Freelancers: how do you get your client to stick to deadlines?

Jul 29, 2011

Hi, everyone:

So...I've been a freelance ID for a few years now, and am getting busier. An issue that I seem to run into has to do with timelines, specifically, projects dragging out longer than the projected timeline. This, of course, makes it difficult to manage my other clients, take on new work, and so on.

Here's the question: how do you put the burden of timeline on your client's shoulders? Do you write something into the original contract that states a change order will be issued if a deadline is missed? Just trying to figure out ways to motivate clients to want to finish the project.

Anyway, hope to hear from you.  Best, Daniel

11 Replies
Rich Miller

That recently becam e an issue to me with a client who just let everything lapse as I waited, when they were ready they came back with a new unrealistic timeline, and I had picked up anther project to "pay the bills" andnow there are hard feelings and i may never work for the initial client again.  Now I make sure it is written that overruns and extentions that are the result of the client can cause them to be put behind a project that has kept their commotments.

Zara Ogden

Freelance or Corporate they all have a hard time following

With the clients I can't comment as I haven't had the opportunity yet.

But internally in the corporate setting, I just move on. I always politely let the SME know that I have other projects in the works and that if they are unable to meet deadlines then I must move on. I also let them know that with delays from them it can cause their projects to lose priority. I am always understanding especially if the SME communicates with me the reasons for delay (usually a pressing unavoidable issue has occurred). If it is just laziness then it usually comes to light when their boss is asking my why their project is not done yet. You always catch more bees with honey or i guess sweet flowers.

I know I have heard that many freelancers place stipulations in their contract that indicate what will happen if there are delays from the client and themselves. Jenise Cook I think has had some good comments on this before.

Sheila Bulthuis

I think this is a common problem for those of us who are self-employed – in fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of projects I’ve worked on where the client kept to the initial timeline!  For me, the issue has two parts:  making sure you’re covered from a contractual/legal standpoint, and protecting your relationship with the client.

I usually include language in the contract/agreement about timelines.  The exact language depends on the project – and the client! – but often something along the lines of “I’m available to start working on this date, and the proposed timeline is (insert milestones dates).  This timeline depends on the availability of client resources for X, Y, and Z.” and then stuff about how a delay in client deliverables will result in a delay in completion of the project, and a new completion date will have to be mutually agreed upon.  And for fixed-fee work I usually include a provision that if the client delays the project for more than X days, I will invoice at that point (instead of when the project is complete).  That helps a bit with making sure you can pay your bills even if they miss their deadline, and it also motivates them to keep on track, because they know they’ll have to make the payment either way.   

But the more important part (in my opinion) is your relationship with the client, and that isn’t usually helped by saying “Sorry, the contract says this.”  So I try to keep in constant communication about timelines/status, beginning before we even sign an agreement.  When we’re talking about the project, I explain how I’ll approach it and we discuss what their part will be, and I ask them about what will be realistic for them in terms of turnaround times.  Then as the project progresses I keep the client updated as to status and open issues – often the open issues are things like “I’m still waiting for X from you.”  It means walking a fine line between nagging/stalking and gentle reminders.  J   I also let them know proactively if I have something big coming up (vacation, a big project/deadline for another client) so they know ahead of time about any big time constraints on my end.  If all that doesn’t help, I let them know (nicely) that I’m considering the project on hold and they should let me know when they’re ready to continue, and at that point we can figure out a new timeline. 

One other thing I’ve found works well:  a lot of my clients will delay forever if I’m waiting for them to send me info or turn around a review, but if I schedule meetings with them they’ll keep those appointments.  So with some of my clients, I do all reviews, etc. as a working session (in person or via phone/web).  It takes a little more time on my end, but it’s worth it to keep the project on track and the client happy!  

Anyway, that’s my two cents, hope that helps…

Brian Griffin

Daniel, I know what you're talking about. I used to work as a freelancer and clients kept shifting the deadlines, dragging out project, delaying paydates... I always had several projects running (or rather not running) in parallel, I was unable to properly plan my time or my finances... I was as loyal to them as possible, always understood their reasons in hope that they would be loyal and understood my needs in return. All to no avail. Corporate clients did not give a damn about a lone freelancer and it seemed that even when my fee was only 5% of the overall development budget, I was the last to get paid. Why would they bother to pay me when they always knew I was the good guy who cared about the end result and would always deliver the project no matter what, even when it was rescheduled several times and dragged for a year instead of four weeks. 

