Some of you might have clients who are interested in your services, have no desire to interact with other contractors, but have set challenging completion dates. You are torn about how to respond to such good potential clients when you lack the time or bandwidth to serve their needs as quickly as they would like. What do you tell them that does not drive them away?

I don’t have a magic answer. But I have some suggestions that might help.

Remember that while the job might look attractive and you don’t want to disappoint people who feel that you and your company are special, you can't take a job with terms connected to it that will unduly stress your company. I struggled with this when we were running our company. My desire to please others so they would like me would sometimes get in the way of me making sound business decisions. Watch out for that happening!

Step by Step

When I found myself in a conversation about when we could complete a project, I would turn it into a chat about what needs to happen for the project to get done. For me, it was good to do this with a simple drawing that I would sketch as I was talking. I would say “Let’s start with your completion date and work backward, addressing each of the steps with the amount of time needed for each one.”

Then I would take a piece of paper and draw a line from left to right. The end-point on the left would represent the current month. Next I would draw short lines perpendicular to the long line, leaving about a half to three-quarters of an inch between them, and label each one with a month. Somewhere to the right I would put the potential client’s desired completion date, then keep the line going and list many more months. I did that anticipating that we might need some of those months later in the conversation.

Now, talking all the while, I would start at the client’s targeted month for completion and begin moving left—going back in time. First I would count off the number of months I thought the project would take. To the left of that, I would put in the amount of time needed to get the permit. Left of that expected permit application date, I would then lay out the number of months needed to make sure all the decisions were made pre-start. Finally, and furthest to the left, I would show the time needed to do the estimating and proposal so that a construction contract could be signed.

By the way: Each time I would write something down, I would talk about the basis for my thinking. I wanted that potential client to understand my thinking and get the impression that I knew what I was talking about. If the potential client would ask why some phase would take so long, I would take the time to explain, more or less, what had to happen step-by-step.

As all this progressed, more often than not it would become obvious that there weren't enough months available to finish the work by the prospect's desired completion date. So then I would lay out the same process/sequence, starting from today’s date and moving to the right. First would be doing the estimate so that a proposal could be presented, followed by the other steps.

When it was all laid out I would ask the potential client what he/she thought now that it was clear the target date couldn't be met. Did it mean that we should stop talking? Was our company out of the running?

Collaborative Approach

By addressing this in a collaborative way I was educating those potential clients, telling them what in my experience I knew to be the truth. By being open and honest, I think I ended up positioning our company and its approach as one that the client could depend on—in fact, depend on more than someone who might say “No problem!” when asked about a desired completion date.

If what I had laid out was unacceptable to the potential client I came to believe that it was great we had figured that out so early in the process. Their not thinking it was acceptable meant that whoever they ended up working with would have a tough time working with them. Better off a competitor does their job than our company, as it will likely not go well.

Remember what I mentioned earlier, about you needing to not want and/or “need” the job? That is critical to the success of the conversation. If you do end up being controlled by your compulsion to get the job and you do get it, you'll end up regretting having done so.

How do I know, you may ask? I tried it a couple of times and it never worked out well. Save yourself the grief!