Will Uber Kill Time-Based Billing?

Why would Uber’s business model impact the standard billing method of established professional firms?

An interesting observation was made on a radio program I was listening to last night.  Apparently a number of taxi operators in larger cities in the US are now doing all their pricing up-front for the passenger before they start the trip.  This means that the old  method of turning on the meter and charging what the end result was is becoming redundant as the taxi operators have worked out that the customer wants pricing certainty.  If the cabdriver doesn’t provide it, the customer will go to Uber…

The disruption Uber has caused within the taxi industry globally has been well documented, however, it did get me thinking.

With increased penetration of up-front pricing for work that used to be based on an set (arbitrary?) rate by time, customers from all segments of the economy are going to start to question the logic of entering a transaction with no known end price.  Where very other industry is going down the path of providing pricing certainty on commencement of a piece of work, why do the professions still believe they are immune from the impacts of the change?

In many respects, the taxi industry is similar to the professions – time by rate and it doesn’t matter to the provider how many hours (or miles) are spent on a job as they will know they are getting paid “for what they do”.  The sad thing is this has been ripe for exploitation (who hasn’t been in a taxi which “took the long way” to get somewhere?)  Unfortunately, it doesn’t create a great experience for the user of the services as they just have to grimace and wear it.

Disruption in pricing and business models is going to increase and roll through many other industries and professions that used to work on the time by rate model.  Customers are experiencing more of it and are going to demand more of it.

Those firms that start on the path to pricing on purpose will see themselves gain a competitive advantage – those that don’t will wonder what the hell happened.

Have a look around the Verasage site – there’s lots of rich material in here (esp recommend a solid listen to Ron and Ed on their “The Soul of Enterprise” podcasts).

The professions are going to become “Ubered”.  I hope they are ready for it.

Really?

Do you understand what your customers are wanting?  Really?

img_2028

There is a lot of noise (especially in the accounting press) about the move from the classic compliance offerings from accountants into more advisory work.  All the industry pundits are saying that the accounting profession is going through a period of change and we, as professionals in the industry, need to adapt.  I fully agree with them.

The issue seems to be though that many of our colleagues are fearful of the change.  I believe this has a lot to do with the type of people who have been attracted to and trained in the profession.

The following is a short list of adjectives that can describe the approach adopted by a lot of people in the profession:

  • amiable (nice people to have a chat with)
  • good listener (wanting to get to the heart of the issue)
  • loyal (will “go in to bat” for their clients)
  • dependable
  • sincere

We can couple these with a few more for the real technocrats in our industry:

  • accurate
  • precise
  • fact finder
  • careful
  • cautious
  • conservative

All absolutely perfect for an accountant preparing your financial statements and assisting you with your taxation and compliance matters.

Contrast those traits with the approach required to help a customer in the advisory space.  Adjectives we might use to describe people in this arena include:

  • direct
  • inquisitive
  • daring
  • assertive
  • driving

Mixed with a few of the following:

  • persuasive
  • enthusiastic
  • confident
  • influential
  • positive

Now when I look at the lists above, I see polar opposites.  The “traditional” accountant approach and style can be somewhat disconnected with the “advisory” accountant style.

When you look at the changes that are imposing themselves (being imposed?) on the profession at the moment, consider whether your mindset and approach is what is truly required to deliver the service your clients want.  Having worked as an accountant for over 20 years, I know a hell of a lot of my colleagues are very precise, accurate and cautious.  And that is a great thing.  In the right area.

I find the same issue crops up with the firms who move proactively into issues like value pricing and changing the way they engage with their clients.  The more conservative, “classic” accountants do the whole fear and attack response when challenged.  They will generally evade the issues and resort to “the rules” rather than assess the opportunity on its merits.  They will, politely, pay lip service to the idea while telling you it cannot work.

The transition in the accounting profession is therefore going to be quite painful for many of our colleagues.  Their natural style will make it incredibly difficult for them to make the move.  In effect, they want to see a lot of other firms make the change before they do.  This will, in their eyes, reduce the risk of such a move.

