How to Save Time by Managing Client Expectations [interview]

Chantal Pittman is the COO of Unique Influence, an Austin based digital advertising agency. We asked her about how she uses time tracking to divide her staff’s time between her different clients.

 

Customer is king – but what do you do when the kings are many?

Nurturing your client relationships and making good on what you promise is key to running a successful B2B venture. But the big question is – how do you balance the two?

For Chantal Pittman, it’s a numbers game. Her company, Unique Influence, offers paid advertising services across multiple platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. It’s a busy industry, and knowing how to divide her staff’s attention between the different clients and their different expectations is crucial.

Pittman’s formula is simple – her teams follow a profitability metric, based on a team’s cost of labour and how much a client is paying them. A client is profitable if the time spent on their project remains within a certain range of the client’s investment. The teams use time tracking to keep an eye on how much time is being spent on a client.

It’s a sound logic.

The squeaky wheel gets the oil?

Yet to some, this approach, based on metrics and enforced with constant time tracking might seem overly regulated. My millennial spirit too initially perceived it as awfully rigid. But Pittman is quick to point to the problem that lead her to adopt the approach:

“In the US, there’s a saying that “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.” The wheels (i.e. the clients) that aren’t squeaking, aren’t getting oiled – even though they probably should. We’re trying to avoid the squeaky wheel syndrome where the client that is calling and e-mailing every day gets all the attention. It’s hard not to over-attend clients that are really demanding, even if they are not paying for that amount of attention. So that’s the balance – how do you make it fair?”

“It’s hard not to over-attend clients that are really demanding, even if they are not paying for that amount of attention.”

It’s the account managers, in Pittman’s words, that face this question on a daily basis:

“It’s very difficult, when you’re an account manager and you’re getting all those phone calls and e-mail’s – you can’t not respond. You have to respond.”

Don’t manage clients – manage their expectations

The solution, for Pittman, is to manage her clients’ expectations:

“Clients may want to talk every day and say “let’s have a daily check-in”. Well, that’s not necessarily feasible – so what we do is we’ll say “we will send you a daily e-mail with the previous day’s results, and if there’s a problem, we’ll talk. But otherwise we’ll just talk in our scheduled weekly meetings.” So [it’s about] trying to make sure that [the client’s] anxiety is alleviated without actually having to take on the burden of having a phone call every day.”

Communication and transparency play a big role in reducing the volume of needless calls and e-mails. By sending out daily status e-mails to clients, Pittman favours a proactive approach:

“You can have an e-mail in the clients’ inbox before they even get to their office, saying “here’s how we did yesterday, here’s what our proposed activities are for today, let us know if this meets your needs.””

Teach your team to value results, not effort

Every month, Pittman sits down with her employees to review the time they’ve spent on their various clients. She says having an accurate overview of how much time was invested in a client  (relative to the return) helps make her staff more results oriented.

The teams that work on the different clients at Unique Influence can be fluid depending on a client’s needs, so having a clear definition of value is important. Pittman explains:

“Usually, one person is the main point of contact for each client, while many people may work on the team that month. So it’s their responsibility to set expectations for the team members in terms of how much time they should spend on different accounts. Take [for example] support, or reporting, or creative images – the main client manager has to manage all the other people to make sure that not too much time is spent on an account.”

When it comes to managing expectations, Pittman sees her role as that of a mentor, teaching her teams strategies and tactics for client management.

The importance of goals and rewards

But one person can only teach so many others.

Knowing what and when to delegate is a big part of running a successful enterprise. Not every small question merits a knock on the boss’ door. Pittman relies on a bonus system to encourage her staff members help each other with work related things.

To do that, she uses the “You Earned It” system (and if you think this sounds corny, it’s a lot better than the “Stop Whining and Just Do it” system). Here’s how it works:

“We have a system where the staff can reward each other – so it helps people to help each other. Without necessarily saying, you know, “i don’t have the time”, or “I have other stuff going on.

Everybody gets 5000 points per quarter that they can give out to their teammates for helping them with answering their questions, sitting in on calls with them – once they get a certain amount of points, they can redeem them for gift cards and things like that.”

I am skeptical as to whether this really works, and ask her if her system has made people more willing to help their co-workers:

“I don’t know if it’s changed the willingness, but I think it continues to promote [helpful behaviour] so that it doesn’t go away, especially as people get busy – and especially as we bring new people on that need a lot of training.”

In case you’re wondering, her motivational treat bag does not just contain gift cards. The staff are also eligible for the more traditional bonuses. But motivation goes beyond that, as she explains the value of transparency, and having clear goals:

“Giving people goals to work towards is critical, because otherwise they’ll just plug along without really knowing where they’re going. I think the other thing is having a pretty well-defined career so people know what they have to do to get to the next level.

“Giving people goals is critical, because otherwise they’ll just plug along without really knowing where they’re going.”

In the US, it’s very big to have company values, that are stated – a mission and values. Transparency internally, and also with clients is a big one for us. So if we make a mistake, or think that a client is not doing something right, then we’re very honest and open with them. And the same with the team.”

 

Chantal Pittman of Unique Influence

You can follow Chantal and Unique Influence on Twitter, or check out their company site to see what they’re up to.

 

Did you like this interview? Share these lessons on LinkedIn and Twitter!

Want more advice? Read these 6 tips to managing client expectations on Inc.com.

Do you have lessons of your own on client management? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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