December 23, 2018

Knowing when to give up (and how to do it)

Have you ever had a client project completely blow up in your face?

Maybe you dramatically underestimated the amount of work or maybe you let the client expand the scope uncontrollably or maybe it turned out you were just way over your head from the get-go.

Whatever the reason, sometimes the best thing to do for your business is to admit defeat.

When you’re at the point when every email or voicemail or text from the client fills you with dread because you don’t know how to fix the mess you’re in, it’s probably time to consider throwing in the towel.

I can think of two times this has happened to me in the past fifteen years. In both cases, I had made an early technology choice that turned out to be a bad one. As the months of wore on, it became increasingly clear that the technology stack I chose to build the client’s custom software wasn’t going to get us where we needed to go.

In both cases, I had a heart-to-heart conversation with the client in which I admitted my error, I explained why they were going to need to use a different technology, and I offered to introduce them to an expert in that technology who could take over the project.

I don’t have the text of exactly what I said back then, but if I was going to do something similar today it would look like this:

“I’ve got bad news. I’ve come to believe that $tech1 isn’t going to work for this project after all. In retrospect, it’s clear that we should have gone with $tech2 instead. I’m not an expert with $tech2 but I know people who are and can make an introduction. If you decide to work with them, I’ll manage the transition so you don’t have to get them up to speed on your own.”

In both cases, the client was bummed because changing horses late in the race was going to cause more delays but they understood that staying the course would be even worse. Both appreciated my candor and one of them even asked if I would stay involved in a project management capacity (it would have been redundant, so I declined).

I don’t have the exact numbers anymore but IIRC I believe I refunded about $5,000 to each client. In neither case was this the full project amount, because there was some useful preliminary design and discovery work that the new firm was going to be able to use. So, I talked with each client, proposed a refund amount, and came to a prorated number that everyone was happy with.

Does it hurt to refund $5000 to a client after weeks or months of fruitless toil? Sure. But it’s totally worth it when you feel that sense of dread immediately disappear.

Doing the right thing is always the right thing to do.