The challenge with this approach is that they will be starting well behind the game and therefore struggle to catch up.

There are piles of surveys and reports indicating what it is that clients want from their accountants.  The problem is a lot of accountants are too busy being focused on the compliance aspects of their businesses, and they will miss the significant opportunities that lie directly under their feet.

We have had some success of late by talking with clients about what they are wanting.  They really want support to think and act for the future – not tell them what happened last year (which you cannot do anything about).

Many younger practitioners are “getting” the whole idea, but they are more focused on marketing than delivery.  With this situation, a melding of the old and the new – marketing with the “young guys” and delivery (with experience) from the “old guys”, can be a powerful combination.

When you next have a conversation with an accountant, ask them how they are going remaining relevant with and for their clients.  If they say that the industry transition doesn’t apply to them or their clients, ask them just one question.  Really?

Beware the Progressive Promise

With more firms moving to the Verasage pricing model (good on them – great move), we occasionally come across examples where firms haven’t really arranged their systems and processes to support the delivery of services.

idea

We are fortunate enough to be picking up a new customer (via referral) from a competitor who has “productised” their offering and built their model around cloud accounting.  Terrific.

The customer in question has been working with their accountant for many years and supported them as they moved the model to an agreed pricing platform (I don’t believe based on our discussions with the customer that the firm is anywhere near value pricing their services).  They had been paying the monthly direct debit to cover all the services required.  They had been providing all the information required to enable the firm to do what was required.

Now, put yourself in this customer’s shoes.  They’ve been paying a monthly amount to the firm for the various compliance obligations for the past three years.  However, they have only just now received the financials and tax returns for 2013/14 and 2014/15.  Are they frustrated?  Bloody oath.

To be clear here, they are pretty happy with the quality of the work they were getting – when they got it.  They were driven up the wall by the constant chasing up to get information from the firm.  They like the accountant they have been working with.  But they feel like they have been “left for dead”.  The experience they have had has been very unsettling for them. As they said – “we’ve paid for the work, why hasn’t it been done?”

Many firms are making the move to productising their offerings and moving more to an agreed pricing model.

They fall down badly though when their focus is on marketing and “brand building” rather than service delivery.

Having your customers pay into your account regularly is great for your cashflow.  When you’re not delivering the services agreed to under that model, you have a problem.

The firm our new customer was going to is widely lauded as a “leader” in its field.  It is held up as a paragon of virtue and “a major disruptor”.  The problem is, the lived experience of their customers doesn’t support the hype.

We will be making sure we deliver our agreed services to them on time and support them up hill and down dale.  We will also regularly check in with them to ensure they are happy with our delivery and service.  The great thing is, once they get embedded into our firm, they are wanting to refer a whole heap of their mates to us who are also with this “progressive” firm as they are all having the same experience.

The other thing is, we are value pricing the engagement with the customer.  They are wanting a heap more real-value services and they are more than happy to pay for them.  This is money the “disruptive, progressive” firm was leaving on the table by productising their offering.  The firm’s focus wasn’t on the customer, and that has created a marvellous opportunity for us.

When you do go down the path of changing your model, please ensure that you deliver what you agree to and keep the customer in the loop.  It’s no use being a “leader” in the industry/profession if your walk doesn’t match your talk.

You also need to have the value conversation with the customer and listen to their needs and wants.

Ends up being a far better outcome for all concerned.

Could not say it better myself!

Only just received the 2015 copy of the “Good, Bad Ugly” report on the Australian Accounting profession prepared by Business Fitness.  Makes for interesting reading.

head in the sand

There are a couple of points that are worth repeating:

  • revenue per partner has decreased by 8.9%;
  • average client fees have reduced by over 18% in the past two years;
  • for firms using timesheets, productivity is falling;
  • lower marketing spend over the past three years; and
  • 6% increase in firms using outsourcing (reasonable number, but not very many firms are doing it).

There is one very telling comment made in the introduction to the statistics in the report (my highlights):

When analysing the 14 years’ worth
of data relating to high-performing
firms, we can conclusively say that
productivity based on chargeable
hours has no correlation to
profitability.

