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Project delays. The second most frustrating thing for agency owners behind a client with unrealistic expectations. There are several reasons to hate project delays but the most obvious one stings me like a thorn in the side – revenue losses.
Ever since we opened shop in 2008, we’d been struggling with project delays. Business would be great, we’d be excited about concurrently running a bunch of big projects, and then we’d get an email from a client:
“Why isn’t the website finished yet?”
Cue panic mode and long nights of prayers.
Project delays used to be the bane of our agency’s growth before we decided to finally invest time, money, sweat, and tears in putting a stop to them.
If you own a digital agency or work at one and share our dislike for project delays then you’re in for a treat. I’ll be sharing with you exactly how we tackled project delays, rolled up our sleeves, and started delivering (majority of) our projects on time.
We had no idea that we’d end up creating a completely new tool for ourselves in this quest. But more on that later. First, we need to talk about the causes of project delays.
If you’re an agency owner and you want to make sure that project delays are harming your agency, ask yourself these three questions:
Your agency grows when you, the owner, are able to remove yourself from working in it so that you can start working on it. This means hiring people to do the project work while you focus on things like networking, marketing, sales, partnerships, and offering new services.
But when projects get delayed, you have to drop all that and work with the project team to finish the project ASAP.
Without all these revenue-generating activities, you’re left with just serving your current clients and worrying about the future of your pipeline.
When you give a client a deadline for when the work will be done, it’s a promise. Your reputation depends on this promise. You cannot break it without the client feeling let down and losing confidence in your agency.
Upselling becomes harder. Referrals from the client become less meaty if they even send you any. Testimonials from the client are shorter and blunter. As an agency owner, you must already know that it’s at least 5 times more expensive to get a new client than retain an old one.
If you can’t retain an old client…
If you can’t get word-of-mouth promotion and good referrals from them…
If you can’t get good testimonials that will help you to sell…
You’ll be losing out on easy revenue and a chance to develop good relationships.
Project delays sure gave me all my ulcers. My therapist (read: my wife) and I can tell you stories about the mental and physical toll that project delays take for days.
In short, you have to be functional under high stress and anxiety.
A little stress is actually useful at the moment. It’s called eustress and it lets you focus on getting to the finish line.
But putting yourself through it again and again and again isn’t healthy.
When burnout occurs, it can easily take you weeks or months to recover. This downtime is necessary. But it does mean that you’re losing revenue when the situation could’ve been prevented in the first place.
To be honest, we didn’t suddenly wake up from our long sleep on our own and decide to cut project delays short.
No, we needed a wake-up call. And it actually came during a passive-aggressive sales call.
“I’ll take all time-estimate that you’ll give me and quadruple everything. And even then I won’t be surprised if it’s way off because I’ve been burnt by web development agencies in the past.”
I knew that project delays were common in our industry but I’d always believed they were mostly unavoidable. And I believed this because barely anyone tried to do anything substantial about them.
But that call made me feel that we at least had to try tackling the problem if only to tell ourselves that we tried. So at the start of 2016, we had a team meeting where we discussed an initiative.
When a project gets delayed, what if we note down what caused it, rank the causes according to how often they happened, and devise a plan to eliminate the causes as much as possible.
I’ve shown the number of times a particular cause affected the workflow and delayed a project.
Some of these causes would occur multiple times in a project. For example, there would a lot of back and forth communication during wireframing, content placement, revision rounds, design presentation, and so on.
Although there were a few other causes as well, this is our agency’s top 10 list. I recommend you to try this at your own agency as well. Your causes might be quite different from ours.
In the meantime, let’s go over our top 10 to understand them one by one.
Unfortunately, poor client responsiveness is quite common across industries. The client might not be able to care about the project as much as we’d like and as often as we’d like.
We try to understand this issue from the perspective of our clients:
When clients become unresponsive for a period of time, they’re just focused on something else that is equally or more important for them. They do want the project to have their fullest attention. But for that, they first need to sort out that other thing.
As for the clients that respond late often, we believe that they must be wearing many hats in their organization.
We’ve accepted this as something that’s out of everyone’s control. Even good clients can get busy with things other than your project and start responding late or become unresponsive.
But during this experiment, we discovered something more.
Clients responded late when it was time for feedback because they found the revision process to be a hassle. They didn’t like giving feedback on phone or video calls because they always felt like they’d miss something. They found taking screenshots and annotating them exhausting.
They preferred becoming unresponsive to going through this experience.
Proper communication is crucial in all projects. But it blows my mind how inefficient we were at this elementary thing.
