Ah, the overservicing clients conundrum.
We all want to do a good job for our clients—and oftentimes that means working far more than we should…or are being paid to do.
Early in my career, I worked on the Ocean Spray account. I loved, loved, loved working on that account.
Not only did we have a gigantic budget, we got to do incredibly creative things.
During my time working with them, I led the 100% Juices product launch. Our job was to get juice samples in as many hands as possible.
And, because my bosses wanted to keep as much of the revenue in our profit center as possible, they put me and a colleague on a plane Tuesday through Saturday.
In retrospect, we should have hired a street team from a sister company that had people in each location.
But, as they say, hindsight is 20/20.
The Art of the Ocean Spray Harvest
We launched the Art of the Ocean Spray Harvest and we set out to let people try the juice.
We set up tents, lugged boxes around, set up a traveling art gallery, sold stationery and artwork, and handed out little cups of juice to thousands of consumers.
I was super buff that year because those boxes were heavy. I also was very tan from being outside every day.
And, I was all of 25 so it was easy to be on the road like that for nearly two years.
(No way I’d do that today.)
But, being on the road like that was super expensive for the client.
There were two of us billing 19 hours a day, six days a week—and we weren’t cheap.
And a partner almost always showed up for some part of each city’s event…and that definitely wasn’t cheap.
I don’t remember the full amount it cost, but just for the two of us (with some quick math), it was $45,600 a week.
And we did it for nine months—sot that’s more than $1.6MM.
Not including the partner’s time or expenses or the time of the rest of the team back at the office, pitching the media and handling the other aspects of the account.
I’m fairly certain we wrote off $1MM that year—which was half of our budget.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
But our bosses were willing to do it for a long-term client.
(Funny thing is, Ocean Spray left FH shortly after that so it wasn’t worth it, in the end.)
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.
We did 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 spent with the client.
After all, that’s what I’d been taught.
I remember the controller at R&K said to me one time, “How are you working 20 hours a day?”
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 clients was OK.
So, when I went to an agency that didn’t bill social time with clients (which I don’t agree with) or bill back meals (which I do agree with), that idea was foreign to them.
I spent many hours in Steve’s office trying to figure out how we were going to do what we said we’d do without my working 20 hours a day.
The Bad Habit
Now, as a business owner, it totally makes sense to me that overservicing clients is bad.
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 it’s in our nature to want to give more—and that’s good! But the “more” should be less than 10 percent of what the client is paying you.
If, for instance, you have a $4,000 per month retainer, you absolutely should not work more than $4,400 per month.
This goes back to the tracking time conversation we had last week. You won’t know how much overservicing clients you’re doing if you don’t track your time.
And I guarantee every one of you—agency and in-house alike—are overservicing clients.
By nature, communications professionals are people pleasers. We don’t like to say no.
But the funny thing about overservicing clients? You think you’re doing right by the client, but eventually it catches up with you.
You get frustrated because you feel taken advantage of (even though you created it). And the client is frustrated that you suddenly scaled back on the work you’re doing.
Either way, you lose. The client loses.
And yet…we continue to do it.
Staying On Track
I remember attending a presentation Ken Jacobs did at Counselors Academy a few years ago.
(His wife paid me to show up—so I obliged.)
He spoke on this very topic and suggested we all go back to the office and work hard to get our overservicing to less than 10 percent.
It’s not an easy ask, but it’s a necessary one.
Even for us, because I’m so … uh … rigid about it, it’s still a challenge.
We’re communicators and communicators are people pleasers.
We just don’t like to say no!
But here are four things you can do to reach your goal of less than 10 percent of overservicing clients.
If you define deliverables upfront—and communicate them if they change—you can keep expectations in check.
One of the things we do from proposal phase and then every week after beginning work with a client is clearly defining our deliverables.
Sometime they change and that’s OK.
If that happens, we can easily say:
Yes! We’d love to do that. Our priorities to reach XX goal are A, B, and C. What would you like us to postpone to do this?
Sometimes the client just needs to be reminded we have a larger goal and they say, “Never mind!”
Or, they offer a project fee to do the work. Or we move priorities around.
All of those things are acceptable—and both sides are happy.
Telling clients what they’ll get for the money they’re spending helps everyone stay on track and also helps you measure results.
In your monthly dashboard—and this is for both agencies and in-house communicators—you want to track goals versus actual results.
It’s an easy way to track your results, and keep everything visible for the client.
If they do ask you to do something outside of scope, you can have the same conversation I recommended above.
And one of those three things happens again—but mostly, you remind them that there are established goals and what they’re asking you to do takes you off focus.
Train on Managing Budgets
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 clients (especially because it’s higher than our less than 10 percent goal).
We keep track of this monthly. There are definitely some months that are more active than others, so we weigh that in.
While we may overservice during the summer, we know we’ll make it up during the fall and winter.
So don’t go nuts if one month is over, particularly if you know you can make it up later.
But also don’t let it become a trend so you end up writing off more than 10 percent for the year.
That is bad.
Track. Your. Time.
We’ve recently had this conversation, but it bears worth repeating: track your time.
I know, I know. It’s a big pain in the toosh.
But you cannot effectively manage budgets of any kind if you don’t track your time.
After all, it is your time you’re selling.
Imagine if an organization didn’t track inventory. It’s the same thing.
This is the only way you will know how much capacity you have to work with new clients or take on a new project.
It’s how you know when it’s time to hire someone new. It’s pretty easy to show your boss that everyone on your team is 110 percent utilized. That’s a pretty strong signal that you need more help.
And it’s how you know how much it costs to do things.
Happy Clients and Happy Bosses
Having a goal of overservicing clients less than 10 percent of your budget is not an easy thing to do.
We want to make our internal and external 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.
And happy clients and happy bosses reward happy colleagues.