Having just returned from the Verasage get-together in Boston, it has become even more apparent that the old models of firm management are not only redundant, they are dangerous.  Much of the discussion at the symposium related to the way successful firms focus on relationships – both internal and external.  This has to do with building, maintaining and honoring decent relationships.  Not relationships where everything is about flogging the crap out of your people and billing the hell out of your clients.  Relationships which are based on trust, accountability and common goals.

Having seen the damage done by the Almighty Billable Hour and looking at the impact this approach has on the cultures of firms, it amazes me that so many firms still use this model.

There is change already here in our industry and, as the GBU report reveals, this change is having an all-pervasive impact on our profession.  Either adapt or die.

Does this Really Work?

Ohhhh, the frustration!

I recently posted about a seminar I attended last week.  The feedback I have received from that post has been significant.  The responses have ranged from “Oh my Lord – that’s us” to “so, there is a way forward”.  Great, but I want to concentrate on the first type of replies received.

So many firms understand that the way they operate and their business model isn’t great, but it’s all that they know.  To try and move them to a new, more effective model takes a great leap in mental construct on behalf of the owners and managers in those firms.

One of the responses I received was from a bloke I know well who has just taken over as CEO of a professional knowledge firm.  Well established, reasonable size and “good, traditional” brand.  And he is frustrated up the wazoo!

It would appear from his email that the following issues pervade the organisation:

  • staff are rewarded with bonuses for hitting “productivity” targets;
  • The transfer from WIP into debtors (you know – actually billing the customer) is fraught in that, once the bills are raised, the customers get pissed off;
  • Consequence of this is that a lot of work remains in WIP as the senior people responsible for billing the WIP are too scared to raise the bill as they don’t want to have to deal with an angry customer;
  • Debtors ledger is out of control as there are a large amount of accounts “in dispute” which means that the whole thing is taking a massive amount of time and effort to clean up.

Now, from my view, this appears to be the antithesis of everything a professional knowledge firm should be.  Let me posit my view of the warped thinking that enables such an environment to exist, let alone continue:

Productivity

We want our people to be working – agree on that.  But, do we want them to be working on things that make a difference to the customer and are valued by the customer or do we want them doing things that waste a heap of time on customer accounts?  The behaviour you reward is the behaviour that continues.  By tying rewards (bonuses) to productivity targets, we are encouraging our people to bill as much time to the Holy WIP Ledger as possible.  The argument goes that, when we record everything, it gives us a basis for billing everything to the customer (more on this below).

But what is the real message that we are sending to our people when we bonus (often ridiculous) productivity?  Is it a message about effectiveness?  And is it really a message about efficiency?  Too many times, firm leaders sprout on about efficiency but the bonusing system actually penalises people from working more efficiently as their productivity targets won’t be met (the thinking goes: if I do this job more quickly, I won’t spend as much time and therefore, I stand less chance of getting the bonus).  Where is the incentive for them to be more “efficient”?

As part of this system, you get the inevitable build up of your Holy WIP Ledger.  Many firms see this as a “lead indicator” (as per last week’s post) when, in fact, it is a wish list that often bears very little resemblance to collection.

The other message you send to your people with the focus on hitting production targets as far as time spent is that they will only see a customer as something to be billed, not valued.  The training that occurs as a consequence is that the “up and comers” get taught that to get ahead, you need to focus on pleasing the partner/manager with high productivity rather than pleasing the customer by delivering great outcomes.

As an aside, it is often the case that the less senior people very rarely (if ever) get to meet with the customers.  How is this going to play out in their career development?  How is this going to assist them with understanding the file and the customer needs?  All information is “filtered” through the senior people before it gets to the actual “doers” of the work.  The outcome – they flog their guts out to get promoted and then have no experience in dealing with customers face to face.  I know of one firm in town here where the only people who see customers are the partners.  Talk about rate limiting factors!  An obvious outcome of this is that there is more rework required and heavier partner involvement in getting a file “customer ready” as the instructions are, more often than not, “lost in translation”.  This though, in the warped world of timesheet based billing, is good – more chargeable hours to bill, higher “productivity” and a bigger Holy WIP Ledger.

