Dave Sharp advises architecture firms on social media, communication and marketing strategy. More.
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Last week at the ArchiTeam national conference, Timothy Hill broke down his tips to becoming a more successful architect.
He stressed a simple bit of advice: be more effective with your time.
Basically, find more time to do what you're good at, and spend less time doing the other stuff like email, meetings, and admin.
Is that the simple life hack to being a better architect?
It's obvious advice. We all want to do it.
But, like dieting, exercise, or budgeting: most of us fail at cutting the fat from our schedules.
Why is that the case? I want to discuss that by sharing my own experience moving from a place where I was burdened by hours of wasteful admin to a work life that's streamlined, calm and organised.
But first, we need to talk about the massive psychological barrier preventing architects from drastically cutting down on the bullshit that gets in the way of their core expertise: Commitment to first-class customer service.
Not every client is created equal.
I came across this fantastic article by Ignition Consulting Group. I encourage you to take a few minutes to read it.
Here are a few highlights from "Not every client gets to fly first class":
In professional services, one of the key drivers of unsound behavior is the common internal refrain around ultra-responsive client service. This philosophy, which seems like a sensible business practice, teaches that any and every client request should be acted on immediately.
This internal mantra seems innocuous enough. Except that it’s a shortsighted and unsustainable way to run your business.
The article makes a great point - your clients should be segmented in a way that you treat some better than others depending on a range of factors.
In fact, it might be a good idea to let them choose the level of service they need at the outset.
That's awesome. Read the article for tips on how you could do that.
But, I'd like to go one step further.
In my opinion, much of what we think of as excellent customer service is a waste of time.
There's a famous saying in business, "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half."
The same goes for customer service. We don't know why we do half the things we do, we suspect some things are a waste of time, but we're so eager to please our clients that we do every little thing we can think of to make them happy.
Here's the sad truth: most of the extra stuff we do out of courtesy to our clients doesn't matter to them. They don't value it. They value the thing you're supposed to be doing, the skills and expertise they sought you out for.
In all of our businesses, our time is eaten up by small customer support tasks.
Most of the time, nobody has requested that we do them. We just think we should, or they're just the way things are done. We don't question it.
We're not even sure if anyone would complain, or even notice, if we just stopped.
To give you an idea of the types of thing I'm talking about, here are some of the seemingly important things I've stopped doing altogether in my consulting practice:
- Sending invoices by email (clients can download on their own from a portal)
- Writing reports.
- Sending monthly updates.
- Sending meeting notes.
- Checking email more than once per day.
- Answering the phone or giving my number out to clients.
- Unpaid meetings or calls.
- Chasing up payment (all my revenue is pre-paid, direct debit only).
- Proposals of any kind.
- Scheduling (automated via Calendly link).
Despite all of these missing ingredients, I reckon my clients are pretty happy working with me.
All of my energy is focused on the consulting work I'm doing with them each month.
I'm happy at work: because my day consists of speaking to my clients, helping them to improve their firms, answering a few emails at the end of the day, reading and creating resources like this article.
My phone never rings. I'm totally uninterrupted. My calendar is full of paid, client-facing work. New clients sign up, pay me and schedule themselves via my website without my involvement.
Really, I'm very lucky. I totally take it for granted sometimes.
But, it wasn't always like this.
I used to worry a lot about customer service, and making clients happy with all the silly extras: the bells and whistles.
I was scared of losing clients as my business was growing.
Whenever I lost a client because their circumstances had changed, I blamed myself.
They weren't blaming me: in fact, as they left, they had nothing but positive feedback and a genuine wish to work together again soon. Many of them came back after a short hiatus while they figured out issues in their own business.
But still, I felt paranoid that I was the problem.
I told myself "I must not have served them well enough". So I'd put extra pressure on myself to do additional things to keep my remaining clients happy.
It's a bad cycle to get yourself into.
Psychologists call it catastrophizing: an unnecessary cognitive distortion where we take one unpleasant experience and make things worse for ourselves by imagining worst-case scenarios.
I imagined that one client left, so all of the others must be ready to leave too. Any minute now I'll get a barrage of emails from clients asking to put my services on hold.
It was stressful and chaotic.
I realised that for me, the drive to waste time making clients happy with little extras comes from an irrational fear of them firing me en masse.
It sounds ridiculous in hindsight, but figuring out what was motivating me to allocate my time in unproductive ways was vital to fixing the issue.
Luckily, I was able to take a step back and realise this important insight about my business: some clients come and go without any clear reason.
Clients will do seemingly random, unpredictable things regardless of my actions. It isn't personal.
I had to change my mindset in order to get comfortable with the confusing, stressful randomness of the service business.
Here is my new philosophy: clients value simple services done well, more than complex services done poorly. I remind myself daily to focus on the time I spend with clients being as valuable to them as it can possibly be. Focus on improving my skills and thinking to deliver more value over time. Everything else just has to be good enough, it's out of my control.
In psychology, it's widely understood that feeling okay about being "good enough" is an important aspect of positive mental health.
Basically, take the pressure off yourself to be a perfect partner, parent, conversationalist or professional.
Don't set your standards so high. Get comfortable with good enough.
Wrapping your head around good enough customer service is the first part. Don't feel so much pressure to please your clients.
It's a mental shift, a fear you'll need to face before you can start making real changes in your business.
Once you've gotten comfortable with good enough - you believe in the quality of your core service and know that you're delivering value to your clients, you can move onto step two, the time saving.
Start by figuring out where your time is going. Track every minute so you can analyse a typical week.
Look for anything big, and non-essential that you could cut. Not reduce, or do faster... cut!
Go for the big savings, not the little ones.
In Ramit Sethi's book "I will teach you to be rich" he argues that saving $3 by skipping your morning coffee is a waste of time, and you should instead focus on saving $30,000 by renegotiating your mortgage rate.
The same goes for finding real effectiveness in your schedule.
We don't want our meetings to be 5 minutes faster. We want to skip the meeting altogether. How can we do that? What are the strategies or systems we could put in place to get rid of that meeting?
Could you automate your invoicing so that you never have to deal with it?
Could you ditch the work phone and not take calls?
Could you check email less often?
Could you say "we don't do fee proposals" by making your pricing structure a lot simpler so that you could basically explain it entirely on your website or in a template email?
Could you turn down certain types of projects because you know, from experience, that they require so much more admin compared to other types of work for the same revenue?
Seriously, just start questioning the worthiness of everything you're doing that isn't part of your core service and expertise.
I promise you, someone out there doesn't do that thing, whatever that thing it is, and they're doing just fine. You will too.