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Date: September 11th, 2012
Category: social media
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Four Ways to Break the Overservice Habit

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.

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