Gini Dietrich

Four Ways to Break the Overservice Habit

By: Gini Dietrich | September 11, 2012 | 

Today is the 11 year anniversary of 9/11 and the six year anniversary of Spin Sucks.

I’m not sure why we launched a new blog on the anniversary of one of the greatest tragedies our country has ever seen. Perhaps it was our way of healing; letting life go on.

There will be plenty of tributes and memorials written and produced today so we’re going to let life go on and talk about what we always do: Communications, marketing, and entrepreneurship.

Learning the Business

Many of you know in my “growing up” years of my career, I worked at Fleishman-Hillard. My biggest account, at the time that I left, was Ocean Spray. I led the team that launched their 100% Juices (from a PR perspective).

Part of our job included the Art of the Ocean Spray Harvest, but it also included product sampling in several different cities. Why we didn’t hire a street team from a sister agency still eludes me to this day, but we didn’t. Instead, Michael Stern and I traveled the country, setting up tents, lugging boxes of juice around, and providing little cups of juice to hundreds of thousands of tourist.

I was super buff that year because those boxes were heavy. I also was very tan from being outside every day. We would leave on Thursday morning and fly home on Sunday nights…and then into the office on Monday mornings.

As you can imagine, being on the road like that was super expensive for the client. I’m pretty sure we wrote off close to $1 million in our time that summer because it wasn’t in the budget.

Overservicing Clients

Fast forward to my Rhea and Kaiser days when I ran the horticulture team for Bayer CropScience.

I was traveling with the client to vineyards and apple farms and potato farms during growing season. I was doing interviews with growers for a library of videos we were creating. I was gone from home. A lot. And I billed every minute of my time.

I remember the controller at R&K said to me one time, “How are you working 19 hours a day?” But, between flights and interviews and driving back and forth from airports to farms and dinners with clients, it was easily that many hours, if not more.

But we hadn’t budgeted for all of that time and so, when it came time for invoicing, we were always over. So I wrote the time off.

And Steve Rhea (rightfully so) freaked out.

You see, I’d been taught that overservicing was OK. So, when I went to an agency who didn’t even bill back meals to the client, that idea was so foreign to them, I spent many hours in the chief executive’s office trying to figure out how we were going to do what we said we’d do without my working 19 hours a day.

The Bad Habit

Now, as a business owner, it totally makes sense to me that you shouldn’t overservice clients. If you’re doing work with a client they’re not paying you to do, your time can’t be spent with clients who are paying you. But, as an employee, you don’t really get it. You’re just doing your job and you’re getting paid so it’s not a concern.

By nature, communications professionals are people pleasers. We don’t like to say no.

But the funny thing about overservicing? You think you’re doing right by the client, but eventually it catches up and either you have to tell them you’ve been overservicing and they now need to pay you for time going forward or you lose the client because you stop overservicing in order to stay within budget.

Either way, you lose. The client loses.

And yet…

Staying On Track

An article in the Bulldog Reporter recently covered this issue. Kristin Jones, CEO of Wallop! OnDemand suggests three things (and I’ve added a fourth):

  1. Keep expectations in check by measurably defining deliverables. One of the things we do from proposal phase and then every month after beginning work with a client is clearly defining our deliverables. Sometime they change and that’s OK. But telling clients what they’ll get for the money they’re spending helps everyone stay on track and also helps you measure results.
  2. Track “goal vs. actual”results. For all of our clients, we keep a dashboard that shows the agreed upon goals for the year and where we are against them each month. It’s an easy way to not only track your results, but it keeps everything visible for the client so, if they ask you to do something outside of scope, you can say, “Sure, we’re happy to do that, but let’s take a look at the dashboard and see what we’ll need to move around to make that happen.” One of three things happens during that conversation: They change their minds and decide it’s not as important as they thought, you lose something you were going to work on, or you get more money to add it in.
  3. Give account managers support and training on how to manage budgets. We do a ton of internal training on this. All of our team leads track budgets against deliverables and goals every week. They’re incentivized based on realization, which means the time they spent that we were able to bill the client. For instance, if they have a $15,000 monthly budget and they spend $17,000 in time, they are only 88 percent realized. Twelve percent of their time could have been spent on another client so they’re docked for overservicing.
  4. Track actual time spent. While we stopped billing by the hour a few years ago, we do track our time internally. It’s the only way I know, as the business leader, how much capacity my team has to work with new clients, when it’s time to hire someone new, and how much it costs to do things. Without tracking time, I’d have to do it on a percentage of people’s salaries and, while that may work for some communications pros because it’s not hugely mathematical, it’s not how you should run a business.

