The start of a web project is an exciting time. You’ve met with the client, agreed upon the goals for the project and mapped out a plan for the development of what will be an awesome new website or application — except that is not always how it turns out. Sometimes, despite your careful planning and best efforts, a project will fail. Failure isn’t something many of us like to think about, but preparing to deal with failure is as important as planning for success. Articles and tips on how to kick off a project right and build a long-term client relationship are helpful in this industry, but if you only focus on what to do when things go right, then you will be ill-prepared for when things get so off track that you are unable to complete a project.
The start of a web project is an exciting time. You’ve met with the client, agreed upon the goals for the project and mapped out a plan for the development of what will be an awesome new website or application — except that is not always how it turns out. Sometimes, despite your careful planning and best efforts, a project will fail.
Failure isn’t something many of us like to think about, but preparing to deal with failure is as important as planning for success. Articles and tips on how to kick off a project right and build a long-term client relationship are helpful in this industry, but if you only focus on what to do when things go right, then you will be ill-prepared for when things get so off track that you are unable to complete a project.
Further Reading on SmashingMag:
- The More You Fail, The Greater Your Success: A Case Study
- Lessons Learned After Shutting My Startup
- How Limitations Led To My Biggest App Store Success and Failure
Over the 15-plus years that I have been a web professional, I have enjoyed many successes and endured my share of failures. In this article, I will share the hard-won lessons I have learned during that time for facing failure and handling a failed web project.
Preparing For Failure Does Not Mean Admitting Defeat
Someone once told me, “Preparing for failure means admitting defeat before a project has even begun.” That’s like saying that wearing a seatbelt means admitting that you’re about to get into a car accident. That is obviously not the case. You wear a seatbelt to protect yourself in case something goes wrong during a trip. The same can be said for having a plan in case a website project goes wrong.
If you have a good team and a solid process, then failure will be rare. But it does happen. Having a plan for when things go wrong — really wrong — does not mean accepting failure before the fact, but rather preparing for anything that might happen in order to protect your company, your fellow team members and even your other clients.
Knowing When To Say When
Determining when a project is beyond the point of no return is always a challenge. No two projects are alike, and you must handle each project on its own terms. You do not want to admit failure too early, but you also do not want to hang on when there is no hope of success. This is a balance you must strike as you decide whether to save or abandon a project.
There are always unexpected bumps in the road and unforeseen challenges, but those challenges alone are not a reason to call it quits. Be prepared for those challenges, and do everything you can during the process to get back on track. This could include revisiting a project’s scope and budget to address inconsistencies between what was initially planned and what is being developed now.
If communication is the problem, then you might need to bring in new people from your agency or see whether someone on the client’s side should be involved in the project. You might even need to bring in outside help if you find that you have taken on more than you can handle. There is no shame in asking for help, either internally or externally. That is much better than declaring defeat when a helping hand could have made all the difference.
If you have tried all of these things and the project is still failing, then you will have to say “Enough is enough” at some point. Again, every project is different, so you will need to determine where that point is. Sometimes, as hard as it is to admit, failure is inevitable, and if you keep pushing forward, then you will only be delaying that outcome.
Prepare To Have A Difficult Conversation
This is, without a doubt, the toughest part of a failed web project: sitting down with the client to discuss the situation and to share your assessment that the project cannot be completed as discussed and that you are stepping away from it. I say “sitting down with the client” because this absolutely has to be done face to face — if not in person, then at least via video chat if the client is not local. Do not ever do it by email, as tempting as it may be to hide behind it. That is not acceptable. Remember that you are a professional, and a professional handles this type of situation personally.
I have had this unfortunate conversation a few times in the course of my career. It is never fun or easy. Some clients got anxious about what would happen next. Others got furious and screamed at me. Whatever happens, I have found that the following helps:
- Be honest.. Now is not the time to put your spin on the situation. It’s time for an honest conversation. The only caveat here is that, while you do need to be honest, you do not want to trash the client and lay all of the blame at their feet (more on that shortly).
- Explain what’s next. This is a scary time for the client. Even if they are furious and lash out verbally, they are probably only doing that out of fear. This is when you need to be a leader and lay out the steps for what comes next for them, including how you will transition them away from your company.
- Keep your cool.. Even if the client insults you or threats legal action, remain professional and keep your cool. Nothing good will come from firing back, even if you feel it would be justified.
Speak To Your Lawyer
It’s an unfortunate reality that we live in a very litigious society — and the untimely end of a web project that someone has paid for, at least in part, is a pretty logical reason for that person to seek financial restitution in the form of a refund or even compensation for damages. As you can probably imagine, this situation can get ugly, especially if you are not prepared to deal with the legal side.
When you are preparing to pull the plug on a project, speak with your lawyer. In fact, you should have had this conversation with your lawyer at the beginning to ensure that your contracts include the proper language to protect yourself as well your company in the event that something does go bad.
