Why You Should Never Tell Clients You’re Swamped (And What To Say Instead)

At times it seems that life is a never ending battle of too much to do and not enough time to do it all. And it seems that we (Americans at least) are OK with that.

In fact, a recent article by Patricia Reaney over at Reuters says that according an interview with Vanity Fair editor-at-large Cullen Murphy “…there is a kind of bedrock faith in the idea that working hard pays off.”  

This makes sense since we’re all told that mantra from a very early age. The problem I see though is that while keeping busy and working hard we are creating situations where we are TOO BUSY.

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And that in turn directly affects our customers. At times, we are so busy that there is a lag between a question from them and an answer from us. And when you consider today’s mindset of needing instant gratification this can have dire consequences.

I’ve noticed this trend since probably the beginning of the Great Recession where companies made a drastic shift to get as much productivity out of every employee as possible. More so (I assume) than any other time in our modern history.

This in turn created a culture that over emphasizes, to a fault, what Reaney cites and replaces it with the idea that if hard work pays off then I have to always be working harder. And therefore the mindset of if we are not always keeping busy then we are not being viewed as a good employee.

How This Destroy’s Customer Service

Most companies perpetually try to keep a balance between available man hours and available work. When there are less man hours than available work to be done this creates what is known as a lead-time.

When there is a lead-time, new projects can not be started immediately; instead they are scheduled to be started at a future time or by priority once the other projects are completed.

Now this makes sense to a degree because you don’t want to be paying salary to employees who are sitting at a desk twiddling their thumbs because there are no projects to work on.

So then organizations artificially keep their employee count low to maintain the balance of less available man hours to available work.

But the story is different when it comes to sales and customer service.

You see if I am managing too many accounts, then I am creating a lead-time on responding back to clients. Can you imagine telling your client “I’m really busy so expect a response from me in the next two days once I get through my other emails” or “Sorry, I’ve been swamped lately. I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve done it without thinking. It is a big mistake though.

Whether its true or not that you have other projects you’re working on, a statement like that tells your client only one thing, that they are not a priority.

And nothing will kill your customer service score like making a client think they are unimportant.

But it happens, I know I personally run into many situations where I am swamped and just trying to stay afloat. But instead of telling my clients, you’re somewhere down my priority list, I respond with a few different options which are much better than saying “I’m swamped”.

Alternatives To Say

I want to preference the below by reminding you that I am not promoting that you lie to your clients or anyone else. I give a few options below which I expect you to use based on the situation.

Depending on what is going on in your life and the situation with the client one alternative may not be the right fit. Use your good judgement to keep them feeling special.

Situation: You just got back from a vacation or extended absence from your normal work day. 

“Marla, thanks for reaching out and I appreciate your patience. I’m back in the office now and trying to hit the ground running. I’m catching up and trying to get to things in the proper order. Obviously you’re at the top of my list since I’m reaching out to you now…”

As you can see I didn’t straight out say I am swamped. Instead I:

  1. Recognized that they have had to wait and are being patient
  2. Am working hard to recover from my absence
  3. Explained that I’m addressing things in a specific order
  4. Reminded them that they are a priority to me

Situation: They are waiting on a few different project responses from you. 

Alan, thanks for touching base. I appreciate your patience in letting me get back to you. As I’m looking at the to-do list I owe you, I want to make sure I am prioritizing these projects correctly. Correct me if I’m wrong but I need to get you A, B, C, D, & E correct? How would you like me to prioritize those for you?”

Here’s an example where I put the pressure on the client to tell me how to prioritize so I don’t have to. What my response does is:

  1. Recognized that they have had to wait and are being patient
  2. Tell them that I am putting a priority on all of their items but need a little direction
  3. Puts the pressure on them to prioritize those items for me

By the way I’ve had clients tell me that they are all priorities to which I respond “Understood. Which would you like me to work on first?”

Not only does this help you focus in on the most urgent needs, but they may tell you that items D & E are very low and you can get them the info next week. This free’s up time to work on other projects or action items.

Situation: You are working on a big project or some action item that is taking up a lot of time.

“Carly, thank you for checking in. I’m finishing up a project that took me a little over time budget and then will have that action item to you. I’ll get it to you as soon as possible but you can plan on no later than EOB Thursday. Will that work or do you need it earlier?”

What I’m doing here is:

  1. Recognized that they have had to wait and are being patient
  2. Let them know that they are at the top of my list once I finish this project that I’ve already been working on
  3. Telling them that I will get it to them by a certain time or earlier
  4. Asking if there is a hard stop they need the information by.

This response is a little trickier because we all have clients that will say they need it right away. The key is to give yourself a small buffer on the expected time or day you’ll get back to them.

This also sets you up to look like a hero since you can most likely get it to them earlier than expected.

Situation: You simply have way more than you can handle. 

First of all, if you can, try to delegate some projects to someone else. Maybe your boss can help you out or someone from another department. If not then try the below response.

“Chris, you’re at the top of my mind right now. I owe you Action Item A but am still waiting for one last piece of information. I expect to have that in the next day or so. Does that time frame work for you?” 

Again here I am:

  1. Telling them that they are a priority
  2. Telling them what is holding me up
  3. When I hope to get back to them
  4. If they are OK with the time-frame I provided

As I mentioned earlier, I do not want you to lie to your clients. But it is more than likely that you are waiting on some piece of information before you can get back to them. Otherwise you would have already quickly responded. You can simply interchange “…for one last piece of information” with what ever the situation is and go from there.

Your Turn

Now it’s your turn, have you ever run into situations where telling a client how busy or swamped you are backfired?

As a client how would you feel if a sales rep told you they haven’t responded to you yet because they are working on other client projects?

Let me know in the comments below.

Remember, selling is not a way of life, it’s a part of it. 

~ Sales Pro Blog

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