Finally I grew tired of it and stopped freelancing. I now run a small e-learning company, a team of seven, working with local corporate clients, mostly. I could give you a few tips on how to manage clients better but they are of little use anyway. If you are tired of this situation, you should either get a permanent job, maybe remotely, or start a business. Once you have 15-20 concurrent projects and 50 within a one-year pipeline, delays won't impact your cash flow so much. On the other hand, you will have like a thousand other reasons to sleep less and worry more. 



Jenise Cook (
Do you write something into the original contract that states a change order will be issued if a deadline is missed?

Zara, thanks for the mention, BFF!

Hey, Daniel!

Yes, make sure your SOW (Statement of Work) mentions a Change Management process for Change Orders where you would bill the client for out-of-scope work. Scope creep just happens. Sometimes a client begins to have true Ah-ha! moments of creativity only when the course is almost done, and they realize they need to change/swap things around. Or, there's a critical Stakeholder they forgot to invite "to the party", and during Beta review cycles, that Stakeholder takes a look at the course and makes huge revisions.

If you do a WWW search (Google, Yahoo) on Change Management or Change Order + Templates, you should see some great ideas on wording to put into your own. It's funny, but I don't have a C.O. template to share with you. My SOWs are pretty specific and the Change Management wording is detailed and clear.

Honestly, even as a small independent, as you've learned, it's important to use structured project management principles to keep sanity in both your work life and your off hours life. (Family and friends eventually get pretty mad when you work way too much, and then they pull an "intervention"! LOL)

And, you might lose a new client or two when they see your detailed SOW with Change Management wording, but that's okay. Let them go. There are many wonderful clients out there who understand the business world and will work with you. (And, there are clients who will take advantage of a small independent. Just ask any colleague who does Web Design/Development, or any freelance graphic artists.)

One of my favorite sites for freelancers is has an informative blog, too, with great suggestions.

Hope this helps, Daniel, and wishing you the best.


Daniel Brigham

Rich, Sheila, Zara, and Jenise:

Thank you for your input. It sounds as if a change order template is a good idea as well as getting better and striding that line between friendly reminders to the client and nagging requests as to where my content is.

And Sheila and Jenise, you are quite right when you suggest that in the end, it's really about the relationship or mutual respect that exists between you and the client.

Thanks so much. --Daniel

Kathleen Harper

Recently we used Basecamp to track projects and communicate tasks with the client. This turned out to be just as good as what is used in the construction industry, a RFI (Request for Information) Log, but a little more flexible for the clients and for us. Every task that's outstanding is entered along with the owner of that task and its milestone date - and the "heat gets turned  up" as the task ages. The beauty of such a project management tool is that it's online, all stakeholders can participate at whatever level you set, and the interface is easy to use. It's a non-painful way to help get those pesky deliverables coming, and it also keeps you, the designer, honest.

It's at I believe, and there are free and paid levels of accounts.

Chris Burbridge

Sheila, you make some great, intelligent points here! So far beyond the usual "tips and tricks" stuff.


  • You must create contracts to cover your ass, but if the client isn't "bought in" to the agreement, you can still end up with an unhappy client.
  • Schedule meetings with client to make sure they're paying attention--then they will. (Note to self—These meetings will keep ME on track, too! We ALL can use keeping more on track! I know one virtual company that ALWAYS does a Monday "scrum" meeting, for every project. Each participant can say what they've worked on, what they're going to be working on, and anything they need.
  • If I'm not getting what I need, I need to bug 'em a little bit. It doesn't do much good to sit there quietly complaining!—It just derails the project.

I'm looking at putting all these main points into a presentation (yes—with pictures and big bold letters!), that will really stand out and make an emotional impact. You have to reach people emotionally to get their attention, if you want to keep their buy-in.

Sheila Bulthuis

Thanks, Chris.  I'm continuously figuring out how to do it better - every project is a learning experience!  I like how you distilled my ramblings downt o kwy points.     e-Learning is only one part of my consulting practice,and I've found that those points apply to pretty much every project I do, e-learning or not.

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