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I have been interviewed yesterday as a team leader for a start-up, and I was asked this:

Suppose you have a deadline for a client tomorrow and there is much pressure on your team to finish it and deliver the product on time. However, there is a client of yours that he needs an emergency support/fix otherwise he can not operate, run his business until it is fixed.

What would you do in this situation? Summarizing what I said, I would look all of my options, discuss with the team if there is a way to do both. If the answer is positive but we must work more hours today then I would choose this. If the answer was negative and I was sure that there is nothing we can do (even splitting the team is not helping), I would contact my new client telling him that the project will be delivered tomorrow and offer him an extended support or a discount/offer for our mistake. The team will work on our existing client.

He told me that there is no correct or false answer but there is a way to handle this better. I didn't ask why, and I need your opinions on what would be a better way to handle this.

For the record, I will have my reply soon.

  • I like your options. I'm curious to know their way to handle it better? Maybe hire more people to meet the deadline and make both projects? – jackJoe Feb 16 '12 at 9:24
  • I don't know in Portugal, but here in Brazil the hiring process from finding skilled people to contract signoff takes at least a couple of weeks... In a one-day deadline, I'd say that it wouldn't be effective. – Tiago Cardoso Feb 16 '12 at 12:49
  • I've no experience with this, but my first reactions are much the same as yours. I'd also ask (a) Is he sure he means days, not weeks? If the project needs a serious amount of work on the last day before the deadline, it's almost certainly going to be late anyway, and if it really is a matter of a day, surely one day late won't make much difference? It's too late to fix it now, but surely your deadlines ought to be made under the assumption that you might have a powercut for a day? (b) Know the customers and guess who would accept some other compensation for a day's delay, and offer it? – Jack V. Feb 28 '12 at 12:15
  • So, what was the "better" answer? – daaxix Jul 23 '14 at 6:28
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Deadlines are missed all the time. While it is a badge of honor to hit it, there are acceptable variances where the schedule can still be claimed a success. Further, it will likely have zero impact on your first client because it likely planned for a late delivery as contingency. Your second client is dead in the water. He is being severely impacted by the minute and if you delay help, you will most certainly lose him as a client forever.

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    Bravo, David. I would add that if you are completely transparent with the new customer, you could well earn even more loyalty from them. "Look at how they treat their existing customers. We don't have to worry they'll always be chasing the next buck if we have a problem." – Joel Bancroft-Connors Feb 16 '12 at 18:42
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I agree with David (+1!) the best is to keep the customers we have, as deadlines are subjectively known to be broken. And David's answers is pretty much the same as yours, focusing on the current customer.

The open question here lies slightly beyond:

How could this be handled better?

As already stated, if there's no right or wrong... how can exists better or worse? It's basically depends on one's opinion (and in the belief that his answer would be the 'most correct').

Thinking on it, I'd guess that the only slip on your answer would be to contact the client offering something your company may not be ready to, or maybe sales people should do this task of clearing things up with the client. But it will depend on the company structure... maybe you'd be doing the sales and my answer would be void.

Further, you'd need to understand the relationship and complexity of each client. If the client who's needing the project delivered tomorrow is paying you 1M for it while the other one has a few bucks contract... would be hard to think of delay a 1M contract. Besides, and if the new project is also a business stopper (like a new policy restriction being applied to a specific program)?.

There are plenty of variables that aren't known (or at least, stated here)... and probably even the person who asked you could had all of them clear on his mind (for a past experience, for instance) but forgot to mention some important details of these relationships...

Anyways, please share with us once you have a 'better' answer :)

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Being an entirely abstract question there is, as your interviewer said, no absolute right or wrong answer.

Here's a few other thingss I would take into consideration before making my decision:

  • Is there anyone else in the wider organization (outside my team) who can support the live user? If you're in an impossible situation don't be afraid to go for help higher up the managment chain.

  • What's the impact of late project delivery to customer A? What's the impact of downtime on customer B? In the abstract, downtime sounds worse than late project delivery, but in practice it isn't always.

  • What is our relationship with the two customers? Are we in good standing with A and on red alert with B? If so, we can perhaps spend some of the goodwill from A to earn much-needed goodwill from B.

  • Is there a huge discrepancy between the commercial value of the two customers? Is A our highest profile, highest revenue, case study reference account? And B worth 1% of that?

I'd be very interested to hear what your interviewer expected to hear from you.

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David nailed it. You first responsibility is to the client you already have or the product you've already supplied. So you take care of their issue first as it's ALREADY impacting them. The other client MAY be impacted, but it's not a given.

As for the "better" answer, the only thing that I can see that might even be remotely construed as "better" is if the interviewer (mgmt) was looking for you to escalate the issue to them and not field it yourself. But that wouldn't necessarily be better; just a preference of theirs.

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In my career, in those kinds of situations, I always chose to do overtime till everything is completed on time; but I never imposed that on my team members; I would agree with them to do what they can't do because they can't do overtime (family reasons, something already planned, etc). I would ask my manager to have a day off later. I can't stand quitting especially at the end of a process. I would go all the way. But learn from that experience to avoid it again, to plan more efficiently the next time. In your plannings you could save some times for some unexpected evens like the ones your talking about.

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