I come from an agency background. I spent more than 15 years work at various agencies from small shops to international leaders. The agency way is to produce billable hours. Everything is tracked and hopefully billed. As Group Account Director, if we spent 30 minutes on the phone talking about your project or your issues, you would be billed for my time. Success was measured by who had the best percentage of billable hours and also the best profit margin.
Now that I own my own consultancy, I am able to do business the way I have felt is the ‘right’ way for some time. I can make my own rules and change the billing structure to suit my style and personality better. Through the years, I realized the key to more billable hours was better relationships with my clients. If I could truly provide a service or a different perspective, I would be the first phone call when the next hurdle or project came along. BUT – if my interest was in billing more than problem solving or learning about my clients, I stood to lose business.
It’s my philosophy that I can’t effectively do business with you if I don’t understand your business, your competition, your struggles and your goals. Should you have to pay for me to get up to speed? At an agency – yes – more than likely you would be billed for this learning curve. Which means before you ever see any work, you have already racked up several hours of expense. I understand why agencies function this way – they can – and their competition does too! But how likely are you to spend real quality time with me sharing about your business if you every minute is costing you money? Won’t you dumb it down to the basics that you think I need to understand? We are both hurt by this approach.
I would argue focusing on building relationships not billable hours will in the long run lead to MORE billable hours. For my clients, the learning curve is always at no cost. This is a time for me to see if we are going to be a good fit and learn what I need to learn as well as a time for you to share as much as you can with me. This approach leads to more question and answers and more quality learning. Yes – there may be a few lost hours of billable time.
If I develop a strong relationship with you, based on trust, expertise and a desire to do what’s best, I’ll be the first person you call when you need something else. It is so rewarding to get a call from a client saying “I’m not sure if you do this but I wanted to ask you first because we trust you.” If I were focusing on billable hours, my answer would be YES regardless of whether it was my strength. Taking the relationship approach it may be, “I can create the strategy for you but will need to outsource the web design. I’m happy to manage this or refer you to someone who can handle the second half?”
To some this may seem foolish – I’ve given up potential work! BUT – my name is one the door. If I disappoint you – I will lose you as a client. My honest answer and emphasis on our relationship, means I’ll get the next phone call for the next project which may be more in my sweet spot. I’ve had instances where I have been asked to consult and review the work of other agencies – because my opinion is valued and my approach is not to look for ways to rack up billable hours. I’ve been paid for my time as a consultant – an area I am more qualified to be in and can be successful with.
In the end, by focusing on relationship building not billable hours, I am growing my business, increasing my workload and building loyal clients. I become a true partner – not just the agency that handles your mailings only. I move myself from a place of being evaluated on price to evaluated on performance. While some may not be comfortable with the few lost hours here and there – I’m willing to bank on my approach!