Why are you late? What will you do to catch up? How to answer ...

How to ace those tricky questions for Consulting Engineers

It is not always easy to answer the client’s questions, particularly in open meetings, video calls or face-to-face communications. Some people are good at thinking fast and giving good answers, but maybe they have been asked before. They have built up a rehearsed a formula to respond that works for them.

Take note, absorb them into your memory bank and for sure you will gain confidence and be more effective in the face of tricky situations and build trust in your client relationships.

How to answer: Why are you late? What will you do to catch up?

Of all the tricky questions that people in the construction industry often answer, perhaps the most challenging is: “Why are you late?” … closely followed by: “What will you do to catch up?”

Many, often complicated circumstances, cause our hard-working teams to miss deadlines. Even the greatest engineers are late sometimes.

If you are late because you didn't bother to plan your work properly, then you do need to think about that self-inflicted pain - focus on improving next time round. Even in the grimmest situation, it is unlikely that you got there only because of your own sheer incompetence. Probably, the strategies described below can help you to answer the first question: “Why are you late?”

How are you answer this question, of why you are late, and then corrective action to be taken, depends on the underlying reasons for your late delivery. So, let us speculate on why they might be. What mitigation do you have?

What was agreed?

You may have agreed a realistic schedule (programme) with good intentions, but then something changed. Perhaps that change seemed simple at first but proved to be more complex. Maybe you agreed a timescale for implementing change without having time to review the implications properly? Don't feel bad, this happens to all of us!

You're late delivery may be the after effect of the change that you previously said had little impact - and now you suffer.

Just be sure to take time to review the full situation before you commit to the client in future - no matter how much they pressure you.

Was the change implemented fairly?

If a change event occurs, then the team will review, and then agree a schedule (programme) for implementation. Like most of design processes, your progress may depend on the receipt of information for others. Perhaps from the client, or an architect or another engineer. For you to progress this change as agreed, this new information needs to be available to you in an organized, timely and complete way.

If there is a sudden, significant change, accompanied by great pressure to maintain the schedule, it is very common for the new information to be issued to you in a piecemeal way, drip by drip. Maybe the bulk of the information comes fast (so the client is happy) but critical detail (that my only be on your critical path, perhaps comes later. This may even mean double handling for you.

What about other demands?

Are you late because the client wanted you to focus on another area of work? Did your Herculean effort on Section A delay your progress on Section B? Of course, if you became late because your team was working on someone else's project, that seemed more urgent, then you just have to talk your way through this problem - which was caused by you!

Did you have enough resources?

Your work could be late because you just did not have enough resources available? Perhaps you could not scale up your resources fast enough? You need to explain that you have tried. Maybe if the market itself is tight for resources there may not be so much that you could do.

In this situation, the nature of your firm makes a difference. If you are a small, specialist, niche firm then the client may have some sympathy for you. But, if you are a large firm then the response will probably be: “You are mega Z, so why can't you get more resources from around your big firm?” In theory, the client is right, but that does not always work in practice in the real world - as we all know.

Any mitigation that you can offer the client will help, but you have to balance between the degree of lateness, the value of the work to be done, and the reason offered in your defense. It does depend on how late you are compared to the scale of the task. being packed but the scale of the task. It helps to think hard and think carefully before you use your scarce defense mechanisms.

Catching up

Why you are late maybe of interest, but how you recover will be the most important: “What will you do to catch up?”

When you are behind, the pressure can build up and you begin to promise over realistic recovery plans. This way you are just compounding the problem and likely to fail again, and again. You must resist this temptation!

When your work falls behind, it is time to step back and be realistic about what you are doing. Ask yourself why you are failing and be realistic about what can be done to fix it. It is better, if you can, to set a realistic plan in place before you make any promise to your client.

Getting support from senior colleagues

We can sometimes face challenges in getting the support that we need from our senior colleagues. It could be that your project is on a fixed (lump sum) fee, and maybe the fees are not enough, or perhaps some has been spent, inefficiently.

Your senior colleagues may resist your wish to use more resources for the project. Such situations are delicate and certainly political and sometimes strategic. Maybe you have a low fee as a loss leader, intended to capture more cream later. Certainly, an open discussion helps in these situations.

During the research for this, several colleagues noted that it is good to take time to summarize the situation and your proposed solution in writing. You don’t need to provide lots of detail, but you will probably need detail to get to your summary. It most situations when talking with your senior colleagues, if you provide some facts, written down, in summary form, as a takeaway note, it is less likely that they will choose to ignore you. You're note is a record that will be some evidence of what your view is, so they are more likely to take some action in your favor.

What will you do to recover?

You only get one chance to answer this question and maintain credibility. If you set out a recovery plan you must be sure that it can be achieved. Of course, if you are late, then your recovery plan will require your client to accept a later delivery date, for a few days, weeks or even months later. They will probably be very reluctant to do this and may pressure you to improve on your recovery proposal. For this reason, you need to understand the detail of your recovery plan so that you can carry out this negotiation. Is there really room for improvement?

Good answers

The client will be encouraged if you promise to engage additional resources, but you do need to know who these new people will be. If you can introduce new people to the team, and if they appear to be sufficiently experienced, this can be very convincing.

There is usually no problem to explain that these people will join the team for a fixed short-term. If this is the case, then say so. When you apply your new people to the project, that the client likes, it is hard for you to take them off the project later, so, be clear about your intentions.

The more detailed your plan is, and the more it is focused on the micro detail of the deliverables that are due, then the more likely the client is to accept it. At the same time, you will feel more confident in presenting your plan in a persuasive way.


  • Step back, despite how hard that might be in a time of crisis.

  • Think hard about what can mitigate your failure.

  • Only present recovery proposals based on facts - you can only play this card one-time!


It gets easier to think on your feet, the more that you are exposed to tough questions. Techniques can be learnt that help you to avoid making knee-jerk commitments. Knee-jerk answers will probably make your situation worse for you. Try to hold your nerve and give yourself time to think. Analyze and make a rational decision.

Authored by Paul Lengthorn

Chartered Engineer, MBA, BEng, member of the Institute of Asset Management (IAM) and independent practicing Consulting Engineer

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