In the last two blog posts we talked balance, both from the standpoint of limiting the work that we are not getting paid to do and limiting the number of client crises we have to solve. But there's one type of phone call you should not hesitate to answer from your client. In fact these can be a measure of your influence and value in the relationship. I call these decision points.
To broadly oversimplify there are two types of requests that can come from clients: requests to do the work, and decision points. In the do the work category you will find requests to do a little bit of research, a question that will just take “five minutes”, requests to help with major projects that were not included in the original scope, requests for reports and analysis needed urgently by insurance agents, attorneys, and workman's comp auditors. When a client asks you to do some work they are essentially asking for an extra set of hands, a set of hands that they do not have on their internal team. And that is how you should view these requests. Hands get paid to do work. The higher the skill involved or the more pressing the need the more the hands get paid.
The problem with hands is that they are very expensive to scale. Your ability to grow your consulting practice depends on your ability to replicate a disciplined system of planning, execution and coaching with multiple clients. The more you veer into the lane of special projects and other types of work the less efficient you will be in your planning and execution work. I also believe there is a toll to be paid here in terms of your effectiveness with your planning and execution work but we will save that for another day.
Rather than requests for more hands what we would like to see are requests born out of a high value relationship. To get there we must strive for a level of business specific knowledge, a deep level of trust and safety, and a body of experience that yields wisdom useful to our clients when they are faced with critical decision points. It is at these times that clients will pick up the phone and call you, not to ask you to do more work, but to ask for your help in making a decision. Don't miss these opportunities. They are the natural consequence of your role as a strategic advisor combined with your objective perspective as someone who stands outside the day-to-day business operation.
These phone calls will really take more than five or 10 minutes. You are not being asked to gather information. You are not being asked to perform detailed analysis. You are not being asked to come up with alternative options. At this point in the game the business owner has been engaged in a strategic planning and execution process that has already ticked off all of these boxes before your phone rings. What the client needs at this decision point is another brain and another gut to validate or invalidate their own thinking.
The practical question is how to discern when the phone is ringing with a request for more work or a request for help with a decision. You can try to explicitly explain this difference to your clients and request that they only call you with specific decision points in mind. But that usually sounds a little arrogant, like they can't make a decision by themselves.
Instead I try to train my clients about what they can expect. During the workday almost all of my calls go directly to voicemail. This is just a consequence of having a lot of appointments and wanting to be fully present during those meetings with clients. The only time I will step out of the room to take a phone call is if my wife is the one on the other end of the line. She can see my schedule and if she's trying to get in touch with me I take the call. Otherwise I don't step out of the room. I don't stare at the phone. I don't respond with a text message. I just let it go to voicemail where they hear something to the effect of "let me know exactly what you need and when you need it by and I'll get back to you as soon as possible.”
When I'm finished with an appointment I check messages. If the message is a request to do work I will usually wait until I am back in the office in front of a computer where I can call the client without distraction and where I have access to more information. Or if it is more appropriate I will send an email with specific questions relevant to their request. However, if the message is a request for help with a decision I return the call immediately.
Clients are smart people and they begin to understand the difference between the calls that get returned immediately and the calls that get returned after several hours or the next day. After a few months it is rare that I get requests for more work via voicemail. These requests begin to show up in email with details, attachments, timelines, and all the other information we have trained them to provide before we can jump in to help.
After those first few months I can almost guarantee that if a client calls my cell phone they need help with a decision point. And if I am within a few minutes of starting a meeting I will take the call. If I'm on a break in the middle of a long session I will take the call. If I am on my way home I will take the call. And yes, in a weak moment on the way to a dinner date with my beautiful bride I may even take the call.
These are the calls that make my day. They are moments when I can be completely transparent with my clients about our personal values and motivations and how they would affect my decision if I were in their shoes. They give us opportunities to talk about the things that are most important: their anxieties, their frustrations, and even their own personal blind spots. Decision point calls are milestones in our relationship and I don't worry about what I'm getting paid, what the scope of the work is, how many projects we have in the pipeline, or which option they selected on their proposal. I simply care for my clients in the best way I know how. Decision points are the most important predictive indicator of our long-term success with a client. That’s why I take the call.