Holy WIP Ledger (HWL)

So, we have a whole heap of people billing the Holy WIP ledger as hard as they can as this is the basis on which they get rewarded.  The HWL is seen as a current asset in the books of the business and the financiers and owners of the business see it as “money in the bank”.  All that needs to happen is for it to be billed.

Herein lies a bit of a problem.  I have yet to meet with a firm where they state, honestly, that the HWL is fully recoverable.  I know of one firm I have been dealing with who ran a HWL that was a pure estimate.  They had timesheets to (sort of) back it up, but they knew that they were all rubbish so they just did an estimate.  It was probably as approximately right as the timesheet based one anyway.

I recently did some work for a customer in a professional knowledge firm regarding the exit of a Partner.  The HWL was obviously an issue to be addressed as the approach they were considering was one based on a mixture of profit and net assets.  To get a true picture of net assets, there needed to be a full review of the HWL as everyone recognised that it was not valid and certainly not all collectible.  In this circumstance, I suggested that we not go through this process.  Instead, we developed an approach which looked at what the exiting Partner was happy to receive for his equity and what the continuing equity holders were prepared to pay for the share.  As I said to the Managing Partner – “We can go through the whole process and get a result.  The real risk here is, whilst it might be very right as far as the number goes, someone is likely to be pissed off”.  The approach we used meant that my business didn’t get a whole heap of extra money for going through the valuation process, but, we did ensure that the Partners (exited and remaining) have kept very very good relationships and our customer very much values the creative approach we have adopted to solve their problem.  In short, we provided value rather than a number.  And we have further strengthened our relationship which will lead to more referrals and customer longevity.

The HWL is never right.  The term in most professional firms is “lock-up” – how many days the firm has “locked up” in WIP and debtors.  Often time, this number is horrendous – I know of some firms who have nearly one year’s worth of revenue “locked up”.  For what purpose?  You can’t spend it as it’s not real.  Why bother measuring something that is so subjective as to be useless?

Debtors

To get a bill done from your HWL, it needs to go through a process.  Often, it will be a senior person or Partner who goes through this process.  More often than not, they will sit down and agonise over the process “If I bill them what’s on the HWL, they will have a melt-down”.  So, what happens is that a bill will be raised against the customer for some portion of the HWL balance outstanding – in effect, what the person doing the billing believes they can get away with.  Conversely, if you do bill them for everything that’s on the HWL, you are almost guaranteed to get a pissed off customer on the phone three days later (or, worse, never – as they quietly leave and have no intention of using you again – or paying your bill).  There is no positive outcome that arises from this.  For anyone.

Now, the current thinking with regard to this is that firms should budget for “write-offs”.  In other words, they are saying (in words and deeds) that they know the HWL is crap.  But they then hold that the basis of their charging of the client is on time spent.  So, if the client has agreed to appoint them on time spent and they don’t bill the full time, are they really engaging them on that basis or on a “best estimate” at the end of the job?  This is where “estimated ranges” of accounts come in to it.  The client is told the cost of doing the work will be in the “range” of (say) $5,000 and $10,000.  The client hears “$5,000”, the Partner hears “$10,000”.  When the bill ends up being $8,000, both parties are pissed off.

What happens more often than people care to recognise is that there is a lot of “stuff” on the HWL that the senior guys are just too scared to bill.  I have seen some aged HWLs which record work done up to two years prior that is yet to be billed.  Seriously?  Is it ever going to be billed?  Or is it just there as a tacit admission that the system ultimately doesn’t work?  This then leads to other KPIs in firms about the ageing of HWL.  Most of these are there but not adhered to.  If the WIP isn’t billable, write it off – with all the “appropriate” consequences.

But, back to the staff posting time to the HWL.  How do they feel when the time they put in to a client is then written off?  Where is the feelgood out of this?  For anyone?  What is their thinking at the end of a job when, they are encouraged and incentivised to record all the time only to have it written off?  How will they think about the Manager/Partner who has “done this to them”?  What message does it send about the “system”?