It’s not an easy thing to do. We want to make our clients happy. We are, after all, in a service business. But if you set the correct expectations upfront, and track against them every month, you’ll have very happy clients and very happy bosses.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • nolamaven

    @ginidietrich Great post, Gini!

    • ginidietrich

      @nolamaven Thanks!

  • NancyNorde

    @ginidietrich excellent post; hope people listen!

    • ginidietrich

      @NancyNorde I hope so too!

  • ginidietrich

    @amylizmartin My pleasure! Hope it helps

  • ginidietrich

    @sophie180 We just want to please!

    • sophie180

      @ginidietrich Making a liveable profit is the hardest part of the job. #PR

      • ginidietrich

        @sophie180 As an employee, you don’t have to worry about it. As a business owner, you have to figure it out. Quickly.

        • sophie180

          @ginidietrich It’s challenging as a young freelancer. Been taken advantage of a few times, but learned very quickly.

        • ginidietrich

          @sophie180 That’s how I learned, too! I guess that kind of experience is the best teacher.

  • TaraGeissinger

    My business partner, Christine, and I were just talking about this yesterday! We have a tendency to do a lot of unpaid consulting and planning for clients – simply because we like helping people succeed. I totally agree, however, that it’s a slippery slope. Clients who’ve grown accustomed to the free strategy sessions aren’t going to be happy with an abrupt ending.

    I think the best thing to do as a business owner is to recognize when you’ve created an issue like this and take immediate steps to – at the very least – avoid starting the cycle with new clients. Depending on the time loss, you can decide how to best approach existing clients.

  • ginidietrich

    @WScott_Steele Thank you!

  • ginidietrich

    @jfouts Thanks Janet!

  • That model is very similar to ours as an insurance agency. We are both providing a service and who is going to pay me for my time. 
    The key for us is aligning with the ‘right’ customer and not just picking someone up because they could pay us a lot of money. 
    We actually have two models; one is commission based and whatever you pay us in premium a percentage of that is used to pay the agency. If there is enough commission that will allow us to provide the necessary services, then there is no problem. Not very scientific as some accounts are more ‘profitable’ than others, but usually averages out. The key however, is to make sure it’s the ‘right’ customer.
    The second model is a fee for services with no commission. This is for our larger customers and we do track hours and tasks performed and this is what we charge for. If the scope changes during the year then it can be adjusted. 
    We also have ways to track internally who can handle what based on the ‘mix’ of business to see when they reach capacity or if they aren’t keeping up. 
    It is essential for me to let the customer know how they will be paying me, and making sure our services match their expectations and it’s an equitable relationship. 
    BTW – I get buff lugging golf clubs…..and tan too……

    •  @bdorman264 You also get tan on the boat. Jerk.

  • ginidietrich

    @PhilGerb Your avatar cracks me up

    • PhilGerb

      @ginidietrich as does yours 🙂

    • PhilGerb

      @ginidietrich I just uploaded a new one. What do you think of it?

      • ginidietrich

        @PhilGerb LOL!! That one is awesome too!

        • PhilGerb

          @ginidietrich thanks!

  • Re: launching SS on 9/11… how were you to know, right? I mean, how was anyone to know?
    Re: over-servicing – this is one of the toughest things for any of us in this business to deal with, I think. Unless one has a client that has pretty big pockets, I think there is invariably going to be some level of over-servicing. The question is, how much is too much, right?
    I love #2; it’s something I’ve done/do, but I haven’t actually thought of it in terms of a dashboard. That would be super cool… but the caveat, I think, is that it’ll work for clients who’ve defined specific goals from the start (and you know as well as I do that there are lots who don’t, or whose “goals” are really just big, fuzzy, pie-in-the-sky ideas).

