Dealing With Deadlines

dealing with deadlines

I know I’ve recently written about managing lead times and expressing appreciation for your project managers. This column touches upon elements of both, which makes sense when you consider how everything in this business depends on everything else, one way or another.

There’s that old expression that says the only constants in life are death and taxes. I’d amend that list to add deadlines since they’re something we all have to deal with. There are two kinds of deadlines: the ones that are actually hard deadlines, and the ones that are more like guidelines. Much like the distinction between “need to have/nice to have,” when making purchasing decisions, there can be latitude between “this needs to be done NOW” and “this can be done whenever.”

When discussing the requirements of a project, part of the two-way communication has to be determining which of the deadlines are honest-to-goodness hard stop deadlines and which ones have flexibility. It’s important to work through that because while some hard deadlines are inflexible, it’s not unusual to be told that flexible deadlines are inflexible purely as a negotiation tactic.

All of that is well and good. Understanding the dealers’ deadlines, their client’s deadlines and managing lead times is just another day at work. Where things can get dicey is when one of my dealers needs something we don’t have.

In theory, it shouldn’t be a big deal. We, the distributor, don’t have it on hand, but my vendor does. So once my dealer sends me the PO, we issue our vendor a PO. The vendor ships to us and we ship to the dealer. And if time is really short, making arrangements to directly ship from vendor to dealer or even direct to the client’s site isn’t a big deal. But as philosopher Yogi Berra said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.”

I’ll be honest, selling something that I don’t physically have always makes me nervous, and for good reason. If it’s not in our warehouse and it’s got to come from a vendor’s warehouse, that’s one more moving part added to the event chain. And as we all know, the more moving parts, the greater the chance of something going wrong.

Late last winter, one of my favorite dealers closed a big contract with their municipality. It was a big deployment, and one of the conditions of the contract was that they absolutely, positively required delivery and installation by a set date.

Here’s a semi-sarcastic pro tip: you can determine whether or not a deadline is flexible or inflexible by whether the client has written escalating severe penalties for delays written into the contract. That was the case for my dealer with this client, and of course, we didn’t have enough units in our warehouse. Our vendor did, fortunately. And my category manager, who is incredibly patient with me, did a fantastic job of managing the process of getting the units shipped directly from the vendor’s U.S. warehouse to my dealer. And of course, as you all know by now, shipping anything these days is a roll of the dice. Long story short, after a couple of weeks of increasingly stressful days and frequent communication with my dealer, the delivery showed up just in time for deployment without another day to spare.

Something similar happened just last week. In this case, it was a brand new account and an initial deployment that, while large, was still only a trial. If the deployment was successful, there’d be significant ongoing business. And, just to make things interesting, we didn’t have enough on hand and had to look to our vendor for fulfillment. In this instance, when working things out with my new account, I was told that they’d need to deploy by the third week of November, or not at all. Well, working with my category manager and looking at the dates, we weren’t going to make it.

So I was honest with them. I told them to tell their client that if we placed the order with the vendor tomorrow, the client would receive the delivery on Dec. 1, and I left it at that. It’s always better to undersell the logistics rather than make unrealistic promises. The honestly paid off; the next day, they sent me their PO and let me know that our timeline was OK. So clearly, that was a hard deadline that had some flexibility to it.