So, after much navel gazing and internal brinkmanship, the bill is sent out to the unsuspecting customer.  The customer gets angry.  Now, one of two things happens.  The customer ring the Partner to have a whinge about the bill – the firms sends out a detailed HWL report to the customer detailing everything they have done (including the 15 minute phone call – billed as 18 minutes – where the customer recalls at least half of it was spent discussing the football results) for the period the bill covers.  Guess what, they get more angry “They’re charging me for what?”  Then they start to do the maths.  “If he is $500 per hour and he spent 8 minutes talking about the football, he wants me to pay him $100 for that?”  Not a great outcome.

Source:  geektoauthor.blogspot.com.au

Source: geektoauthor.blogspot.com.au

The other thing that can happen is that the customer simply doesn’t pay the bill.  So, they start to get harassed by the ever-vigilant accounts department in the firm.  The “friendly reminders” come out, then the “is there a problem” letters and so on until the letters get more threatening.  Really good, positive stuff about customer engagement through this whole process.

At the end of the day, it gets nasty and people start defending positions.  The firm will (usually) relent and write-off a part or the whole bill or, sadly, take the customer to arbitration.  On this note, I remember a number of years ago when Ron Baker did his “Firm of the Future” tour around Australia.  During this tour, I met with a number of the Legal Services Commissioners from various states around Australia.  Their major source of work?  Fee disputes.  Their fervent wish was that all firms priced up front as the firms that did this hardly ever had a fee dispute.

So, we have a debtors ledger that is somewhat suspect as to the real collectability of the balance.  Which means, when coupled with the HWL, the “lock up”metric used by a number of firms is inherently questionable.

After all of the above, is it any wonder why my firm dumped timesheets in 2007?  It has saved innumerable hours, it has reduced customer complaints and has meant that the team in here are far more focused on delivering positive customer results rather than inputs.  As stated above, the behaviours you get in your firm are the ones that you reward.  Is your reward program incentivising the right behaviours?  Is your firm business model one which is team and customer focused?

There is a better way of running a professional knowledge firm.  Far less stressful, more enjoyable and one where you actually want to come to work.  if you look after your people and customers, the profits will (generally) look after themselves.

The frustration of firm management can be reduced and/or removed.  There are a band of highly experienced guys and girls at the Verasage Institute who can help you make the move.  But you have to make the first step.  I strongly encourage you to do so.

The Pain of Old Firm Management

This week, I attended a seminar where, to be frank, there were some arguments put that had me considering the option of tearing my skin off and rolling in salt – it would have been less painful.

Hell

Consider some of the points made at in one of the presentations at the seminar (and this is not an exhaustive list, my comments/thoughts are in italics):

  • You should get your “star performers” and keep loading them up with work as they get in front of the pack.  In effect, reward them for their great performance by loading them up even more and putting more pressure on them – what an incentive that is!;
  • Apparently, your WIP balance is a leading indicator for your firm (!) – not sure how this works, but some in the room lapped it up – how exactly is the WIP report a lead indicator other than for the bills you are going to raise at the end of the month which will be the cause of the client complaints in the month following?  So, maybe it is a lead indicator – of client complaints – the higher the WIP, the more complaints;
  • The seminal approach to customer happiness: “If you touch the client, you bill the client – for everything”.  This phrase reminded me of a discussion I had the other week with a somewhat more visionary firm in Adelaide.  They have some folk who are not all that happy not recording the time they spend working on/for/with/around their customers.  I asked them during the discussion “Do you record the time you spend thinking about your customers over the weekend or at night when you’re at home?”  Of course they don’t.  However, according to the approach being promoted, you should.  Work that out, or, better yet – set a budget for it!;
  • You need to budget for write-offs each month;
  • References to “fixed price estimates” – what, exactly, are these? I have been racking my brain about this – if someone can provide some clarity for me around this concept, I would be grateful;
  • Apparently, client satisfaction is important, “but we do have to make a profit though” – in essence, the firm’s goal is profit first – if that has anything to do with happy customers, all well and good.  To me, this seems somewhat arse-about;
  • You need to ensure that your clients understand that their actions reduce firm efficiency – OMFG.  So, we should punish the clients for interrupting our work – actually laughed out loud at this one; and
  • Clients need to pay for the inconvenience they cause – as it would seem that they are the cause of all the problems that exist in the first place.

