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Facing Failure: Tips For Handling A Failed Web 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:

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 Link

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 Link

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.

One thing you must acknowledge right away is that no project goes perfectly as planned.4
One thing you must acknowledge right away is that no project goes perfectly as planned. (Image credit5)

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

  • 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.

(il, al)

Footnotes Link

  1. 1 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2014/12/the-more-you-fail-the-greater-your-success/
  2. 2 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2015/11/lessons-learned-shutting-startup/
  3. 3 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2014/07/my-biggest-app-store-success-and-failure/
  4. 4 https://www.flickr.com/photos/dhinson/1290445055/
  5. 5 https://www.flickr.com/photos/dhinson/1290445055/

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Jeremy Girard was born with six toes on each foot. The extra toes were removed before he was a year old, robbing him of any super-powers and ending his crime-fighting career before it even began. Unable to battle the forces of evil, he instead works as the Director of Marketing and Head of Web Design/Development for the Providence, Rhode Island based Envision Technology Advisors. He also teaches website design and front-end development at the University of Rhode Island. His portfolio and blog, at Pumpkin-King.com, is where he writes about all things Web design.

  1. 1

    Thank you very much for this insight. I myself have been buried in two failing projects in a row which definitely did take a lot of energy and enthusiasm from my work – which i believe to be of high quality. I also considered leaving both of the projects, but did not have the inner strength. One of them ended up quasi successful on both ends (we ended up to agree on a rather big discount, the client eventually got a proper product), the second one is still in progress.

    Leaving a project definitely takes a strong decision and proper management of the situation and I was really happy to find this article, as it compensates for all the enthusiasm loss.

    Thanks again and keep up the good work.

    5
    • 2

      Jeremy Girard

      November 8, 2014 3:47 pm

      Thanks for your comments. A failed project really does take a lot out of you, but hopefully you can take some lessons from the two failed projects in a row to make your work or process better for the future. Good luck!

      0
  2. 3

    This is really GOOD advice, that now I know from experience, is hard when the breakup happens, and even worse if the client hasn’t paid yet and takes the decision not to pay you after you invested time and effort.

    2
  3. 4

    Well that was vague and fluffy nothing. I was thinking Id get more practical info from this.

    -13
  4. 5

    Why can’t we all just get along? LOL. I think much of this article appeals to the freelancer out there. The freelancer is a person with limited legal resources and business management knowledge (this would be different from project management knowledge which many freelancers are very good at). The bottom line is when you freelance you are assuming both roles (in my humble opinion). A business owner AND trade-master. There’s really no escape. Often as freelance work typically goes, you are providing services to a business that has the very abilities you may lack (business management, lawyers, etc.). This scenario makes it easy for a dissatisfied customer to bully and intimidate you (I have actually been threatened to be sued for extortion when raising the issue change orders and how they impact time and costs). I was also threatened to be sued when I tried to fire myself from the engagement citing not able to full fill the project demands under existing payment terms (which the client pretty much bullied me into to begin with). As soon as a freelancer dedicates time and attention to Business Management, putting together contracts, finding a lawyer, etc… guess what… they are no longer a “freelancer.” They are now a small business owner. Much of freelance relies on verbal commitments, loose arrangements and trust. Many freelancers do not wish to become business owners and yet focus on the services that make them happy; the production/creative side. It’s a delicate line to walk though and there are people out there that will exploit your talents for their own gain… and do so smiling the entire time. Be warned. It may be the client you are dealing with… right now.

    3
    • 6

      Jeremy Girard

      November 8, 2014 7:41 pm

      True, the point about legal matters may apply more to a freelancer who may eschew the use of a lawyer for cost reasons that a larger agency who needs a lawyer for a variety of items, but don’t think that just because you are with an agency you can not be bullied by clients. Anyone, freelancer or established agency, can face failure and anyone can be put in the unfortunate positions mentioned in this article.

      0
  5. 7

    Aaron Martone

    November 9, 2014 4:01 am

    “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is but the courage to continue that counts.” —Winston Churchill.

    Seems rather poignant to the article. :)

    3
  6. 8

    Today’s article is all about dealing with failure. Not everyone is successful when creating a project that involves endless programming. This article presented to me that there are many factors that intensify dealing with failure, such as dealing with the client or customer. When someone is contracted or employed in some way to create a website or some other type of web project, there is much hype involved. A programmer or digital specialist reviews and listens to what the client wants, and as a result develops a plan and design, and executes action involving the use of many tools. Often at times programmers have to learn and re-learn how to utilize new tools and spend much time preparing for these processes. When one finds out that all the amount of work that has been put in to a project has failed, a programmer or digital artist may take it to heart. But regardless of what someone feels there are other aspects of failure that someone has to prepare to face. Such as confronting a client. When doing so, as the article stated, one must be prepared to have a difficult verbal confrontation. Chances are that a client won’t be too happy to hear news of what they have invested in has failed.

    0
  7. 9

    Dear Jeremy Girard,
    Thank you for writing this relatable article. I am a nutrition student at Arizona State University, and while I do not develop many web projects, this may be useful information to keep in mind for the future. The article gave great insight on preparing and even expecting to fail. Communication in the office while building the project is a must. Stating different ideas and thoughts will make a project a success.
    I take a liking to the quote “Preparing for failure does not mean admitting defeat.” While one must fail to succeed, it is also imperative to keep going. Failing is a fact of life and we all must be fine with that. Taking on too much or not seeing eye to eye with colleagues can mean failing, but a lesson must come with every piece of failure. There should also always be a back-up plan to the original one created. Sometimes, we expect every single event to go well, but it doesn’t always turn out that way.
    When there is a failed web project, the individual must go directly to the client and own up to it. Being honest is key to moving forward. While the project didn’t go as planned, it is important to be mature about it and consider what options you have to move on. Explaining to the client that the project cannot go forward may be difficult, but being honest and explaining what happened is key.

    -2
    • 10

      Thanks for your comment, although I’m not sure if I agree 100% with it. You used the phrase “preparing and even expecting to fail.” There is difference there – preparing to fail means having a plan in case things go wrong. Expecting to fail is much different. If you go into a project “expecting to fail”, there is a problem there.

      0
  8. 11

    Timmy Hagopian

    November 17, 2014 2:05 am

    Oh my goodness! an excellent write-up dude. Many thanks Nonetheless I am experiencing trouble with ur rss . Do not know why Not able to enroll in it. Will there be any person obtaining identical rss dilemma? Anyone who knows kindly respond. Thnkx

    -2

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