“My MacBook isn’t turning on, even though I charged it all night!”
Our administrator who took this call was laughing when she reported it to me, but this was a serious wake-up call for me to rectify one of the gravest management failures I had made up until 2015. Instead of the real estate website + boutique design agency, we had been degraded to fixing grandpa’s DVD player.
. . . .
And that’s how we learn our lessons – Through Mistakes
As a problem solver, being helpful is in my nature. I like to help. We like to help. But we needed to set our boundaries.
At one point a client insisted on meeting me after office hours to get me to look at his Gmail issue on his laptop – so I helped, even though on-site device troubleshooting is NOT what our SaaS based corporation does. Our developers were jumping to help with email signatures on Microsoft Outlook (yes, some dinosaurs still use it), and guiding them through the MailChimp support docs, as if they were not already online for all to Google, click, and read.
We were losing so many hours on “helpful support” without revenue, that it was slowly becoming more and more unstable.
We had to Stop Being Too Helpful, Seriously!
It may be tempting to be “helpful” to troubleshoot somebody’s iPad, and that may take only 5 minutes. But as soon as you do that, it then becomes a norm. Once our hours were scattered and our profits tumbled down due to helping with things that were not our products, I realized my terrible mistake, and ordered the whole office to stick to “providing the best support within our product ranges only!” policy.
The policy, and the range of our services, has always been there. As a team, we had taken the easy way out for years. Instead of holding our ground to say “We don’t offer email or software support that are not Brixwork products”, we just wanted to make the issue go away. These were merely shortcuts, and making these exceptions created a false sense of norm that ultimately hurt the company.
Loss of Productivity Hurts Your Business & Clients Both!
Our team’s time should be devoted to improving the quality & finesse of our websites, and expedite tech support issues that are actually our issues (such as MLS® listing sync issues), without losing hours to unrelated issues. A less-productive, less-profitable business also hurts the customers by lowered service quality on the services they do need to provide well.
A Proactive Solution To Actually Be Helpful!
Whenever we run into non-Brixwork issues, we refer our clients to Darci Laroque who is an IT & cloud specialist who helps real estate agents with training & support for G-Suite, Dropbox, Docusign, and other very helpful tech solutions to help them do more in less time, and remain better organized than ever.
This referral achieves several positive results:
- We are still being helpful by providing a proactive solution.
- Darci’s services cover even more than what we offer, and with dedication. That is her full time business, after all.
- We are firmly setting boundaries on what to expect from Brixwork, and what not to expect, from the subscription service.
- We are making it very clear that tech & email support is a whole other service by a full-time provider that has costs & value associated, therefore eliminating the false perception that it “should be free.”
- Darci is awesome, and we love sending business to her (that’s a personal reason, but I find pleasure in helping other local small businesses thrive).
When Rush Exceptions Become The Norm
We often did our best to accommodate the Friday-afternoon urgent “I need this designed by the end of day!” emails, if we had any hours to spare. This was a bonus and an exception gesture for clients, considering our official policy for email responses is “next business day” unless it’s an urgent website technical issue. After a few times, however, they started assuming we’d respond within an hour or two and get last minute things done all the time. The rush exception then became a normal expectation.
Our agency is not set up like a quick in-house design team or a freelance contractor looking to score as many hours a day as possible. If our design team is in production with pre-scheduled projects, they are not to be interrupted. Interruption breaks focus, and costs a lot of time & money.
More articles on the perils of interruption during work:
- Are Digital Distractions Harming Labour Productivity? – The Economist
- The Cost of Continuously Checking Email – Harvard Business Review
- Work interruptions can cost you 6 hours a day – Washington Post
When the time did come where a Friday email was not responded until Monday (as per our usual policy), those clients started getting upset, even though that was our normal policy – the design team was already busy, therefore nothing new hit their desks until the next business day.
Poor planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine.
What We Started Doing Instead
We started leaving those Friday afternoon emails until Monday morning regardless of whether we had time or not. This will encourage the client plan ahead next time. I’m a 9-5 entrepreneur – I will not work weekends on count of somebody else’s disorganization, nor will I force my staff to do so. Work-life balance is an important aspect of my life and business.
Another Solution To This Issue – A New System!
