Selling work despite long lead times

September 26, 2000

In the past month or so I have become extremely busy and I am getting more work to bid on. My question is, how do I tell these new customers that it'll be about 12-14 weeks before I can even start their project?

Most customers don't want to wait, and we all know everyone wants things the next day. Since becoming busy, I have turned away smaller projects and I am concentrating on custom cabinets and furniture. I am fearful of hiring someone because I'm not quite sure how long this busy period will last.

Most of my work comes from interior designers and word-of-mouth residential customers, all middle to upper class.

I deal with the upper class also. We run 12 weeks out. This is the first thing I tell my customers. I also tell them that every effort will be made to get it done sooner, but that I'd rather be safe than sorry.

If your work is good and they want you, they will respect that you are upfront and will wait. I have yet to lose a customer from telling them this. Even if I know I can deliver in six or eight weeks I still tell my customers 12 weeks. This gives me leeway, and I have found that if they receive a call telling them we are ready to install six weeks from the contract date, they are very happy and tell their friends how well their job went.

I have picked up a phrase that seems to carry some weight when I run into a situation where I feel the customer wants me to shift others out of line and put him first. That, for me, would be very unfair to customers who have been patient and have waited on me. So I put it this way: "I am all sold out of time for the next two months."

The phrase "sold out" seems to carry the implication that it is simply not possible to do better.

Make sure your prices are high enough. Sub-out operations. Buy planed straight-edged lumber instead of rough. If you make your own doors, lots of time can be saved there by buying them (the grain may not be matched, though!). These things will let you get more jobs out quicker and save a few headaches.

I've told people it would be months before I could start, and still they'd say, "Just put us on your schedule." If they are serious, they'll wait.

One more thing: Don't try to do everything everyone wants, the way they want it, when they want it!

All I can add to the foregoing responses is this: In the current economy, buyers should beware of any shop that is not busy, since there must be a good reason (poor quality). You might remind anyone who complains about your lead times of this fact.

Oh, and one other thought: It is only hard to turn work away the first time you do it. It gets progressively easier, as you realize that (a) you're not wasting your time on potential money-losers, and (b) you're finding your niche market.
Anthony Noel, technical advisor

I also have a three- to four-month backlog, with work coming in every other week or so. Some jobs I bid on six months ago, some came in more recently.

Depending on the size of the job, the customers with whom I have a long-term relationship get preferred consideration. Ones I have never dealt with, at this stage, I politely refer to someone else. If they persist, I tell them I am not taking any new work at this time. Also, one should realize some customers are just pushy, demanding special treatment. With this type, you need to push back. They'll wait.

Scheduling jobs is also a matter of size and type. If jobs are small enough and of the same type, they can be batched together. With a little hustle you can bring in extra cash without wasting a lot of moves, i.e. lumberyard visits, jointing, ripping, mortising etc.

I think if you are considering hiring someone, you have to ask yourself if you want to grow your business. Unless you're lucky enough to hire someone who is self-regulating, he will require supervision and future business to keep going, all of which may or may not have a positive effect on your bottom line.

When I had helpers, I always worried about my earnings more. In the long run, I've tried to make choices that keep things simple.

How do you tell people that they'll have to wait? You just do it. We're at 12 to 16 weeks (we're a three-man shop).

Just be upfront with the client. Like previous posts have said, "Some people just want special consideration." We allow for that by applying a 50 percent upcharge on rush orders. You'd be surprised how long the customer can suddenly wait.

It's a problem that will never go away. When it does, start worrying; you're running out of work.