Making excuses in English

Quite often in business you need to make an excuse. A very typical situation is where someone is not available, e.g. they can’t speak on the phone – and you have to say why. Or the situation might be more complex or difficult. Maybe you have to explain to someone why something isn’t ready or why you can’t come to a meeting, etc. You might need to tell a client why you can’t finish a project or the reason that something has gone wrong. Let’s explore some of the language you need in situations like these:

On the phone 

If someone phones your company and wants to speak to one of your colleagues, you should find out first of all if they want to take the call. If they don’t, you will need to say why:

Norman Clarke: Can I speak to Tricia, please.
Olly: Just a moment, I’ll see if she’s available. … Hello, I’m sorry, but she can’t come to the phone at the moment. Can I take a message?

You can also say:

She’s (a bit) tied up at the moment.
She’s away from her desk.

If the person isn’t at work, you can say:
He’s not in the office today. / He’s not in today.

Other excuses include:

He’s at a conference all week.
He leaves early on Friday(s)
She’s in a meeting
It’s her day off

Your day off is the day when you don’t go to work (e.g. if you normally work four days a week).

Saying sorry

The more you read about what to say in Business English situations on this website, the more you will notice that British people often apologise before they have to say something difficult or uncomfortable. So, it’s a good idea to start your excuse with an apology:

Look, I’m (really) sorry about this.

You might mention your original agreement or an expectation that the other person had:

Listen, I know I told you we would send the finished products by the end of October, but I’m sorry: they won’t be ready for another two weeks.

Look, Asif, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but I can’t give you the project. I know I promised it to you, but the client wants a Java specialist.

Explaining the situation

In order to justify your excuse, it’s always a good idea to explain the background situation as to why you can’t do something:

Look, we’re really busy at the moment.
We’ve had so many orders / requests to deal with.
This has been an exceptionally busy month.

I’ve never known an August like this. Normally, most people are on holiday.

This means I’ve never experienced a similar month. (The summer should usually the quietest time of the year.)

More details
There could be a lot of different reasons why you have to make an excuse. These might include some of the following:

A supplier has let us down. I’m waiting for the parts we need to finish your order.
(Note: if you let someone down it means you disappoint them or fail to do what you promised.)

It’s a public holiday in this country. We can’t deliver the products until the day after tomorrow.
The project is too complicated. We just can’t finish it within a week.
There was a problem with the technical specification you sent us. We need to look at it again.

Saying what you’re doing
Always give the client or customer hope! Tell them that you are working on the project:

We’re working on it now.
We’ve got a team of people finishing the project.
We had some initial delays but we’re back on track.
I’m doing everything I can to make sure the project is finished by the end of March.

Asking for more time

If you need more time, you could say:
We need another week to finish it.
Can you give us an extra month to complete the order?

Tell the other person when you will finish the project or when the work / products will be ready:

Everything will be ready by the end of the end of next week.
I’ll send you the components within the next five days.

You’ll have your kitchen table by Wednesday at the latest.

I promise you’ll have everything by the end of the week.

If you’re really not certain when something will be ready, you can say:

Look, we’ll finish it as soon as possible.

Being diplomatic

As I said, it’s always good to apologise. You can also thank the other person for waiting:
Thanks for your patience.
Thanks for being so patient.

In a formal email, you could write:
We very sorry for the inconvenience, but we really appreciate your patience in this matter.

© Robert Dennis, Big Business English, 2018

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Copyright Big Business English 2018