Forrest Gump believes that life is like a box of chocolates, and I see consulting as like a jar of peanut butter. Some people like their smooth and some like it chunky (my preference) but the challenge is not to spread yourself too thin.
Consultants face an ongoing challenge in terms of work balance. You should be spending about 20 percent of your time on new business development, and the other 80 percent of the time on keeping your current clients happy. But when that 20 percent of effort yields multiple projects simultaneously, then you need to be prepared to step up and deliver advice and services that have value; deliver the chunky stuff so you don’t have to spread the creamy peanut butter too thin.
Granted, having more work than you can handle is a good problem to have, sort of, but it can backfire if you don’t manage the work appropriately. If you overpromise and under deliver, it will affect your professional reputation, and probably cost you a lot of current business. If you overcommit and then work yourself too hard to get the job done, which leads to second-rate service and ultimately burnout.
So how do you spread yourself appropriately to make sure you are optimizing both time and money? Here are a few strategies I have used in the past:
Set up a monthly work calendar. I recommend to all my clients to establish a “scope of work” for each month, outlining objectives and tasks to be completed. As part of this exercise, you should establish your own time estimates to assess how much time you need to allocate. Granted, priorities will change during the course of the month, which means as you add new tasks you take other tasks off the agenda. This exercise is not only about creating a roadmap for yourself as to what you can reasonably achieve during the month, but it’s also about setting expectations for the client.
Touch every client every day. It’s so easy to focus on projects that are interesting or that have seemingly more urgent deadlines. Therein lies a common consulting trap – oiling the squeaky wheel. If you only pay attention to the clients and projects that are demanding your attention, those other tasks that support the less demanding clients will fall by the wayside. If you touch every client every day with some communication, task, or even checking in on work in process, you can stay on top of your client work.
Keep track of your efforts. I like to bill on a retainer since this makes budgeting simpler for the clients and eliminates billing surprises. That doesn’t mean you don’t keep track of your work. I keep timesheets for all my clients, retained or not, to determine whether my time budgeting is on target and to determine if one client is demanding too much of my time. If you keep track of where your time goes, it is easier to identify where the problems are emerging in time management so you can either reset expectations or realign your hours.
Get help when you need it. When the floodgates open and new business comes pouring in, I know many consultants turn away business based on their availability. A better strategy is to take on the projects and enlist partners to help. I have operated a “virtual” agency model for years and for larger projects can bring in one of my peers to help with the day-to-day tasks. You can scale if you have help and assume a project management role, assuming you can continue to maintain the quality of the work.
Know when to say no. There are times when a giant project might land in your lap that is tempting and lucrative. You need to ask yourself a few leading questions before you accept the contract. Will it jeopardize your other work? Will you be able to continue to build your business while you handle this mongo project? What about when the project is completed; will you still have enough work? I find that putting all your eggs in a single client basket can be fraught with risk.
Get rid of the dead wood. If you have new work coming in the front door, consider kicking the dead wood out the back door. There are always some clients that you will never satisfy or that aren’t a good fit. Either your work styles don’t align, expectations aren’t set properly, or you just don’t have the right tools to deliver what they need. If, like a bad job, the client isn’t a good fit or they are too demanding, taking on new business gives you an opportunity to clean house.
Follow the money. As part of your housekeeping, take a look at some of your less lucrative clients and determine if new business opportunities give you a chance to renegotiate or change the terms of your contract. Even fun contracts can prove to be a loss leader in terms of time and energy. New, more lucrative contracts will give you a chance to change or end a less profitable client relationship without risk.
Successful consulting is a a continuous balancing act. Knowing when to streamline your operation and how to balance dueling priorities is the key to consulting success. So keep it crunchy and don’t spread yourself too thin.