Many web professionals, especially those with small or new practices, often eschew a lawyer in favor of contract templates that they find online and repurpose for their own use. Those contracts are a great starting point, but you are probably not an expert in the law (I know I am not!), so you will be unable to assess whether those contracts really protect your business. Even if you start with one of those templates, consulting a lawyer to ensure that everything you need is in place still holds immense value. Yes, a cost is attached to that engagement, but the alternative could be far pricier for your agency.
Part On The Best Terms Possible
As mentioned, there is a good chance that your client will ask for a full refund at some point. Be prepared for this, and know your contractual obligations, but also do not hide behind that legal document. Sometimes, you will need to bend a little, even if you are not legally obliged to, in order to amicably resolve the failed engagement.
I remember a situation like this a number of years ago. To make a long story short, the project was a failure, and while blaming the client for all of the problems would have been easy, the reality is that my team allowed the situation to get as bad as it did, and we certainly had our share of blame. While we were not obligated to refund the client any of the money they had paid us, when we sat down with them to have this unfortunate discussion, they did indeed ask about a refund. Rather than deny them outright, we asked the client what they thought was fair. In the end, the client ended up using some of what we created for them, and we refunded a small percentage of what they had paid us. While we could have stuck to our guns and refused any refund based on our contract, we owned up to our failings and tried to do what was right for the client without hurting our company.
An interesting end to this story: A few years later, we were talking with a potential new client who mentioned that they knew someone we had worked with in the past. When we asked who that was, they referred to this failed project. As you might expect, we didn’t think that was a positive sign, but what we heard next surprised us. When we asked what had been said about us, they told us that the former client acknowledged that there had been some difficulties in the project, but said that we had “treated them right and done everything we could to help them out.”
In the end, even though the project had been a failure, our commitment to part on the best terms possible ended up getting us positive comments.
Do Not Play The Blame Game
At times, I have faced a project’s failure knowing that the reason was the client’s disfunction. Blaming them and letting them know that they are the reason why the project has crashed and burned is tempting, but that isn’t the right course of action. Playing the blame game doesn’t help anyone, and in truth, even if a project’s failure is due to a client’s insanity, that isn’t the whole story.
Remember that you are the expert, not the client. They hired you to manage this project and bring it to a successful conclusion. So, even if their disfunction has contributed to the failure, you allowed it to get that bad, and you must shoulder some of the blame.
If I am honest with myself, most of the failed projects I have endured in my career were doomed from the start. Either the project or client wasn’t a great fit or I mistakenly took on the project because the price was enticing or the client would have made a nice addition to my portfolio. In these cases, even if the client’s actions (or lack of action) contributed to the project’s failure, I also share the blame because I decided to enter into a relationship that I knew was not a great fit.
If the client’s actions played a role in the project’s failure, then be honest and discuss it during your “break-up” meeting. But also be prepared to own up to your own failings as you focus on what comes next.
Stick To Your Decision
You might be surprised to learn that about 50% of the clients I have had to walk away from come back to me within a few months to ask me to reconsider my decision. This often happens after the client has shopped around for another provider, only to discover that what I had been telling them all along was, indeed, true and that starting over would not be easy. If this happens, taking another shot at the project will be tempting, but if you were honest with yourself about needing to end the relationship, then stick with that decision.
Are the problems that doomed the project in the first place suddenly not a factor any longer? Promises of better communication, clearer direction, a bigger budget, reduced scope or whatever will “fix” the problem might sound like a reason to jump back in, but those problems will rear their head again eventually, and breaking up a second time will be even harder than the first.
Have I ever succumbed to this temptation and taken a project back on? Yes, I have. Has a project ever ended successfully the second time around? No, it has not. Eventually, it was back to the usual, and we had to start the break-up process all over again. Stick to your decision, and save yourself the headache.
Learn From The Situation
While I have made my share of mistakes over the years, I am proud that I have learned from those mistakes and avoided repeating them in subsequent projects. There is no way to avoid mistakes completely. Even the most well thought out, thorough process can break down. The important thing to do when a project goes bad is learn from it. Once the dust has settled, sit down with your team and take an honest look at what went wrong. Again, own up to your own failings, and do what you can to make sure they do not arise again.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Not every project is perfect, so be prepared to handle bumps along the way.
- Do not hang on to a project that has no hope of success, simply delaying the inevitable.
- Speak to a lawyer, and legally prepare in case a project fails.
- Plan to have a difficult and honest conversation with the client.
- Be authoritative, and outline the next steps for moving a client and project away from your company.
- Do not lose your cool, even if the client attacks you verbally or threatens legal action.
- Part on the best terms possible, and be flexible during this unfortunate time.
- Do not play the blame game by laying sole responsibility for the project’s failure at the client’s feet.
- Accept responsibility for whatever part you had in the project’s demise.
- Do not backtrack on your decision if you have been honest with yourself and determined that you need to walk away.
- Learn from your mistakes so that you do not repeat them in future.