The client sends an email of the screenshots of the home page, edited in MS Paint to include the changes and discussion points…
They share some images for the hero banner on Slack…
They request a Skype video call to show how the user flow needs to be – from the homepage to the product detail page to checkout – instead of what it was…
We’re storing the feedback in multiple places, creating tasks from the feedback, and presenting the new version for revision. This was sloppy and inefficient. Things often fell through the crack.
The worst was when we got a call from an important and angry stakeholder that their suggestions were absent from the revisions. They soon dropped us from the next project they’d earlier discussed with us.
My friend in construction was once quite surprised by the fact that our agency had survived so many years without project managers.
Most agencies start small, from one person usually. And small agencies cannot afford to have dedicated project managers. So they learn to work without them. Everyone on the project team manages their part of the project.
They create and update project documentation between them. Resource and information requirements are shared by them individually.
The whole team owns the project and does their bit.
But as the agency starts landing bigger projects, project managers become necessary. There is simply too much to manage to rely on individual effort. And so you need to have project managers to oversee the project kickoff, planning, execution, and delivery.
On website development and design projects, we often need the clients to give us certain things. This is usually content and directions for that content such as what text will go on which page, what kind of images are required, videos sourced from their video person and directions to display it on required pages.
But it can also be information such as APIs that might be required for integrations of certain tools or plugins and account access for certain programs like Google Analytics or email marketing software.
In our experience, 8 out of 10 clients delay in providing the content. To the client, this delay feels inevitable and can’t be helped:
And all these scenarios are bad for the project.
Back in 2016 when we started noting down the causes of project delays, we had no QA testers on our team.
The project lead would review the code, run functionality testing, and debug the code before the client’s review. They would be doing this along with several other tasks:
…and probably a dozen more things.
Under pressure due to time crunch, we would often give a low priority to reviewing cosmetic code that didn’t affect the functionality. This would then evolve into the first cause on this list and there would be a lot of back and forth feedback.
It’s clear to us now that not having dedicated QA testers is a strict no-no. But at that time, in the middle of trying to ship the project as soon as possible, we would think that we were saving time by not taking the QA part as seriously.
I’ll illustrate this one with the help of a simple scenario.
You develop excellent user personas. You work hard on the content, design, and coding. The final website is mapped to user insights. It’s the perfect digital salesman for the client.
Then it gets pushed around among the stakeholders and hey presto, their combined and conflicting feedback robs the website of its personality and flair.
Too many cooks (stakeholders) spoil the broth (project).
During the discovery phase, we make a list of tasks that would be required to achieve the client’s goal. Then we estimate how much time each task would take.
We would get on a call with the client to estimate the time required for coding and design tasks. But, again, some things would get left out. The client might forget to tell us something or we might not ask all the specific details on the call.
And later, it would take just one teeny-tiny doubt from the client to bring the project to a halt:
“I’m not sure if this is what we’d talked about.”
It happens ever so often that the project team might spend more time on a certain task than necessary because they want it to be just perfect. Our team has a lot of pride in our work but we can get a little overzealous at times.
Chasing perfection is bad. Things can always be improved. But you have to stop yourself before you end up spending days writing and rewriting the code for the website’s header.
Fortunately, you can try to change your team’s perfectionistic behaviour.
But if you partner up with other agencies and their teams have perfectionists, it can be quite frustrating. For example, we partner up with design agencies on certain projects that they bring in. They design the website and then we develop it. But since the design agency rightly has a lot of pride in their work, they try to achieve pixel-perfect design.
Even if the client and other untrained eyes wouldn’t be able to tell that something’s off, the lead designer often asks us to redo certain things.
This doesn’t strain our relationship and we really like working with them. But delaying the project for the smallest of deviations harms everyone – our agency, their agency, and the client.
We don’t handle every little things related to web development at our agency. Instead, we’re always in contact with multiple freelancers who complement us and help us fill the gaps where we lack.
For example, we don’t have an animator on our team. We work with a freelance animator whenever anything more than a simple animation is required.
In such a case, if the freelance animator is swamped with other projects, we have to schedule her work around her availability. This means any task that depends on the animation being completed will get delayed and so will the project.
Outsourcing has its pros and cons but the biggest drawback is that it takes the project control out of your hands.
If project B gets delayed, you need to update your schedule so that project A remains unaffected. But some overflowing cannot be helped. It’s really difficult to control the dominos effect of project delays.
I’d like to share an example:
In one instance, a software dev. client went radio silent for 6 weeks before finally replying with actionable information to carry the project forward. But by that time we were already in the middle of two more complex projects in full swing.
Now, we could either make room for the software dev. project and delay the other two by a few days or we could overwork the team and try to finish all in time.
We did both things but it didn’t help. At the end of it, the team was fatigued and we still delivered the projects after their due dates.
