To bill or not to bill?

I’ve been ruminating on the balance of billable and non billable time for a few months now. The more time I spend dwelling on it, the more I am coming to believe that while billable time determines your income, it is the non billable time which determines your future.

What I want to do with this post is build the case for non billable time.

How many times have you heard an organisation say that they want to be a “trusted partner”? What does that actually mean? In many cases, it simply means that a supplier is expecting all of a customer’s business. This irritates me to no end, because once upon a time I was the customer. As a customer, what did I look for?

Value.

I want you to understand my business. Take half a day out of your schedule, and come to my offices. You can meet my CxO, then you can meet a few business unit owners, then you can meet a few application owners. When that’s done I will sit down with you and give you the opportunity to ask me some questions, and clarify things that may still be murky. At that point in time I’ll probably ask you a few question about what you’ve heard, and how you may be able to help me. Now here is the tricky part – I’m not asking you for a proposal, I’m asking you to do some homework. Go back to your office, and find out how other customers in my vertical are dealing with the issues that I’m facing. Organise for me to visit with someone in one (or more) of those organisations. I don’t need you to hold my hand, in fact I’d rather meet them on my own because not only have they overcome similar issues, but also because I’m going to ask them a few pointed questions about you and your firm.

An approach like this tells me that you really do want to be a “trusted partner” – far more than buying me coffee and a muffin ever would.

What happens next? I give you an opportunity. What I’m looking for this time around is to see if you understand that delivery of a project is more than simply technical delivery. Has your customer service gone AWOL since I signed your PO? Is there an internal sponsor who is staying in regular contact and communicating with me? How are conflicts handled? Once the project is finished do you have a formal method for me to provide you with feedback so that you are able to coach your staff and improve your processes?

If you succeed here, you are showing not only a focused approach on my business, but also competency. I’m not necessarily looking for a project without hitches, what I’m looking for is maturity – the ability to overcome issues and improve in the process. By this point in time, I’m at least one foot in the water. What do I need to see next?

Continued effort to develop your understanding of our business.

When you call me to probe for new work, talk to me about an article that you read in a trade magazine (my trade, not yours). Comment on something that you saw in our annual report. Ask me if there is any value to be had in a more thorough strategic planning session involving senior members of my organisation.

Value. A trusted partner in more than simply name. 

All of these activities hinge on non billable time. Can you run a profitable business without this approach? Of course. Many people do. The question is, will you be another two bit organisation fighting for scraps, or will people come to you because of the incredible reputation that you’ve invested in?  In a world full of mediocrity, quality breeds success. With the explosion of social media and online presence, people are more connected and word of mouth has become increasingly powerful. Organisations that deliver exceptional service get noticed. The natural progression of this is then that more revenue is generated, and you can (without being greedy) justify higher prices because of the nature of the service you deliver.

I’ll leave it there before I get carried away, but suffice to say there are parallels in this approach with all areas of life – from relationships to your career. Don’t get stuck asking “what’s in it for me”, but rather try to provide something of value to those you encounter. Believe me, it pays off.