project plan and strategy that you know the client should go for. When they do and you get that call to give you the go ahead, that’s when all the hard work pays off.

But then again, the hard work is only just beginning. Especially if the project starts to go off course.

It can be easy to bury your head as someone new freelancing when something goes wrong with a project. You’re inexperience may show when you’ve overestimated on what you can deliver and you don’t want to lose any clients.

If anything happens with your freelance projects when you’re just starting out as a freelancer, keep calm and don’t panic.

Follow the steps in this post and you’ll be back on your feet before you know it.

How do I spot when my freelance project is going off course?

Estimating how long a project will take is incredibly difficult, not just for new freelancers. There are always hidden obstacles, unexpected problems and tasks that were completely unaccounted for.

  • If you wait until there is a problem, you’ve waited too long. Risk often show up way before it they turn into real problems. Be aware of risks and raise them early on with your client.
  • Checking in on yourself on a daily basis is an easy way to notice problems. Ask yourself "how is the project I planned for aligning with the actual work left?" Once you know there is something awry, the most valuable way to discuss is focusing on work left.
  • Take it easy on yourself. You don’t make it as a successful freelancer because you’re solving easy problems. Estimating when the project complicated is most often hard and can often be inaccurate.

Freelance projects may often go off course. The key is getting them back on track again.

What should I do if I’m not going to make a deadline?

How you bring up the fact that you underestimated part of your project isn’t as important as communicating straight away. Be honest with everyone about where you stand and follow these guidelines:

  • Communicate immediately with your client. Never delay facing up to the fact that you’re going to have to talk to them. Most people will be less upset about the project timelines changing than the fact that they weren’t told. If you’re honest with the client and communicate when there is good news, as well as bad news, most of them will understand.
  • Explain exactly what’s going on. This means you need to be completely honest with everyone on your team and speak up early. If you wait until the last minute to say something, after you tried working long hours to make up time, there isn’t much that can be done. They may not like it, but once they make a decision, they feel more a part of it and you will have bought some goodwill for a while.
  • Be aware of any knock on effects on projects elsewhere. You may need to communicate any necessary changes to keep those projects on schedule. Your client will appreciate that you think beyond your own project and this will offset some of the potentially bad feelings about the project going off course.

Why should I be communicative and honest about freelance projects that are going wrong?

Even when you know that a deadline has been missed, you may find it difficult to communicate with a client. But no matter what freelance area you come from, you need to learn how to just say it as soon as possible.

Here’s why:

  • Your client may have others within their organisation to update. It doesn’t reflect well on your client when the higher ups find out last minute something won’t be on time. This can play havoc their internal plans about the project.
  • Delays pile up. Two days here, four days there, a week on that other problem. Before you know it you’re a month behind schedule. It’s much easier to discuss obstacles as they arrive rather than save them all up towards the end of the project.
  • Most clients are willing to negotiate. Though we’d all like to think otherwise, clients often make some changes during projects. When those changes occur and you’re already on the same page, it’s much easier to discuss how the changes that you’ve flagged are going to affect the delivery date.

How should I communicate when a freelance project is going wrong?

How you bring up the fact that you underestimated part of your project isn’t as important as doing it right away. Always open the communication lines as soon as you know you are behind.

If you are behind on a milestone, speak up now. Here’s how:

  • When you speak up early, this is also good for everyone else involved in the project. Work with your client to make adjustments to the project timeline to keep things on track. Othwerise they can delay other parts of the project if the project involves more than just your part of the work.
  • Don’t assume you can just make up the time during the rest of the project. The worst thing you can do when your project is running behind is make it a surprise to everyone on the day of the deadline.
  • The ultimate goal is to be part of successful project, not looking like a hero. You look a lot better if you give everyone a chance to come up with a plan to get the project back on track.

How can I make sure I don’t miss a project deadline again?

This advice is all well and good, but how can you make you don’t underestimate how long your projects are going to take?

Here are a few ways to make sure you estimate your projects accurately:

  • Thinking about work in how complex it is, rather than time allocations. More difficult and complex work increases time it takes to complete.  Any work that is relatively is best broken down into smaller pieces of work.
  • Firm up the project definition of "complete." Having a well known definition of when a project is complete –  that everyone agrees on – will help when deciding that the project is done.
  • Use your instincts. Complicated projects are often too complicated and deep to really have any idea how long they are going to take.You went freelance because you are an expert in your field and have confidence in your own abilities. Trust your gut instinct.

How do I ensure the freelance project will be completed while I’m working on it?

It’s hard for people to actually know they’re going to miss a deadline and they might feel that they can correct their course. But if you have a clear definition of what a completed project looks like and work broken down into pieces that fit in a week and you plan each week’s work, then you will know as soon as you get behind that you are behind.

Here’s a simple guide to make that process easier:

  • Break your freelance project down into logical pieces of work, each one small enough for you to understand how to roughly complete it
  • Order the pieces of work such that you are doing the most important tasks first.
  • At the start of each week declare what you will finish that week, always starting the most important things you could
  • At the end of the week, see whether you finished everything you said you would. If you haven’t, you are behind and it this will impact next week’s work. This is where you communicate openly and honestly with your client

The key is to divide your milestones into small tasks and communicate this detailed plan within the context of your overall project. Update your client about your progress as frequently as possible to help keep you on track.

Frequent communication is the key

During a freelance project, if you realise that your original plan was wrong, communicate immediately with your client so you can fix any problems as soon as possible.

If you follow the above advice, you’ll be back on track to running a successful freelance project before you know it!

What tips do you have to make amend when freelance projects go wrong? Do you have any personal anecdotes where this advice cam in handy? What other things should you look out for when projects go off course? Let me know in the comments below.


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