According to the sage presenting this, “clients don’t understand how accounting firms work”.  Really?  Do they need to?

It was argued that firms need to focus on productivity and efficiency at any cost as these are your major drivers for profit.  You need to ensure that you are flogging the be-Jesus out of your people (they will apparently love you for it) and encouraging them to work harder so that you can load them up even more.  This bit I found offensive.  People are volunteers in your business – they can choose to turn up or not.  I hear many firms complain about staff-churn and turnover – any bloody wonder!  If your culture sucks, you get the team you deserve.  Culture is the result of the language, behaviors and focus of a business.  If these are all based around profit at any price, then they get the culture that supports that.  Won’t be happy or contributory or collaborative, but it will be, well, there.

I have been a willing recipient of the famous “Verasage Headache” on numerous occasions.  They are positive, challenging and serve to help me grow.

Unfortunately, the headache I received from this session was entirely different.  It is a headache based around people being measured on productivity and chargeable hours rather than on effectiveness and customer relationships.  It is a headache that resulted from arguing that the customer is there to be charged heavily and charged often – this based on the theory that any bill they get from you will be a good bill (driven, of course, by your “leading indicator” WIP report).

So, at the end of the session, I felt sad.  Very sad.  There were owners and managers of accounting firms in the room who were assiduously taking notes – picking up tips to make them better at flogging the crap out of their people and not really giving a shit about their customers.

Tim, our GM, was at the session with me.  His words at the end of it summed the whole thing up beautifully – “Pretty scary shit actually”.

The salt room beckoned.

 

The Medical Approach – The 3 “Abilitys” (and Cheese)

Friday night last week was not a bad night – a bit cold and wet, but with a roaring fire and some lovely wine and cheese, the evening progressed very comfortably ( I can highly recommend the Tarago River “Shadows of Blue“).  One of my best mates came around to watch his football team get flogged – it was such an enjoyable spectacle that we ended up watching soccer and the Tour de France.

Over the course of the evening, we discussed many things and one of the topics we covered was the “ideal” approach that Doctors should have with their patients.  To provide some context, my mate is a specialist Surgeon and has built a wonderful reputation in his field.  He also teaches trainee surgeons and is on the examination panel for the Royal Australian College of Surgeons.  All this is very surprising considering he supports Carlton Football Club.

As our conversation opened up, he shared with me the three factors that make for better doctor/patient relationships.  His view was that where these three factors are in place and in order, the patient is happier, the health outcomes are generally better and there are fewer claims for adverse outcomes against the specialist.

The factors and the order?  They are:

  1. Availability;
  2. Affability; and
  3. Ability.

In precisely that order.

patient satisfaction

Expanding this approach through to other professions, it appears to me as though this might just be the most simple and easily understood “guide” for all of us.

Think about the customers whom you love dealing with.  They will be the ones you make yourself readily available to.  They are also the ones where you have a great personal relationship.  And, generally, they won’t be overly focused on your technical ability as the relationship is the thing that resonates most with and for them.  They respect your technical ability, but they value the relationship.

Over the weekend, I have reflected deeply on this approach and I believe it is something that we all should be aware of in our dealings with customers (in fact, everyone).

If you have a customer who is a pain and who you avoid contacting, nothing good is going to happen from the relationship.  This situation is one where you need to consider the real value that you are bringing to the relationship and determine whether it really is one that you should maintain.  Where you recognise that you don’t currently have the desire to be as available for a customer as you should be, is the relationship able to be recovered or should it be terminated?  I know that over my career, I have had numerous situations of this type.  They are really hard work and, even though you might get great results for them, there is very little satisfaction derived from the outcome.