So there you have it. These were the causes of project delays at our agency and how they were hurting us. The next step was to rank these causes and start working on them.
Understanding what caused the project delays was the easy part. The real challenge was fixing the issues. We knew that we had to be patient with the improvements because batch fixes seldom worked for our agency in the past.
And I have a hunch that it’s the same for many digital agencies:
Changes in personnel, changes in processes, changes in workflow, and changes in work philosophy always need some time to adjust to.
With the priority order in our hands, we started figuring out ways to fix the problems.
It’s not easy for smaller agencies, who are strapped for cash, to hire more people instantly. From when we started our agency business (W3Nuts) till 2013, we were in this boat.
So we had completely ignored the fact that as your agency’s reputation grows, project size grows, and project complexity grows, your team should grow in proportion. But this exercise made it clear how much time and money we were losing because of our ignorance.
We hired three QA testers and one PM at the beginning of 2017. Then in mid-2018, we hired two more project managers.
Hiring project managers also helped with some of the other issues such as client-side delays in providing resources and unresponsive clients because the project managers would follow up with the client consistently.
They would switch from being the client’s voice at our agency to being our voice at client meetings. This took a huge load off the developers as we stopped assuming things and started asking more questions – politely.
In order to stop the project team from overfitting things, we set more granular milestones and deadlines for parts of the project. The project managers would follow up with the assignee if their tasks were incomplete and pull resources from other projects to get the task completed ASAP.
This meant that even if a task was delayed for a while, the main deliverables would never miss the deadline.
We also shared the issue with our partner agencies along with our investigation and findings. We told them that we all have to follow a simple motto now:
We ship. Or else.
Or else we lose clients.
Or else we lose time and money.
Or else we lose goodwill and our reputation.
We told them that missing the deadlines to achieve the perfect design will need to be stopped. The problem didn’t go away completely but we were able to bring it under control.
We were quite happy with the progress we saw just by hiring PMs and QA testers at the start of 2017.
We debated internally how to tackle them and finally decided that this problem required some active management with the help of a specialized tool. Asana, Slack, and other project management platforms simply weren’t cutting it.
So we started looking for a feedback tool that our clients could use.
We needed something to help us capture and store client feedback, create tasks around it, and organize the work to be done. Maybe the internal team could report bugs through it as well. Simple as that.
Thankfully, such tools already existed in the market. We bought and tried them.
But we soon realized that they were too limited. The clients could use the feedback tools to easily create annotated screenshots and they could highlight specific elements on the webpage to provide their comments.
We also found that clients still hesitated in using these feedback tools because they still required some work. They wanted something as easy as calling us and listing all the feedback points.
So we slowly slipped back to using our old standby – Skype, project management tools, and email. Our problems continued.
But by now we were too determined to give up on our quest. So we looked real hard and realized that all these issues could’ve been solved with just one very useful feature: screen recording with voice over.
Without this, every problem was just half solved. With this, we’d have an ultimate feedback tool to give to our clients. And as there was no tool that supported videos or screen recording at that time, we resorted to building one ourselves for internal use.
This is how W3Dart was created.
Lot of back and forth communication during revisions was cut down drastically because the clients could now simply record their screen and walk us through the feedback. The team members could report the bugs in the same way.
Client delay in providing resources decreased because W3Dart would automatically send reminder emails to the clients, nudging them to complete the task.
Poorly developed scope of work became a problem of the past because we documented the scope in video format and stored them in W3Dart itself. Whenever there was a complaint from either side regarding scope, we would simply revisit the video.
Clients stopped being unresponsive because the tool was so easy and intuitive to use that they actually looked forward to revision rounds. All they had to do was just click on the plugin and push a button to start recording their screen and voice.
We’ve been using this tool agency-wide since late 2017 now and it single-handedly solved the biggest problems that caused project delays for us. With remote working becoming a norm in 2020 due to the pandemic, we’ve decided to share this tool with all other agencies and freelancers out there.
To prevent project delays caused by too many stakeholders we had to be proactive. We started by trying to nip the problem in the bud by not letting the number of stakeholders increase beyond reason.
We asked our clients to limit the project to 3 – 4 stakeholders from their side. Then we would set a seniority order between them so that the feedback would be limited.
For example, CEO would trump VP of comms. VP of comms would trump project manager. If a website section didn’t look good to the project manager but the CEO was okay with it, CEO’s choice would trump PM’s opinion.
We asked our clients to assign one stakeholder to give one set of feedback. One for brand and content, one for compliance, one for design, and so on.
This meant we wouldn’t even have to wait for an internal meeting when the design was being reviewed or content was being reviewed. It sped up our process by days.
