Late Deliveries and Customer Relations

How do you tell a customer that you're going to miss a delivery date? October 13, 2010

I have a question about how everyone handles calling a customer to tell them a delivery date will be delayed. I am a one man shop so I am only pointing the finger at myself on this one. I just made a call to a customer informing him the scheduled delivery date of this coming Monday will have to be changed to next Saturday. The delay is due to my being behind schedule and I told the customer as much. So far he is taking it better than I expected. I say so far because he has to check with the wife before confirming for next Saturday. As they say more will be revealed when he calls back, I know this is small in the big picture but that tunnel vision in a bad way is scary. My delay will of course delay payment and put pressure on paying my bills, which is on me.

Does anyone else get as stressed out as I do when faced with calling a customer about a delay? I think I slept about three hours last night and I think it is always worse thinking about the call then actually doing it.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor J:
Was this a deadline, and if so who set it? If it was them and you agreed to it, it's called late nights and weekends if possible. Wait until the job was ready to go out next time. Normally I give my customers a ballpark on time - six weeks, eight weeks or sooner if I'm slow. If it's done sooner they're happy to receive it sooner (most of the time). By doing deliveries this way you don't have to make the call - less stress. I know rush jobs come in and are a great money maker but only if you can try and keep them all happy.

From contributor F:
Been there, know exactly what youíre saying. I usually try to keep the client up to date on their project as it's progressing. If I think I'm going to be late I bring it up sooner rather than waiting until it's almost delivery time. I just try to be as honest as possible and don't try to make up goofy excuses. Sometimes jobs take longer to build than expected, but I want to make sure everything is just right. If it means delivering late versus getting it done faster and sacrificing quality, I'll be a little late. I'm sure there are plenty of guys who don't sweat these things but I'm not one of them. I know in the overall scheme of things these are pretty insignificant problems. I do take my work and reputation seriously and have lost plenty of nights sleep over running my business.

From contributor L:
I have suffered from the same as you. Delivery delays, usually to my over-optimistic appraisal of completion have caused a lot of anxiety. Twenty years later I still wrestle with this. It sounds as if you knew you would be late long before a couple of days before delivery. Speak up sooner, and it is less of an inconvenience, and then a non-issue. Stalling makes it harder to make the call, and the situation can get worse. Also, learn to force yourself to build in plenty of build/deliver time if the customer does not have a deadline. Even if they do state a deadline, find out if it really is a deadline or just a hoped for date. You may want to start the talk even then about how you need time to do it right, etc. If they threaten to walk due to projected delivery, then you can decide if you want the deadline.

Then there are other approaches. I often tell people that this thing will be around for a 100 years, and a week or so is nothing in the big picture. Especially since that is what it takes to get it right and deliver maximum value.

From the original questioner:
I did have a real good idea I wasn't going to make the delivery date three days ago, but was hoping. In the future I will give myself much more of a cushion that way if I am ready early great, much less stress for all.

It wasn't so much a deadline as me getting behind on an install for a different job and not having time to complete the finishing on the job that was delayed. The contract says 6-8 weeks if I could have delivered Monday it would have been the seventh week from the signing. It was my mistake to think everything went so well the first day on a crown install that I would be done in two days, it took me three more days than planned. As mentioned I would rather be late and deliver a quality product then rush to get it done and no one is happy. I am small time to be sure but my reputation and word mean a lot.

From contributor G:
Being a one man show this is common place. I set a schedule and then when I am at the current job they start adding things to the job. Iím not going to say no to more work. So my schedule gets pushed behind. I call up my clients, and they already know I am a one man show. So this is something that will not surprise them.

If I have something that has to be done on time it will usually get done even if I am working 16 hour days seven days a week. I have done it and I'm sure I will do it again. I just came up from a seven week long seven days a week working spree and I ended up five weeks behind schedule. Iíve underestimated time and a lot of extras on a few different jobs.

I call the client, with plenty of time to spare and explain the situation. Usually there arenít any problems. Sometimes you need to sweet talk them and everything works out fine. They are always pleased with the end result and I always ask them if it was worth the extra waiting time. They always answer yes it was worth it.

I also give them updates through email and sometimes progress pictures if I have them. Don't fret too much and next time give them more notice. Even if you are wrong and pull it off they will appreciate it.

From contributor U:
Sweat not and move on. It was better to call today than not show up at all and of course to call Monday morning. I think a lot of us have been there, but I would recommend that you study hard what caused this for you and correct it. I have a shop with three of us and we run behind sometimes, and I call and warn clients, but it doesn't make the stress go away. Honestly, just work hard to keep it from happening again, and make sure you keep the cash rolling. Good luck, youíre doing fine.

From the original questioner:
The three day delay on the crown turned into a six day delay because the wife has tomorrow, Monday of. The next available day for them not to take off work is next Saturday, which was good for me as well. This will give me more than enough time finish the built-in unit for which is unfinished lucky for me.

I called the customer Monday after the first day of a crown install went well and I assumed the next day I would be done with the crown. I would then have three days to complete the built-in unit and deliver it. It just didn't work out that they so in the future I will wait to set up delivery until the job is ready. At the very least no other job on going before the current one. Yes I should have called the customer the second day of the crown install to tell them of the delay.

From contributor M:
The toughest part of this business is scheduling installs. Kudos for calling the customer before the install date, those calls are hard for me to make. I feel like I have not been a man of my word when I have to adjust a scheduled install. The best approach is to be honest, with your best educated guess when scheduling and to be truthful as the work goes on. I have found customers can deal with honesty, where as telling those little lies keeps them off balance (and mad). Every time you are honest with a customer, you build accountability. When you have to make the "I'll be late" call, they will trust your decision. Plus, I always try to understand how I would feel if I were in their shoes. Customers need to know when we are coming to install, so they can better plan their schedule.

Also, don't underestimate that they are usually excited that the big day is arriving when they will be receiving the wonderful product that they have been waiting for. After weeks and maybe a couple of months of waiting, sure they will be a little disappointed. One thing I found that works for me is, we schedule an approximate delivery date at the time of order, with the understanding that we will call seven days prior to delivery/install. This lets us get far enough into the project, so that when we do call, it usually happens.

From contributor S:
Every job in a one man shop is a custom job. Custom is just that, it's done when it's done and don't rush me. I have to like the job first - then you get to see it. Maybe it's me, but I can't imagine doing a custom job over a six-eight week period and not having a reason to talk to the customer along the way, that's the time to break the news things are looking great but taking a little longer than planned.

By the way, if a delay of five days is going to put a financial strain on you, you probably didn't get enough deposit or progress money. At delivery you should only be awaiting part of your profit.