updated: September 23rd, 2009 / Ross Johnson / 4 Comments

Working on working on work

When running your own business, especially a small one (meaning it is myself and two helpers) I often find that you can spend just as much time (if not more) on all the details surrounding work as the actual billable hours themselves.

When I say this I don’t necessarily mean doing all the non-fun things like accounting, paperwork, etc… Because if you get to a point where those things are really dragging down your billable hours it becomes profitable to hire someone to do it for you. Even if they bill at the same rate you do chances are they will get through it much quicker.

What I am talking about is the interaction and management of clients and potential clients.

Any project is going to require a dedicated amount of time to communication. Any potential new clients even more so. Now if you have experienced this at a high volume hopefully you have figured out that you need to account for and add it into your proposals. If you haven’t, now is a time to start…


As demand increases and you are required to become more productive to keep up, one of the first things that you will learn is that you really need to set a schedule of what work will be compelted and when. This will help you figure out and align your bandwidth and set realistic expectations for your clients.

What Scheduling Can’t Account For…

The client themselves. Now I have always hated how often people express an angry sense of “Me vs the client” syndrom, however this is a case where you simply can’t always predict, schedule, and account for the timing of a client wanting interaction.

Most clients you come across will have an expectation of getting a response fairly soon after they pose a question (weither it is via phone, or via email). However it is pretty easy to get into a situation where you are simply answering the phone / email all day long rather than making progress on the projects you have available.

How Do You Handle This?

You could hire someone to try and handle your communications. However they are unlikely to be able to do much beyond delay the onslaught of communication and the salary cost is nothing to sneeze at. Author Tim Ferriss recommends driving everyone to e-mail, setting up a auto-responder that says “I check e-mail at 10:00a.m. and 4:00p.m.”, and then only answering e-mail twice a day.

This is a good start. However you are still likely to have issues with those who just can’t help but pick up a phone, and bug you time and time again.

Be Clear Up Front, and Charge for Points of Contact

Lately what I have found to be effective is to be very clear up front that I… selll… hours. I don’t sell a product, so what you are paying for is the time of myself and my employees and contractors. This time is NOT just the time that anyone is directly working on the project, but also the time it takes to manage your project including phone calls, emails, etc…

Clients may not like this idea at first, however if you clarify it with “If I did not handle the business this way I could not realistically give you a clear picture of when your project would be done, or that it would be done on time.”

At this point there seems to be a bit more clarity in the situation. I usually go on to say “This is also the reason why it is important to understand that it may take up to 24 hours for me to get back to you. However this will most likely only been under extreme cases.”

Sometimes it All Crashes and Fails…

This last week it just didn’t work out. A very quick turn around project for a new group (Sustainable Solutions Alliance) while handle a few other Phase II / Phase III including some SilverStripe coding for Ann Arbor State Bank I had an onslaught of calls, emails, and problems, that I couldn’t really pass off. Being that some of the calls and emails were “things have broken” it is hard to explain to a client your 24 hour policy when it is the state of “emergency.”

I have yet to find the best way to handle this. As you start to acquire and aid new clients at some point you will run into a large portion of dormant clients (who are not regularly assisting your cash flow) who will have no problem knocking down your door when something goes wrong.

At this point I think raising your rates might be the best solution, but I am all ears. Anyone have any worthwhile suggestions?

4 thoughts Working on working on work

  1. Pingback: Working on working on work » - Web Design Marketing Podcast & Blog

  2. Hi Ross.
    The solution is already there in the analysis of the problem situation that you have carried out. Clients will expect immediate responses and will expect the head of the business to deal with them directly, especially when you are a small team. So you will not be able to delegate that part.
    You might instead consider hiring an extra help to do the detailing of design and programming bits, while you focus on ideating and dealing with clients and prospective clients.
    From my past experiences in a communication agency, I can add that the norms for productive staff time cost is that it is approx 50% of total costs of business. So the balance 50% will be office expenses, rent and utilities etc. and non-productive time cost relating to admin, accounts etc. The client interaction time here is treated as productive time cost !!.

    Hope the above helps.


  3. I face this same challenge. I used to guarantee a 90-minute response time on my website for prospects or clients if they contact me with a question or request. Not surprisingly, many events outside of my control led me to reevaluate that policy and I had to remove it from my site or run the risk of not delivering on a promised response time.

    The solution? I still get back to people as soon as possible, usually within minutes. On the rare circumstance that I can’t respond immediately or within a few hours due to being out of the office, with another client, etc, I try to set up autoresponders to set a realistic expectation. Then, I try to beat that expectation.

    I think you are right that other staffers aren’t able to handle the majority of the issues that clients call with, so I choose to maintain a direct link with my clients rather than try to triage their calls/emails through somebody else.

    Interesting point though! Definitely something that can become unmanageable relatively quickly.

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