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 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?

 

 

April 17, 2015 Show Notes: We’re All Consultants Now!

Ed discussed how we are all consultants now. This material is based on Peter Block’s seminal book, Flawless Consulting.

Consulting Definitions

A consultant is a person in a position to have some influence over an individual, group, or organization, but who has no direct power to make changes or implement programs.

A surrogate manager is a person in a position who acts on behalf or in place of a manager. If you are being asked to “complete this report,” “design this system,” or “figure out what to do,” you are in the position of surrogate manager.

Consultants and surrogate managers are two distinct roles. You cannot be both because that would be a contradiction. It is irrational.

Consulting Assumptions

Whenever performing in a consulting role, it is important that the consultant must be clear about one’s own basic beliefs. Our own behaviors must be consistent with what we recommend.

It makes sense to spend some time thinking about what your personal beliefs are about what makes for good management and leadership. To this end, presented below are three assumptions about consulting for the purposes of our dialogue.

Problem solving requires valid data. This data not only includes objective or hard data, but personal or soft data. Hard data are not only computer system data, but other hard facts such as events or situations. Soft data are also facts, but relate to the personal feelings of those involved. If people feel that they have not been trained effectively on a new system, then this is a fact, even if we have a sign-off sheet saying they were trained. Throwing away this data because it is soft, puts actual problem solving in peril.

Effective decision making requires free choice. If a decision is to be truly implemented, the people involved in carrying out the decision must feel that they were a part of the decision. When they do not feel a part of the decision, they have a tendency to get defensive. If “no” is not a choice, than it is not really a decision.

Effective implementation requires customer commitment. If a customer is not fully committed to the implementation of a decision, it will fail. Support is not enough, commitment is required. In order to gain commitment, people need to clearly see the benefit this will have for them.

Consulting Levels: The FORD Model

Customers desire consultants to work on many different levels within an engagement. Often times the desired consultant level is not effectively communicated by both parties.

It is critical to the success of any engagement that both the consultant and the customer are clear about the desired level. These levels are:

  • Findings
  • Options
  • Recommendations
  • Decision

See Ed’s blog post on the FORD Model.

Chris Marston’s Concentric Circles blog post.

Consulting Goals

Along with consulting assumptions, a consultant should have some basic goals. These goals may not always be attained, but they should indicate your preference. Like assumptions, presented below are three goals for this material.

To establish a collaborative relationship. Collaboration is proven to be the most effective way to maximize both the consultant and customer’s resources. Secondarily, it provides a model for the customer to see and use to solve problems in the future.

To solve problems so they stay solved. Many consultants act in a way so as to fix the immediate problem. This is what has given consulting a bad connotation. Solving problems so they stay solved is a key differentiator. Teaching customers to solve problems on their own in the future requires a higher level of skill.

To ensure attention is given to both the technical problem and the relationship. Most organizations pay attention only to their technical problems. Consultants are in a unique position that allows them to see the people and process issues that surround the technical problem.

To develop customer commitment. As was stated earlier, without customer commitment the consultant has no chance to succeed. Therefore, the underlying goal of every action is to develop customer commitment to a solution to the problem.

To quote Peter Block:

We may cling to the fantasy that if our thinking is clear and logical, our wording eloquent, and our convictions solid, the strength of our arguments will carry the day. Clear arguments do help, but they are not enough. The customer will experience doubts and dilemmas that block commitment. Flawless Consulting, p 21.

Positive Deviance

I also asked Ed about Peter Block’s concept of “positive deviance”: Are we here to merely solve a problem, or create a new future for ourselves?”

Peter Drucker thought we should pursue opportunities, not just solve problems. Solving problems, at best, only returns us to the status quo. Executives need to spend the majority of their time—and allocate their best talent—to the opportunities of tomorrow.

Ed’s Statement of Intent

“It is my intention to help you and your organization make the best possible decision.”

Not Final Thoughts

What I love about Ed’s concept that we are consultants now is that is positions professionals at the top of Joseph Pine’s Progression of Economic Value Curve—that of transformations.

For if consulting is done right, you are transforming a person, a group, or an organization, rather than just delivering services.

This is one of the most effective strategies to de-commoditize your offerings!

What PKFs Can Learn from Country Music

Modern country music blends the best of traditional American values of hopes and dreams with classical rock rhythms and melodies.  It is difficult for even the most ardent anti-cowboy listener to avoid toe-tap while listening to some of the classics and modern hits alike.  Country stars crossover to rock and pop a even some country singers are involving aspects of rap (with a better vocabulary and message, of course).

Yet, even if you aren’t a fan of modern country music, there are lessons to be learned.   Studying (and implementing) their success benefits all aspects of our firms and professions.

First, the historical legends are never far from center stage.  Those trailblazers that helped established a fledgling musical style are honored and revered.  The history is rebuilt into the future.  The young stars and hopefuls know their history, know how their music was developed, and proudly expand their offerings to a new generation without abandoning what came before.  Innovation and collaboration are two hallmarks that separate country music and most professionals.

Country, more so than rock and pop,  certainly appears to collaborate frequently.  They produce duos and join forces for songs and tributes that expand their individual capacities.  I rarely witness true collaboration in CPA, Law, or other Knowledge firms.  PKF’s are fearful of collaboration believing there is no benefit and only risks of losing an edge over the (perceived) competition.  In fact, this stubbornness by leaders of these professions creates excessive waste in human capital, fixed capital, and redundancy.  What we all need to do is constuct more duos and collaborative services where we align to serve new  and mature markets, alike.

