What to Say When You're Running Late

If your schedule slips, how do you break the news to your customer? Here are some thoughts from people who've been there. October 18, 2005

We're running late with a large project that we initially estimated would take two months. It's actually taking us three, and we need to discuss this with the client. Any suggestions on how to do this (besides staying on schedule)? The project is a large in-home library, not new construction.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
In general, avoid excuses which are relevant to you, such as workshop burned down, etc. Try to think of stuff that relates to them, such as… Halfway through the project, you found that there was a better way of doing some of the work, which would benefit them in some particular way, so you backtracked and redid some of your earlier work. Then, specify the benefits.

Be proactive versus reactive. I have had to tell several clients in my cabinet company and construction company that we were not going to be on time, but not one was seriously upset. We have had material come in that was not up to snuff or had to be reworked, delays from our suppliers, equipment break or run behind. Be honest, as you will get caught in a lie.

Be honest, but don't give too many details. I have found it is much easier to just tell the truth than rationalize being late with sorry excuses. As far as too many details, clients don't want to hear that you and your wife are having problems or that you had family visiting - keep the personal stuff personal.

I also think it is always a good idea to check in with my clients every once in a while just to let them know my progress. That way, if the schedule is slipping, they are aware of it.

I have found very few clients that would prefer an inferior product on time as opposed to the product they paid for a little late. My father used to say "Do you want it done right or right now?" I don't say that to clients, but I do keep it in the back of my head when I have to inform a client that their project will not be delivered on time.

In some cases, no matter how you break the news to them, some clients will be upset, if not irate. It happens. When I first started my business, it seemed like I was always running late on projects (mainly due to flawed optimistic projections of labor). I was so terrified of being late and the ensuing confrontation that I would end up working absurd hours just to deliver on time. Pulling all-nighters was a common thing the first couple of years. After a while, my estimating got more refined and my work load became more realistic. I would never work like that again. It simply isn't worth it. Working around dangerous equipment when tired, standing for hours and hours on end, getting depressed from not having time to decompress - the costs are simply too high. Getting bawled out by a client is temporary; losing a hand is forever.

I was like the last contributor when I first started. Then, one day, my dad came into the shop at 11pm and asked what I was doing. I started to explain how I would be late and that this job was due and that I was going to have to stay all night and was nervous about the confrontation. My dad asked "what can they do if it is late"? I had a hard time coming up with an answer that could justify staying up all night. So I went home, came in the next morning and called them. They didn't care at all. Since then, I still work a few late nights and some early mornings, but I don't stress nearly as much as I did. I just tell the customer if I am going to be late. I have gotten better at scheduling, but stuff still happens. Just be honest and tell them you are going to be late. They almost always ask how much longer it is going to take. Give yourself enough time when they ask this, because it is better to only be late once than to be late over and over again because you underestimated the time it would take to really finish the job.