Thursday, April 11, 2013

51 Weeks of Pace: Time to Tap Your Brakes?



What happens when the pace gets so fast you can’t keep up? Just like a runner, you falter, hoping not to fall. Might do it more than once, as you adjust.

Here’s what I often see. You have client work in progress, but you’re not using any kind of project planning. You know the deadlines you have to hit, but you haven’t yet thought about how much elapsed time you’re going to need to meet them, and you certainly haven’t accounted for any time to manage your client's expectations. You’re getting pipeline leads and new business from networking you did a month or more ago, and you're afraid not to take work. Files start to pile up. To-do lists and post-its multiply.



At some point, you're overwhelmed. You have a lot of client appointments and intake stacking up, you have the work you need to move forward, and you still have new inquiries to address. Things start to get to be too complicated to keep in your head, and maybe you start to miss deadlines- or at least spend a few sleepless nights worrying about missing deadlines!

Time to slow it down.

There's some capacity level that you are at- in terms of the hours in your week that are already committed. Guesstimate the next point in time that you have capacity to take on new work. Choose a week, and do not add any new matters before that time. Set appointments in the future or refer business out. If you can’t take good care of your clients, don’t add new ones. It’s so much easier to keep a good reputation than recover from a broken one.

Get the Facts

Do a mini case review. Make sure you have all deadlines on your calendar. Then work from each deadline back to the present, chunking up the work and estimating how much time you’re going to need to complete it. Don’t worry about precision. Take a guess, double it if you know you usually estimate low, and see what your current situation is when you look at how much time you have open on your schedule versus the amount of time you think the work is going to take. Get interim deadlines on your calendar too, so you can know without thinking whether you’re ahead or behind of your targets.

Take Care of Your Clients

At this point, you’re in triage and recovery. If there are things you can delay, delegate or take completely off your list, do it. Otherwise, know what really has to be done by any day, and plan it onto your schedule. If you are going to miss client expectations, then you must inform the client. You are aiming to be proactive, so the clients don't experience any negative surprises. Better to manage expectations than tap dance after the fact.

Repeat

As you bring things into focus and under control, do daily reviews of the current work. Do weekly planning. Plan out into the future so you see when your schedule comes back to the edge you want to live on.

During this time where you aren’t taking new work- do some minimum level of marketing. Maybe it’s getting a newsletter out, or a blog post. Maybe you go to one event, or send thank you notes. Just keep in the game at some miminal level, so the pendulum doesn't swing the other way.

About a week before you feel ready- start booking again. As the matters go out of the office, make sure your marketing picks up again. Clean up any financial processes or other things you might have let slip when you were overwhelmed.

Now here’s the hard part. You should take a break, absolutely, but the objective of this is to understand that you need to pick up your pace to remain current going forward. You have a new “normal”. Do that by leveraging, by being more productive and efficient, by being less perfect. Because these surges? They aren’t anomalies. They are a great sign that your practice is outgrowing the way you do business. Get through it with grace, but don’t slip back down to the prior level. Watch the expense ratio and ramp up.

There is art to building a practice. Pace is difficult to calibrate. It’s incredibly important to watch your profit margins and your pipeline at the same time you manage your caseload. There’s a sweet spot, where you’re comfortable with the number of resources you’re managing, your client base is generating good referrals, and you’re making the profit you want to make.

And that’s another topic!

Note: There is no extra charge for mixing the metaphors.