Country music stars of today coach the stars of tomorrow, as they were coached by former stars. Even though they have separate bands, labels, and musical styles, the leaders of today invest in relationships by assisting the newcomers.  And when the newbie wins a prestigious award that the stars of today were nominated for, these leaders hoot and holler, clap and cheer, and genuinely support the winner without whining about their current popularity or success.

PKFs rarely, if ever, help develop the talent of their future competition.  PKFs see the world as a zero sum game instead of one of abundance.  They don’t value sharing their love of their work and guard their ideas like they wholly own them.  PFKs struggle to even share within their organizations and frequently treat each of their own in ways akin to how a Piranha treats a fledgling fish.

Envision how PKFs could change the world by working together rather than apart?  How firms could coordinate talent across party lines to serve the public good?  How firms could end duplication and specialize where they are strong and collaborate where they are weak?  How leaders could spot the young talent and help nurture even if it is a long-term strategy?

You can’t fake true admiration and awe.  I was privileged to attend Entertainer of the Year, George Straits’ final large venue concert.  He is clearly loved and beloved by fans and fellow performers alike.  He shared his stage with nine (9) other superstars of today and yesterday.  Each of whom he had collaborated with, toured with, coached, and supported.  The tears of joy shared by, between, and among these stars was genuine and moving. Even when one of the stars slipped on a lyric, there was laughter and happiness.  The value of being a family; and not just a competitor.

Leaders of PKFs should learn from the success of country music.  Learn to share with others the love of your profession.  Find talent wherever it is and coach, teach, and admire their future growth.  Find other firms and professionals to collaborate with and share your joint talents for the benefit of all.

Silo thinking is rotgut of the professions.  It is time to expand our horizons and partner up for a stronger and more collaborative future.

Missed It By That Much

Thanks to Sheri Blaho from CS3 Technology for passing Three Ways Brush Factories Are Surviving In America from Planet Money on NPR on to me today. Audio here.

There is much with which to agree here.

However, the whole thing unravels for me with this sentence, “This allows Cheney to set prices based not on how much the bristle and block cost, but on how much time and effort went into it and how much it’s worth to the customer.”

So close!

It would have been perfect if they had said, “This allows Cheney to set prices based not on how much the bristle and block cost, and on how much time and effort went into it, but how much it’s worth to the customer.”

It never ceases to amaze me that we humans can make the same category mistake when the language involves labor as compared to materials.

There is no difference from a cost accounting perspective between the components and the labor and, therefore it effect on price, but for some reason, our brains just sometimes do not let us see that.

Some Super Posts on PM

Late last week, I received the email from Wes McClure, a software development consultant and coach at Full City Tech Co.

He writes:

Hey Ed, I’ve been writing a lot about why value is important in the software development process from my personal experience. I’ve been consuming a lot of content from the VeraSage website and felt like some of this might help software development professionals make the leap to value based pricing. I wanted to share this with VeraSage if it’s of interest for the resources collection:

If it looks helpful, let me know what I can do to help you share it with others.

Thanks

-Wes

While Wes writes primarily about software and technology, he clearly understands the importance of the value conversation in the process.

Enjoy the posts!

DETalk – Melinda Guillemette – True Motivation

Melinda Guillemette of Melinda Motivates talks about her beliefs about true motivation. She tells us that most people think motivation is about getting “them” to do what you want. This, she believes, is coercion.

Ego is a Dirty Word

Do you treat your people like mushrooms?

I was speaking to a firm recently where the Partners would not let their staff meet with customers. They would not let anything go out of their office without the Partners reviewing it and signing off on it. In short, they were putting a lid on their people and effectively “bonsai-ing” their growth. Unsurprisingly, they were having trouble identifying people who could develop and create a succession plan for them and their firm. There was also an issue with staff turnover.

We have just been going through the Growth Curve X-ray process in our business and one of the aspects that we have identified is a deliberate “personal brand” development strategy for everyone in our business. This will see us work with each person individually and collectively to build their personal brand internally and externally. We are doing this because we have a fantastic group of people working with us and by investing in their development they and we will reap far greater satisfaction and engagement.

Many Partners and managers in firms seem to be afraid of developing the people they work with from a fear that these people might actually be better or more capable than the Partner/manager. Their ego is controlling the business and stultifying the firm as a whole. Effectively, the personal “issues” of the leaders of these firms will restrict the opportunity for the firm to flourish. I view this as akin to abuse.

How do you treat your people? Are you working with them to develop their “brand” under your brand and reputation? Or are you sitting on them and restricting their development?

I know which approach will create a happier, healthier and more successful workplace. And it will then mean that the only mushrooms you have are in your salad or the sauce on your steak.

DETalk – Kirk Bowman – Is Value Pricing Easy

In his DETalk, practicing fellow Kirk Bowman of MightyData challenges us to offer consulting to other professionals who want to transition to value pricing. He begins with a summary of his journey including what was the initial hook that grabbed his attention.

William Cobb on the Cobb Value Curve

At the Sage Firm of the Future Symposium in March 2013, William Cobb, devisor of the oft cited Value Curve, was on hand to explain his concept to the attendees.

Value Curve ClntPwr

The Cobb Value Curve

He was kind enough to let us record it. Enjoy!