We encouraged clients to have internal discussions among themselves first and then provide feedback to us. They would collate their feedback and deliver it all to us as one. This eliminated conflicting feedback.
I have to be honest here – we still have no clue how to fix these two issues.
We tried several different things but none of them landed. We had a strict vetting method for outsourcing parts of projects but even the most brilliant freelancers would get stuck. As for one project delaying the other, I don’t even know how to start solving that problem.
But as overall project delays went down due to the measures we took and W3Dart, we’ve been better able to manage delays caused by these two issues. So while we’ve not been able to directly work on them, our solutions for other problems have made these two issues quite bearable.
Now, it’s time for the moment of truth.
We started this little experiment in 2016 and it grew to become our agency’s pet project. In mid-2017, we started working on W3Dart. In a year, we were using it for every project.
By 2019, we had hired 3 project managers and 3 QA testers. At the same time, we had grown from an 8-member team in 2016 to 26 team members in 2019.
All this time, we kept collecting the data and this was the scenario at the end of 2019.
Now, it’s quite obvious that as the number of projects increased over the years there would be more room for project delays to happen. The drop in their occurrence didn’t really follow a linear path but by 2019 we were able to witness a remarkable difference from the 2016 scores.
This led to a whole lot of good things for our agency.
I was able to pull myself out of the day-to-day and work on growing the business. My partner and I started spending more time on networking, talking about our development philosophy with prospects, and improving our agency’s culture.
Here are some of the measurable ways in which this pet project of our agency boosted our growth and revenue but I’m sure there were other benefits that went unnoticed because we couldn’t measure them.
We observed that lesser project delays also improved our relationship with the client. With W3Dart by our side, we were able to demonstrate how serious we were about creating better client experiences. Our clients realized that they could trust our processes with their large digital investments.
This trust made it easier for us to upsell and cross-sell our services.
We would start with a branding project which would convert into a website development project and expand into an app development project. This would’ve been difficult if the initial project itself was plagued with delays and became a headache for the client.
More and more clients started asking us to maintain their web presence after the projects would end. We would demo W3Dart to our clients and show them how we can take feedback from their customers regarding the website or software and continuously improve it. They loved the tool and we loved the retainers.
These website maintenance retainers gave us a reliable revenue stream. And having a reliable revenue stream really allowed us to stretch our legs. We stopped going after clients just because they had money and we needed that money. Our targeting became much more focused, our expertise increased, and we were able to increase our rates by a good amount.
Better relationships with the client also meant that we could tap into the client’s network from the shadows. Impressed by our work and workflow that we implemented with W3Dart, clients would often refer us to their friends and acquaintances who had the same or better budgets.
The word-of-mouth this generated helped us a lot in 2018 and 2019. We literally spent zero dollars last year on marketing and still got more work than ever before.
New PMs and QA testers took the load off our core team members a lot. Previously, they had to manage a lot of things that the PMs and QA testers took over. W3Dart helped them in creating bug reports, staying on top of the feedback submitted by clients, and getting the required resources from the clients.
And even though we don’t make banal measurements about such metrics, we’re sure that their “individual output” improved. All we know is that the Slack channels became much happier and emoji-friendly.
Happier employees meant less turnover. Less employee turnover meant less time spent on training new employees. So much win.
Our agency’s sales team consists of me, my partner, and two of our sharpest associates. With lesser project delays, I was more confident in our solutions and in our ability to deliver those solutions
Whereas previously I would be unsure about working with very big websites and legacy brands, I felt at ease talking to executives about our agency’s ability to meet deadlines and provide a great service.
All these benefits ultimately resulted in more projects, more revenue, more team members. We’ve grown more in 3 years from 2017 to 2019 than we did in the 10 years before that.
Getting rid of project delays improved our agency in every part of the business:
We were able to bring in more projects. We were able to service them efficiently. We had time on our hands to service more projects and/or more complex projects.
We were able to increase our revenue by working on more projects and working on projects with higher budgets. We hired more developers and designers to serve the increasing load.
It was quite a ride and all worth it. In 2016, we had a yearly revenue of $107,142. In 2019, we were able to grow this to $361,000.
When we started working on project delays in 2016, we never anticipated any of these wonderful outcomes. All I wanted was more time for me to do business-growing stuff.
The changes we made helped our agency mature. My partner and I started looking at problems and opportunities in a more strategic way. Our team started proactively fixing things to keep the project work running smoothly.
I don’t think we did something that other agencies and freelancers can’t do with their own operations. We took the problem seriously and kept at it, year after year.
You have the same power and you can get the same results. Learn from our experiences that I’ve described here. Start bombing project delays at your own agency and watch your revenue as well as team mushroom up!