Secondly, if you have a customer around whom you cannot be yourself and where you find your communication stifled and difficult, does this allow you to bring your “full game” to the relationship?  If you aren’t being yourself (or worse, if they aren’t being themselves), can this be rectified or should it be discontinued?  Again, there have been numerous occasions where I have had customers around whom I had to adapt my style and deliver with a very “serious” (so-called “professional”) demeanor.  This is hard work – for them and me and my experience tells me that the absence of this factor in a relationship makes the whole process less satisfying for all concerned.

The ability thing I am leaving out here as, if the first two factors aren’t present, it doesn’t matter how good your ability is, the relationship will be difficult to nurture and develop.

This is only a short post to introduce the approach to this forum.  I would love to get your feedback on this – it appears to be so simple, concise and to-the-point that you may wish to consider using it in your customer selection and retention process.  I will be.

Now, where has that cheese gone?

 

 

The Measurement Focus

In recent posts here, I have argued as to the effectiveness of various forms of measurement and their utility in managing outcomes.

I have just posted in further detail on our firm website (and, to keep Ron and Ed happy, I haven’t referred to cricket, but rather Aussie Rules football).  I encourage you to have a read – let me know what your thoughts are.

It’s the focus on measurement that stuffs everything

Over the past few days, my understanding of “why” firms won’t move from the timesheet model has had a breakthrough.

It’s really quite simple – people feel they need to “measure” their performance in some quantitative manner.  This means that they prefer to use an inherently subjective measurement forms the basis of their perception as to how they have “gone” in doing their work.  This sheeted home to me the other day when I was having a chat with one of my gurus at work.  They wanted to know whether they had progressed over the past year and how successful they had been in delivering outcomes.
The discussion turned to the methods we could use to assess how they had performed. All good, but the conversation then progressed to a point where we were discussing the difference between qualitative and quantitative measures. Now, being accountants, we inherently prefer to use quantitative measures – things like gross margin, profitability, ROI, efficiency and the like.  All good and useful in some respects, but the measurement is usually only an indication of something else that relates to qualitative issues.

Let me explain.  In our conversation, we talked about the things that were really important to our firm – things like development of each other in technical and non-technical ways (communication, customer relations etc).  These things are incredibly difficult to measure – so difficult that I am not aware of any way of objectively assessing them.  As I pointed out to my team member, they had contributed incredibly to the development of one of their support people over the past 12 months. They had lead by example and created a more rapid pathway for the person concerned to develop their career – personally and professionally. The leadership provided and coaching and development have formed a platform for the support team member that will take them through their career.  As I asked “How do you value that?”  What method do we use to assess this level of contribution?  In my view, such an assessment is going to be subjective and no two people would come to the same conclusion as to the “value” of that work.

In assessing this type of contribution, if we were using timesheets, we would be able to point out that the estimated time (do we record it in 6 minute or 10 minute increments) that might have been allocated to “development” or “training”.  But, much of the training related to customer work so, should we allocate it to the customer?  If we did allocate it to the customer, they would have every right to get pissed off that they were being “charged” for training.  So many decisions!

How much time should we take in this work?  Is here a benchmark or average (you know – where the best of the worst meets the worst of the best) that we should use to determine the input required?  No.  Everyone is unique and learns in their own particular style.  There is no one over-arching approach that works for everyone and therefore, the time spent tailoring the training approach to achieve the best outcome is of incredible value (also, the trial and error process undertaken to work out the most effective approach).  The value that my resident guru added to her team member was the combination of a range of skills, talents and abilities that they have developed over many years.  And then, how do we attach an “hourly rate” to that?  At the end of the day, does the arduous quantitative process we would need to go through to get the result add anything valuable to our analysis or inform our decision making?

geniusThe thing that really matters is that the outcome is effective.  The process in itself is inefficient until such time as the trainer and trainee have worked out what works for them.  Using a “one size fits all” approach will only create average outcomes and no-one wants to be average!  Spending the time to work out effective outcomes is far better than recording the time spent.  For example, if we knew that it took Manager A and Team Member B 20 hours to work out the most effective training method for Team Member B, can we use that when we look at the potential training time needed for Team Member C?  Of course not. B and C are different people with different learning styles.  To use the metrics from B to design the process for C stands a wonderfully unlikely chance of being useful to anyone for anything.

