I work for a very small company that's been around a long time, we do a mix of processing customer products and consultancy work. We have a reasonable mix of customers, working for multiple departments of some of the larger ones.

The problem

It's a feast or famine industry and some of our customers need us purely because of their lack of organisation. This means that for some customers their capacity requirements vary weekly and unpredictably. Sometimes it's really quiet and we're having to search for work, sometimes we're super busy and we get a lot of projects come in at same time (usually around the time someone's on holiday!) and obviously some customers have to wait while we work on other customers projects/products.

99% of the time we have a very quick turnaround time (1-2 days) though very occasionally it's more like 3-4 days. That's still normally quicker than the quote or purchase order states so it's not late, just not as quick as normal.

No one likes to hear (and I don't like saying) they're not the number one priority. So what is a good way to tell a customer that we're working on another project and we'll work on theirs [insert time frame here]?

Note: I'm not asking about how to manage projects/resources, just how to explain to customers we are low on capacity.

  • Could you add a country tag to this question, and edit this question and add some information about the cultural context? The answer to this question will depend on your cultural context.
    – user288
    Aug 4, 2017 at 3:50

5 Answers 5


From the customer's point of view, I would certainly appreciate a frank explanation as to how or why the service may be delayed, and I have been very annoyed with people who gave me the insincere 'song and dance' without producing the timely service.

This is also what many published articles recommend:


To extract just one relevant quote,

If you pretend that nothing is wrong, your customers will continue to be in the dark and speculate the reason for the poor service. They may begin to think the worst- that you were not doing your job! When you are honest, and tell them the actual reason (...) then you open the door for sympathy and understanding.

Source: http://www.principledprofit.com/ethics-articles/5-reasons-to-stay-honest-with-your-customers

Even at risk of losing some business in the short term, it is important to maintain credibility by being tactfully honest with the customer. You need not go into the specific dynamics of how your company operates, as long as you can make the customer understand that

  1. the delay in responding is directly related to your current workload (where you can make the 'feast or famine' point to emphasize that response time will vary depending on workload)

  2. you value their business and shall attend to their request as early as possible

  3. you are fair in assigning priority to work based on the established business model of the company (if not necessarily on a first-come, first-served basis).

Above all, it is necessary to inform the customer of the possible duration of the delay, so that they wouldn't later feel that you wasted their time with false assurances of priority and prevented them from getting prompt service from another company.


Say just that

Explain the situation in one or two sentences, and most customers would be ok with waiting if you explain it to them.

Something similar to:

I'm very sorry but we don't have a very high capacity now, and are working on other projects at this time. We will get to working on your project in [said time frame here]. Thank you for your patience.

This reply can change according to what suits you and the specific requirements of the customer, but make it clear that You haven't forgotten them, and you're simply, as you said it, low on capacity.

Another thing to note is that they should be made to understand that, while they are supposed to be getting service from you, others also get service. It's important to make them understand that they will get what they should (i.e. the service), but not at this very instant, due to your company's capacity and abilities.

  • The OP talked about the relative priority of the customers, and you didn't. Do you feel like that is an important point?
    – Ed Grimm
    Apr 14, 2019 at 4:18

You never ever tell a customer that, unless you are wanting to lose them and their friends as your customers. And if you think because they are an internal customer you can not lose them you are mistaken. Internal customers can have friends in high places in the company. You may find yourself working in the mail room, or finding out your position is being "downsized" so that they are no longer your customer.

So your response if they are on the schedule should be something like:

We are scheduled to begin work on your project on X date. I am excited about getting to it so doing everything I can to get to it as quickly as possible.

If they insist on pushing the date up just put the decision off on your manager:

I would love to be able to help you but my work is done at the direction of my manager/team lead. It is possible they can push the schedule up but it may mean that I wouldn't get to take part in the project. But like I said I am pushing hard to get my current project to a point where I can move on to yours. I will let you know when I get the OK to start on yours.


TL;DR : You don't tell them, you can't tell them, you need to carefully work around...