    •  @Shonali Yeah…I agree. That’s why it’s so important to get goals agreed to in the beginning. Maybe it’s a new campaign year or it’s a new client. But there are always opportunities to get it done the right way.

  • magriebler

    “Hi, my name is Marianne and I’m an over-server.”
    As someone in recovery from people-pleasing at work, I am struck by a simple truth I’ve learned the hard way. When we aim to make clients and bosses happy at all costs, we bake failure right into the equation. I especially love how you dock your teams for overservicing; that would have stopped me cold in my tracks because I would have seen how my colleagues were impacted by my behavior. Instead, I got rewarded and praised and kept right on going. The little engine that could. Ugh.
    We will need to overserve from time to time; it can be a positive response to a genuine crisis or an opportunity. But it should be a decision, not a lifestyle, and all stakeholders should understand why it’s necessary; when it’s going to stop; and what can’t be done in the meantime.

    •  @magriebler I had the same experience as you. I was rewarded at FH for working 16 hour days, six days a week. Big time. So it was a very hard habit to break. And it was hard to instill a different culture in my organization. And…I agree with you on crisis work. We have a client who had an employee shot while at work. I stepped on that at 11 p.m., worked all night, and didn’t bill them a dime. But the CEO knew what I did and has rewarded us 10 fold in additional business.

    •  @magriebler @ginidietrich Great perspective from both of you.
      I have to use traditional advertising as my point of reference, maybe it applies to other businesses.
      I think you have to make a choice of what business you’re in, then find the compensation model that works. (Last week’s compensation discussion was fascinating to me!) 
      Two ad agencies, similar on the surface, may not be in the same business at all below the surface. 
      – Wieden+Kennedy (the Nike/Coke/Old Spice/Chrysler agency) chose from the beginning to be in the business of making the world’s best ads. Young creatives there work long hours because they’re paid to do great things — not for “being” great talents. I don’t think Dan Wieden pulls all-nighters any more (I hope not!). He has people who do that for him.
      – At some other national/global agencies where I worked, they frowned upon people working nights and weekends. They thought they were in the greatness business. They were really in the getting-well-paid-for-working-9-5-business. They wanted to be paid for “being” great rather than doing great things. Yes, they hired good talent. But eventually, if you don’t inspire extraordinary effort… well, not many people can pull off greatness with a casual effort.
      I knew at both kinds of shops my compensation would be the same no matter how much I worked. I was working in a sense for myself — I was trying to build a portfolio of work that made a difference, and learn whatever I could. Like Gini, I had days with way too many billable hours. It freaked out one kind of agency, but it made Dan Wieden smile.  

      •  @barrettrossie  @magriebler Very interesting, Barrett. I have to think on this some.

      •  @magriebler  @ginidietrich It was a completely different business model driven by media commissions. So there’s not much comparison to what most people do now. 

  • Over-serving, yes it happens here! When we hire a new programmer who came from a IT department doing company development they are used to working for all different departments doing anything requested and it didnt matter cause their salary covered their department work.  Here we quote each job on specific specifications, so while the client may ask our programmers to do extra or they think of something that will enhance the job and make them the programmer look like a genius, over-servicing losses us money!  We have to drill into their heads that if its not in the specified outline we DO NOT DO IT, cause they are not paying for it!
    It takes getting used to, because human nature is to go above and beyond.  You know the adage about customer satisfaction, and the customer is always right, etc –  but not when jobs are quoted on specifications.  Plus, we have had the occasion where the client didnt want what the programmer thought was a enhancement and we had to spend non-billable time undoing it! 

    •  @sydcon_mktg Ug. The having to undo something you thought was a nice addition. That would kill me!

  • Why didn’t you write this article 18 years ago when I really needed it? E-Myth stuff, for sure. 

