On being ... unspoken

By Ingrid Sapona

I usually work alone but I recently got a project that required specialized services that I sub-contracted out to a consulting firm I had worked with before on some small projects. In bidding on the project, I shared with the sub-contractor the actual deadlines because I wanted to be sure they understood the timeframe and expectations. When my proposal was accepted we were both excited and hopeful, figuring that if we did a good job there might be some follow-on work for both of us from this client.

Keen to make a good impression, we decided to deliver a bit more than the client expected on the first deadline. The day before the first deadline the sub-contractor sent me one of the two items we had agreed on submitting and they promised to send the other item the next morning. By early afternoon of the next day I still hadn’t received the second item, so I phoned them. They said the second item took more time than expected but that they’d get it to me by 4:30 p.m. That didn’t leave me enough time to review it and get it to the client by close of business that day.

Because I knew the client hadn’t expected a more complete version of the second item, I decided to send them the finalized first item and my draft of the second item. I was personally disappointed we didn’t send the client all we planned, but I didn’t explicitly tell the sub-contractor I felt they let me down.

Interestingly, after the first deadline the sub-contractor didn’t hesitate to express their frustration that the project was taking more time than they budgeted for. Though I was irritated that they hadn’t come through with all we agreed on, I did feel for them because I know what it’s like to feel as though you’re being underpaid. Because the deal was cut, the most I could do was assure them that I’d do all I could to ensure they wouldn’t spend any more time than necessary.

The final deadline was a couple weeks later on a Thursday. On Monday of that week the sub-contractor phoned to let me know they’d be e-mailing me most of the stuff later that day. I was relieved to hear that and reminded them that I had more to do on it once I got it back from them. My relief was short-lived, however, as the day passed and I didn’t get anything from them. Tuesday morning, when I saw they had finally e-mail the stuff at 11 p.m., I realized we have different views of what “later” means.

That day we were both busy on different aspects of the project but again they assured me they’d send stuff later that day. Once again, however, I went to bed without receiving anything. Wednesday morning I had an e-mail waiting for me -- this time it time stamped 2:35 a.m. I e-mailed them to confirm I had received it and I joked that I felt like we’re in different time zones, given the times they were sending things. Also, worried that we have very different concepts of what constitutes timely delivery, I also took the opportunity to explicitly tell them my intention was to deliver the final project first thing Thursday, not at the close of business (which is what I suspect they were planning on).

At about 3 p.m. on Wednesday they e-mailed saying they’d send their final version to me “around dinner time, or sooner”. By 9 p.m. I hadn’t received anything, so I contacted them to find out what was wrong. They reassured me they were “just proofing it” and said I’d have it soon. “Soon” turned out to be just after midnight! Determined to deliver early in the day, I worked through the night to finalize it and I sent off to the client by 9:30 Thursday morning. Ultimately, we delivered a quality product and the client was happy, which is the most important thing, but it was a trying experience.

Friends I complained to during the process have been surprised by my response when they’ve asked me whether I’d work with that consulting firm again. The truth is, I probably would, though I’d do one thing differently. (No, I’m not talking about giving them “fake deadlines” – you know, two or three days before the real ones. I don’t like it when I feel clients might be doing that to me, so I’m not inclined to do that to others.)

What I would do differently is that I’d make sure I tell them about the one and only rule I apply to all my assignments: under promise, over deliver -- and I’d insist they apply it when dealing with me. I’m quite sure that if they’d have done that, I’d have been spared a lot of anxiety. For example, rather than promising me something “later that day” -- it would have been much better for them to simply promise they’d get it to me by noon the next day. That way, when I open my e-mail the next morning and see they sent something at 11 p.m. the night before, my expectations have not only been met -- they’ve been exceeded!

In my own defense, I must say that the idea of managing expectations hardly seems revolutionary -- it just makes good business sense, which is why I assumed it went without saying… (And that, of course, reminds me of another old adage I should remember next time I make an assumption about what goes without saying … Yup, the one about what the letters in “assume” spell out!)

© 2009 Ingrid Sapona


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