If last minute requests are a frequent in business (ours is not, less than 2%), here are the steps I would take to accommodate without breaking the system: Build A New System!
- Calculate how much it costs to halt & switch to another job last minute. Think about the interruption cost (at least half hour added to existing projects), potential overtime pay or bonuses for staff staying late or working weekends.
- Build such costs into a new “Same-Day Turnaround” price tier – my estimate is about 2X the normal rate, but this will differ from business to business.
- Make this pricing tier official to firmly establish that last minute requests cost the agency a lot more, and avoid surprises – no client likes surprises, or feel like their being taken advantage of. Have it set in stone.
- This sets a new expectation of the costs involved while adding perceived value to expedited service (which has real value, and higher costs). FEDEX charges rush fees that are built into their price tiers – do the same.
Delegate Your Invoices & Discounts With Authority
Moving from a solo-preneur to running a team had several challenges, and the handling of “special treatment” was one of them. We offer some incentives on repeat customers with high monthly volumes, and for bundling projects together to save time. The problem was that, for years, I applied these discounts at my own discretion, and communicated them directly to clients, case-by-case.
As I delegated invoices & payments entirely to an administrator, some older clients kept coming back with the “can you ask Jeff about this charge” question. At one point, some clients called in asking for an exception through me for the $10/mth charge for additional agents added to their websites. Yes, the $10/mth is not a typo of $100/mth.They actually wanted a 1-on-1 phone call over the cost of 2 lattes!
This poses several problems:
- $10/mth is hardly enough of a dollar amount for even my administrator to pick up the phone over, let alone escalate to me. It’s too small of an amount for anybody’s time to even be pondered a possibility for an exception-based discount.
- Even when we did make an exception to avoid an argument over such a small amount (again, a cheap shortcut I regret taking) this breeds even more problems later.
- New administrative staff were asking why certain accounts have that charge, and others do not – leading to digging up old emails and explaining why.
- New coders were wondering why some websites have a cap, while others do not – more cumbersome training, explanations, and record-digging.
- All these “exceptions” create more questions about inconsistencies, add to training hours & wasteful explanation time over the years to come.
- I am the type of business owner that delegate with authority, not just with tasks. That means I take my own power away from myself to override invoicing & payment issues from the administrator. If my administrator follows protocol to suspend a website that has payment problems, I will not intervene even if it’s a family member. Making exceptions breaks this firm structure, disempowers the staff, and destroys trust, while losing time & revenue.
Begin with the End in Mind.
The Solution To Ensure Clients Are Happy Without Convoluting Your Processes
- We set out firm policies, expectations, and bold notices that monthly fees are NEVER subject to any type of negotiation or discounts, and are set continent-wide. We eliminated even the possibility to ask for monthly fee exceptions or case-by-case adjustments.
- Instead, implement a firm policy on high-volume discounts to ensure the big clients feel loved. We set up a discount bracket for clients whose individual spend exceeds $1,000/mth.
- This type of approach achieves two things:
- You still ensure you take good care of the high-volume clients. Relationships and loyalty is critical in small businesses.
- You ensure that as a business owner you are never spending time on discussing/defending small amounts that are not worth your time.
- You save clients’ time by not letting them even ponder a discussion over small amounts.
- You set the bar on what is considered a “high volume” account. We had clients with very low volume who were under the false impression that they were high-volume. By publishing what is considered “high” volume you set the tone without directly having to tell somebody “you’re not actually a high volume customer” without any hurt egos or feelings. You get to avoid awkward (and fruitless) conversations, and spend more time on your business.
I’ve Regretted Just About Every Exception I Made
These are just a couple of examples of how previous exceptions came back to bite me in the ass. Some of them were more costly than others. Some were relatively menial.
When we make exceptions in the visual draft & coding stages, and break protocol on the assembly-line structure to speed things up, it cost us more in time to fix problems later.
When we made payment arrangement exceptions, if often came back to haunt us later with inconsistencies. Only exceptions we still do make on this front is if they have an illness (themselves, or in the family). That much exception is a reasonable exception which I will gladly take the bullet for later.
In the 14 years of running my own businesses, one of the biggest lessons I learned is to avoid making exceptions as much as you can – it costs much more in the long run, and crumbles your business processes.