    •  @barrettrossie I should have written that book!

  • Wow, Gini! You’re right about communications folks being people pleasers. It’s a blessing and a curse (in this case, the latter). I had to fire my first client because of my mistake: over servicing! When it came time for me to charge what I thought I was worth, they walked all over me! It took me another 6 months before I cut the cord.

    •  @RachelStrella It’s a hard lesson to learn, isn’t it?

      •  @ginidietrich
         It sure is, Gini. Glad I learned it early on!

    •  @RachelStrella I just did something very similar Rachel. But lucky me, it was a short-term project. We walk a fine line between trust and professionalism. From now on I hope to err on the side of professionalism. (“Trust, but verify,” the man once said.) 

      •  @barrettrossie  @RachelStrella And asking for a PO upfront. 🙂

  • It is not just communications. I think it is common for many people to try to over deliver on promises. It is admirable but there is a time and place for it. All clients deserve great service but some will abuse your time and if you aren’t careful they will come to expect that extra work as part of their package so if you don’t deliver it will be seen as you falling short and bite you in the butt.
    When you have to bill your own hours you become remarkably cognizant of where you spend your time and how much is spent.

    •  @thejoshuawilner I have a friend who will set expectations so low that he overdelivers every time. While there is value in this, he also makes no money. And then he gripes and complains. I’ve gotten to the point that I just say, “You know the answer.”

  • BethMosher

    Great article and a must-read for all in the agency business. While I’m out of that business now, we weren’t this thorough and I know we WAY overserviced clients. I’d be curious to hear what dashboard tool you use. Thanks for the article – 

    •  @BethMosher We use QuickBooks to track most everything and then export it into Excel. Eventually we’ll have to get more sophisticated, but it works for our small business for now.

  • Great post as always, G. This is a habit I have as well. I really don’t like saying no to my customers, because I really do enjoy helping them. But then I set myself up to fail- how can I possibly follow up on the 217 meetings I had in Australia while also planning my fall sales trips in Canada and California without working 19 hours a day, or sacrificing my level of service? Because I don’t work on the “billable hours” system, it is a little different for me.  Anyone else in sales struggle with this? 

    •  @RebeccaTodd I don’t know how you did all those meetings in Australia, let alone how you’re going to follow-up on all of them. You need a personal assistant!

      •  @ginidietrich I have been building the business case for just such a person…

        •  @RebeccaTodd Do I need to knock some sense into someone??

        •  @ginidietrich Hah indeed! I’m sure you can unearth some data to support my position? 

        •  @RebeccaTodd Heck yes I can!

  • DanielleDAli

    @amarie5304 @spinsucks That IS a great post. My biggest takeaway is that you shortchange your clients in the long run when you overservice.

    • amarie5304

      @DanielleDAli @spinsucks Indeed. It’s a difficult habit to break for sure. I’m also facsinated by the notion of NOT charging by the hour.

  • This is a really valuable post, Gini. Thanks. It is very easy for us to confuse good customer service with overservice. Good customer service does involve communicating with the client before, during and after the project or assignment to make sure we are doing what they want and that they are happy with our delivery. We need to be accessible as necessary.
    What we don’t need to be doing is extra work they haven’t asked us for and for which we have not agreed a fee. We may make them very happy, but if they were already happy, how much more did we need to do? We end up damaging our bottom line with extra costs and in spending our staff’s and our valuable time when it could be more profitably used elsewhere.
    We all like the warm fluffy feeling we get from helping a happy customer, but it is very desirable to be properly paid for our work.

    •  @Jon Stow As I always tell my team…we can’t pay our mortgages with happy clients. 

  • WScott_Steele

    @CarmelaAntolino Hi, buddy! How are you doing? Enjoying things?

    • CarmelaAntolino

      @wscott_steele Hi friend! I am doing great – how are you? Yes, let’s! You tell me when 🙂

      • WScott_Steele

        @CarmelaAntolino I’ll let you know ASAP! Top of my list for sure!