The measure of effectiveness should not be merely based on some subjective assessments that inform us of little and guide us nowhere.  The effectiveness of what has been done in training lasts a long time (a lifetime?) and to try and reduce it to a number is devaluing the contribution that has been made.

And, because the analysis and assessment as to the effectiveness of what you do is so inherently subjective, most firms cling on to timesheets – they know they’re not right. They know they are subjective.  They know they are a pain in the you-know-what.  But they are too scared to let them go as they believe it’s all they have.  Sad really.

Timesheets – the blunt object of management

It amazes me that so many of my colleagues and other professional knowledge firms (lawyers etc) still utilise timesheets as the basis for “managing” staff and billing their customers.

dilbert - customer serviceI have written on numerous occasions about the lack of logic in this approach and the fact that it places the interest of the firm in direct opposition to the interests of the customer (the incentive for the firm is to spend more time on the job as doing things more quickly leads to lower bills).  The fact that it also impacts adversely on the customer relationship is an issue that many who argue the opposite rarely mention.

Using timesheets to manage your people is not at all edifying.  It doesn’t create the behaviors you want and causes your team to be more focused on inputs rather than outcomes.  This then leads to staff feeling they need to deliver high recoverable hours rather than results that matter to the customer.  I know when I was using timesheets, I found the process cumbersome, tiresome and irritating.  When it comes to assessing performance using the “all powerful” measure of “productivity”, it became a stick that no-one liked using or having used on them.

The timesheet is a very blunt object which many professional knowledge firm managers use to analyse the performance of their people.  Many years ago, I was having a discussion with a retired lawyer and we were talking about the difference in team members in his firm – as he indicated at that time, he would rather have a staff member who was really solid at client relationships rather than one who was better technically as the customers really valued the relationship they had – his summary was that the relationship was, in effect, more important to the customer than the quality of the work!

Now, when we take this issue a step further, the time that is “spent” building and managing a relationship with the customer, in the world of timesheets, needs to be recorded and billed to them.  After all, it is work relating to the customer and, when you are being assessed on the amount of time you have spent working on the customer, well, you need to record it and it becomes part of the timesheet/WIP world.  It then gets charged to the customer and, when they look at the bill they see they have been charged for talking about their recent holiday, the kids and school, weather, sports results or current interesting news and they get pissed off.  The work that has been done to develop and relationship then turns into a point of argument and resentment.  That is of course unless the manager on the jobs writes it off the WIP – in which case, it impacts on their performance metrics…

All this reporting, analysis and processing.  For and to what end?

Hit tip to my fellow Verasage Fellow Ed Kless for the following reference in his blog post of 10 June, 2009:

Reports and procedures should be the tool of the man who fills them out. They must never themselves become the measure of his performance. A man must never be judged by the quality of the production forms he fills out – unless he be the clerk in change of these forms. He must always be judged by his production performance. And the only way to make sure of this it by have him fill out no forms, make no reports, except those he need himself to achieve performance. – Peter Ferdinand Drucker, The Practice of Management, 1954, page 135

Stating the obvious – Drucker is right.  There is no point in having forms filled out for the sake of filling out forms.

There are so many different ways that can be used to assist your team in their development.  As I discussed with the senior staff of an accounting firm in Melbourne the other week – if you are relying on timesheets to determine the level of performance of your people, you’re probably not doing a great job of managing your people in the first place.

The whole approach takes the human out of human beings.  It reduces them to being cogs in a wheel, ciphers on a page.  It does nothing apart from create new and different ways of disengaging your people and aggravating your customers.

The challenge is for my colleagues to stick their heads up and determine what has helped them get here will actually hold them back from getting to where they want to go.

Using Drucker’s logic, we therefore need to review whether the forms and recording that our people are doing is actually helping them perform their roles or if it is in fact holding them back from doing better, more valuable work and therefore making a more positive contribution to the business as a whole.