Whenever someone is coming to office / calling / e-mailing, (especially if arguing), I keep myself calm, stop talking and I start a very active listening. When the flow stops (and it will, at some point...), I use my self-called 'DIWA-RESC' method. Let's assume this is a call from a customer, asking why you took that much time to do the job, or why it's not done yet...

First of all, carefully listening to what she/he says, you need to determine if the person is:

  • Disappointed / Interrogative / Worried / Angry

Then, we you know what your contradictor bears in her/his mind and what bothers her/him :

  • Re-phrase / Explain / Solution / Conclusion


Customer : I don't know why it takes you that much time to have [ X ] done. We agreed on [ Y ], I should have gain [ whatever ] and now, I see that [ whatever ] ?! It's not fair, because [ whatever ].

Note that tone (and body language, if you face the customer) are very important tells, almost as much as words. Now, you need to determine if she/he is more angry or disappointed or worried or interrogative.

Use only one feeling if you can. The goal is: get a 'YES' after STEP #1. Not more, not less.

1 - Re-phrase : If I properly understood, you are [ fill the blank with the emotion ] because we had to [ X ], and that meant [ this ] to you ?

2 - Explain : (at this point, use impersonal if negative, personal if positive) We needed to do [ ABC ] in order to be on time. Unfortunately, we had to do [ D ] instead of [ E ]. That's a matter of [ security / quality / whatever ] -> Adapt to your needs / constraint.

Note: Your customer must feel like he's the most important for your business anyway AND Don't blame anyone either side AND Don't tell them what they're not supposed to know.

3 - Solution :

  • Impersonal : according to [ law 123-1 / rule XYZ / policy A1B ], it is not possible to [ whatever ]. Therefore, it can only be [ whatever ]. That's why it had to be [ done that way / modified ]. I'm sure you understand there's no other way to do it.
  • Personal : I can do [ whatever you best move / offer can be ] in order to [ whatever ]. Would it be OK with you ?

3 - Conclusion : thank you for your patience and understanding. Do you have another question ? Is there anything else I can do for you ?

It's important that your customer feels that you do your best, even if in your POV, he's not your #1 priority. It's a workaround, worth trying, and did great for me after practicing.

It's long, but I tried and keep it as small as possible, and hope I make myself clear here, if not, let me know leaving a comment, and I'll edit. ).


You don't tell anyone this. Instead, use a technique called "peak demand" pricing to send the messages you want.

There is something called peak demand. That is, e.g. electricity might be more expensive during peak daylight hours (when everyone wants it) than at night.

In your shoes, I would go with a pricing scheme around my work load. Price high on high demand days, and low, on low demand days. Of course, you honor your prior commitments for "today," based on what you negotiated previously.

If they ask why, explain to them: "We are now doing work where other customers will pay us X per hour. That's more than the Y that we normally charge you. If you're willing to wait, we will charge you the lower Y, but if you need it now, you will have to pay X to meet the other buyer's price." (You can even set "X" a little above what the other buyer is paying.)

That will incentivize people to work around your schedule, and give them the right signals about the opportunity cost to you. I get a discount from my tax accountant for filing after April 15.

I learned this from a copy store who charged one rate for "next in line," and a much lower rate (about 40% off), for "anytime within 24 hours." The 24 hour people knew that they might be pushed back, but also knew that the limit was 24 hours. And if the store could do their job at 2:00 a.m. (normally dead time), they would charge less.

Above all, don't tell these people that they are not needed. You will want them on your low demand days (and even on your high demand days if they are willing to pay the higher rate).

  • 1
    Given the number of customers that want fixed and price quotes well in advance is on the increase because of this type of business model I don't think this is an appropriate step for us. Also this requires you to know in advance when you peak period is going to be, this year for us, summer has been crazy but last year it was slow.
    – user2356
    Aug 12, 2017 at 9:40
  • @Notts90: You deal with your order book as it "comes in." Yes, what happened last year is helpful, but what is really important is your incoming order rate.
    – Tom Au
    Sep 7, 2017 at 21:17

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