        • CarmelaAntolino

          @wscott_steele I feel special 🙂

  • WScott_Steele

    @CarmelaAntolino Let’s pick a date for drinks soon. I’ll have good idea of where I stand after the weekend.

  • This is so true. And I think often this happens because 1] we often don’t have our pay tied to costs 2] We might not have other stuff to do (for various reasons), 3] Poor management leadership.
    Yes customer service and going above and beyond is great. But it can also be damaging to your business relationship with a client expecting this. I am dealing with this now with a client. Due to not having as much work she got way over serviced. But now that I have a lot of work she is still used to that level and it can’t be the way it was.

    •  @HowieG I think you can still go above and beyond without overservicing. I’d like to think we do it every day. But you do it in ways that help you build your relationship with the clients and in a way that helps them think differently about their businesses. It might be as simple as an article you think they’d find value in or paying for their lunch, without billing it back.

      • FocusedWords

         @ginidietrich  @HowieG It’s a delicate balancing act but as my employees consist of “me”, it is one that I have to conquer.  I tend to overservice out of fear of losing the business.  My logical self tells me exactly what you have said Gini, overservicing is going to result in the client seeing my service as having less value.  

        •  @FocusedWords  @HowieG Maybe think about it from this perspective: Could you take on one (or two) more client if you didn’t overservice the clients you did have? If the answer is yes, do it!

  • Remiliz

    Gini, this is such a valuable post. Thank you for taking the overservice bull by the horns and suggesting actual solutions. I’ve been in countless unproductive discussions about the need to stop overservice without anyone actually answering the question, “OK…how?” Thank you a thousand times!

    •  @Remiliz I’m sure you know this well. I remember those same conversations, “You have to stop doing this.” OK, but how? If you want me to travel with the client and to dine with them and be away from home, don’t you think we should budget for that?

  • Great points G-Money. You’re right, it’s a lose-lose because the over-coddling and people pleasing will become the expectation, not the exception.

    •  @SociallyGenius Yes…and when it becomes the expectation, you can’t really back out of it.

  • ginidietrich

    @MichaelBowers Did you do your event…or is it still later this week?

    • MichaelBowers

      @ginidietrich I’m in New Orleans now. Conf starts tomorrow. I’m speaking Thursday.

      • ginidietrich

        @MichaelBowers Oh good! You can have a hurricane tonight then.

        • MichaelBowers

          @ginidietrich I like the way you think 🙂

  • ginidietrich

    @JmeSolis oh good! I’m glad to hear that

    • JmeSolis

      @ginidietrich It’s just so true; the right “No” is powerful & can really help projects/relationships. “Yes” can sometimes muck up the works

  • eveypistorio

    @JamesWBreen 🙂 Thanks for sharing!! Hope all is well with you!!

    • JamesWBreen

      @eveypistorio Doing great, thanks! enjoying the extended summer weather

      • eveypistorio

        @JamesWBreen Glad to hear it 🙂 I’m just relieved it’s no longer 100+ degrees anymore out here!

  • Truth.

  • ginidietrich

    @adamtoporek Morning!

    • adamtoporek

      @ginidietrich Morning to you!

      • ginidietrich

        @adamtoporek It’s no longer morning so … afternoon!

        • adamtoporek

          @ginidietrich But then again… maybe it’s time to say morning!

        • ginidietrich

          @adamtoporek LOL!! Morning!

  • Kudos for taking on the monster under the bed.  Now having been on both side of the corporate table, I really appreciate the need for clean expectations and outcomes that you detail in your four points.  The cumulative effect of “banked” time creates unwelcome outcomes for both the accountable corporate lead as well as the contracted firm – someone always comes up short.

    •  @scottpropp You’re right, Scott. Someone does always come up short and it hurts relationships. 

  • Just getting to this post now, and glad I did!  I tend to work like a madman and afterwards look up and see I spent way more time on things than anticipated.  I like the idea of tracking my hours internally.  
    Time to focus more on this.
    –Tony Gnau

    •  @T60Productions It’s really the only way to determine whether or not your prices are correct.

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