Billing psychology and the better meeting of minds

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One of the things that used to annoy a lot of clients was sloppy billing practice from their advisers – it still does.

To your average professional, billing is often the humdrum (and, in some branches, embarrassing) bit that follows the interesting bit – doing the work.  To the client, it is the ever-important bit, by which a significant part of their job performance is evaluated (i.e. the efficient management of budgets).

Such perceptual disjoin is at the heart of much of the problem.  Allowed to build up over time, annoyance can turn to something much more damaging to the relationship, so here are three quick, practical things for you or your professionals to keep the client bill-happy.

Don’t delegate!  We spend quite a lot of time encouraging senior perofessionals to delegate more of their work appropriately – for good leverage’s sake.  However, one of the rule-breaking exceptions can be when preparing and issuing bills.  Why?

Because getting a bill from someone you don’t know (and who therefore looks like they might not know your transaction) can be interpreted as rude and uncaring by the recipient.  Staying with a matter from start to finish and devoting a sensible amount of time to the bill yourself will mean fewer problems and a smoother client relationship.

Be a flexible friend  Do you always present bills in the firm’s ‘house style’?  If you do, you may be creating a source of additional effort and trouble for some clients as they have to unpick the firm’s data and re-present it internally in ways that their organisations can better understand.

The smart relationship managers recognise this issue and ask clients up-front how they would like their bills to be presented.  Even if it requires a bit more effort on our part, it’s well worth it for the goodwill that is generated….. as is ensuring that other parts of the firm do likewise if they also work for the client.

Avoid the ‘sausage factory’ look  There is an interesting aspect of billing psychology that is well worth remembering.  Bills that look like they have come off a production line can tend to invite more scrutiny – and thus the greater risk of write-offs or delayed payment – because some clients say that they mistrust such systematic treatment.

To overcome this, find simple ways to personalise the invoice – e.g. by adding manuscript amendments or a signed personal note – so that they know you are still involved and in control.

Getting the professional leadership “thing”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most professionals are employed and achieve success primarily for their technical expertise.  This can make leadership and other skills “nice to have” rather than essential.  If it occurs at all, leadership development can happen only by accident.  As a result, sadly, some firms get the leaders they deserve.

“The process of influencing others to achieve their and the firm’s goals successfully” 

If this is an accurate definition of leadership, then it is a skill required not just at partner or director level, but for anyone in an influencing position or role throughout your firm – including you? Here are three tips that focus on simple, practical issues that leaders at all levels must address to be a more positive influence.  Of course, we all know that leadership is about many other things…

Do what made Alexander great  Now we are not suggesting that warfare is an exact model for business or professional services!  The point is though that Alexander the Great inspired the fiercest devotion in his soldiers (and achieved the unachievable as a result) by sharing some of the burden and privations of his armies personally, especially when things got tight. We contrast this with numerous war stories we have listened to of senior personnel in firms regularly leaving the long hour, tough deadline assignments entirely to junior staff – all of whom were suitably inspired as a result.  Not.

You are in a goldfish in a bowl.. Interviewing staff at all levels in a major firm a few years ago, we were struck by how many negative myths were created and perpetuated by the day-to-day (mis)behaviours of certain leadership figures; sometimes for only trivial (to them) but important things (to others).  These leaders seemed blissfully unaware of what they were doing and its impact on the people that they were supposed to be influencing positively.  Remember that as a leader in any context, you are being watched all the time.  You are a bit like a goldfish.  Except that some people observing you closely will take their lead directly from how you (mis)behave.

Adapt or stay frozen with CJ  It is a common myth (perhaps attachable to stories about historical figures like Alexander the Great) that there is one right way to lead.  There isn’t.  Good leaders adapt their way of influencing others according to the relative ability and willingness or motivation of those they seek to influence.  Less effective ones stick rigidly with their preferred style, the style “that got them where they are today”. We call this the ‘CJ Syndrome’, after the less-than-inspirational boss in David Nobbs’ very funny satire of business and working life: “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin”.

Don’t be CJ.

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