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Gini Dietrich

Four Ways to Break the Overservice Habit

By: Gini Dietrich | September 11, 2012 | 
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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, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

83 comments
T60Productions
T60Productions

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

scottpropp
scottpropp

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.

eveypistorio
eveypistorio

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

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

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

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

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

TonyBennett
TonyBennett

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.

Remiliz
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!

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

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.

WScott_Steele
WScott_Steele

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

WScott_Steele
WScott_Steele

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

Jon Stow
Jon Stow

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.

 

DanielleDAli
DanielleDAli

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

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

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? 

BethMosher
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 - 

 

Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes
Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes

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.

RachelStrella
RachelStrella

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.

JamesWBreen
JamesWBreen

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

JmeSolis
JmeSolis

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

MichaelBowers
MichaelBowers

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

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @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?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @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.

CarmelaAntolino
CarmelaAntolino

@wscott_steele Hi friend! I am doing great - how are you? Yes, let's! You tell me when :)

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

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

amarie5304
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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @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
ginidietrich moderator

 @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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @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."

barrettrossie
barrettrossie

 @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.) 

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

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

eveypistorio
eveypistorio

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

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

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

PJWright
PJWright

 @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.  

WScott_Steele
WScott_Steele

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

adamtoporek
adamtoporek

@ginidietrich But then again... maybe it's time to say morning!

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