Friday, March 22, 2013

SOP Friday: How to Work 8AM to 5PM in I.T. Consulting

One of my never-ending themes is that you CAN work a normal business day. Whether that's 8AM to 5PM or 9-6, or even 8-6, "normal business day" is somewhere in that category. At least 99% of the time. So you might have three or four exceptions per year. But you can design your business to work normal hours.

This post will address some thoughts about why you should work no more than about 50 hours a week and how you can work normal hours.

Here are a few previous posts you might find useful.

Hours in a Week (2006)
(Why 50-55 hours per weeks is the best balance of hours for a decent work/life balance - and a very reasonable number.)

We Don't Work Weekends (2007)

SOP Friday: After Hours Work (2013)

Also see the entire site Relax Focus Succeed(R) -

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It seems like - at the small end of SMB - there has always been an assumption that you have to work after hours. Sometimes it's easier to get a job done without pesky clients around. Sometimes clients ask for it. And very often, we're simply not willing to put in the effort to figure out how to get things done while the office is in full swing.

My brother Manuel and I spent years developing a system for migrating entire networks with zero downtime. It takes a lot of planning and discovery, but it's not particularly "difficult." One of the things we tell people is that they probably already have all the skills they need. It's just a matter of having a process. (See The Network Migration Workbook)

Believe You Can Work 9-5

When I mention in a presentation that we don't work evenings and weekends, I always get the exact same response - after TEN YEARS of talking about this: "Well what do you do when a server crashes in the middle of the night?"

Really? That's your defense for working twelve hours a day and abandoning your family?

I'm trying to remember. I think we've had maybe two servers actually crash in the middle of the night since 1995. We are not going to build a business practice around the remote exception to the rule. If you have servers crashing left and right, you're in the wrong business.

Anyway . . . You've simply gotten in the habit of working late, answering the phone after hours, and letting clients talk you into working after hours. If you want to work evenings and weekends, that's fine. Admit that you choose to do it, and do it proudly. But don't argue that you have to or that the business requires it. You don't have to and the business does not require it.

The first step is to believe that you work normal hours. Here are a few key beliefs and behaviors that affect your beliefs about this topic:

1) Everyone does it. No. Many people in the SMB space do not work evenings and weekends. And almost no one in the mid-market or enterprise space does - Unless they are extremely well paid for it.

2) Once your clients have your cell phone, they can get your attention any time. No. You don't have to answer your phone. More on this in a minute.

3) Ignoring clients or not being available in the evening is bad customer service. No. Every business gets to set their legitimate boundaries. Being available during your normal business hours is expected. Bad customer service would be ignoring clients at that time. Almost every business you deal with is unavailable evenings and weekends.

4) Clients expect it. Yes, kind of. If you've trained them to expect it, then they expect it. Now you need to re-train them. I'll bet most of your clients have never expected you to be available during "off" hours.

Sometimes clients just use whatever communication medium is in front them them. If they're on Facebook they Facebook. If they're on email, they email. If they have an icon on their desktop that opens a ticket in your client access portal, then they open a ticket. In most cases, the client is simply trying to make sure that their issue is in your system. They don't expect an answer/fix right now. They just need to get it out of their head and into yours. They will leave a voice mail and wait. You need to provide good customer service by addressing their issue the next business day.

5) I have to. The job requires it. No. This is the 21st century. We have robust hardware and software. We have remote monitoring and access tools. We have help desk support that's paid to be awake when we're asleep. We have techniques and processes that it possible to do virtually everything during business hours.

Here's an interesting question: How many of your client are available 24x7 to THEIR clients with no minimums and no after-hour rates. I'm just going to speculate here, but I'll bet that number is zero for almost everyone reading this.

Every consulting company that grows big has some rules about overtime. They're not the same for everyone, but here are some of the basics.

- Employees work 40-hour weeks
- Employees get paid for overtime
- Client work is done during normal business hours (8am-5pm)
- Clients pay extra for work outside those hours

As strange as it sounds, it can be very profitable to move into these policies. So, if you're not doing them, start soon. It is quite reasonable that, on a 30-day notice, you can raise your after-hours rates. That will make you more money and reduce the number of after-hours hours.

It is highly unlikely that you will ever grow your business beyond a one- or two-person shop until you adopt the policies you need to sustain a larger company.

Balancing Your Work and Life

Some people are born to be state workers. They naturally clock in at 8:00 AM and clock out at 5:00 PM and never think about work any other time. But most of the human race ENJOYS working. It gives us pleasure. It makes us feel useful and valuable.

It's very common to talk to IT Pros that really love their clients and see their job as a service they are performing. There are people who make life bad for others and there are people who make life better for others. Service providers (including IT service providers) provide a server that truly helps people. We make their businesses more efficient. We save them money. We help them to do things they couldn't do before.

The point is simple: It's okay to love your work. In fact, it's one of the greatest feelings in the world. When your business is "in the zone" you can get a lot of pleasure from it. So it's good to love work.

But you can't just work. You need to have a balanced life. You need to have hobbies. You need to blow off steam. You need to find great pleasure in other things.

As a writer, I always have several projects going at once. I try to lay them out on tables so they are visible to me and easily accessible. The reason is simple: Sometimes I have energy for one project and not another. I will work on the project that I get the most enjoyment out of. But sometimes I have deadline and have to work on a specific project whether I like it or not. Even then, I can switch to another project for a short while and balance out my day.

Sometimes your job gives you energy and sometimes it takes your energy. This changes all the time. That's one reason why you need find happiness and energy in the other parts of your life: Your personal life, you family life, your hobbies, your sports, etc. Giving each of these some of your attention will make you happier and more energetic overall.

"The balance" is different for everyone, so I can't say that you should do what I do. But I CAN say that working 16 hours a day is bad for your health, bad for your business, and bad for your personal life. If you're working those kind of hours, things are very un-balanced.

You have to work at balance. It won't happen by itself.

Making the Change to Working Normal Hours

So, how do you re-formulate your company so that you really work normal hours and your clients understand that? Here are some tips.

First, decide you will do this. There may be a transition period, but it will be harder on you than on your clients. You have a habit all the time. Each client only needs after-hours assistance once in awhile. You have to figure out what you're going to do when you're not working.

Second, adopt the simple policies mentioned above:

- Employees work 40-hour weeks - Including YOU
- Employees get paid for overtime
- Client work is done during normal business hours (8am-5pm) Monday-Friday
- Clients pay extra for work outside those hours

Third, if you need to amend contracts, do so. The most common rates for after-hours work are time-and-a-half (1.5x) and double-time (2x). Pick one and use it. You may want to give a 30 day notice to clients without a contract. Better yet, use this as an excuse to sign a contract with all your clients.

Fourth, set a transition period for yourself. Maybe three months. During that period, don't answer your phone after hours, but return calls if you think it's important. But wait longer and longer to return calls.

If a client asks you to do work, simply say, "I want to make sure you know the after-hours rate is $300/hr. So you can save a lot of money if this can wait."

Clients will almost always wait. They only asked you to work after hours because it cost them nothing extra. Now that there's a cost, you will see a quick change in behavior.

Fifth, be prepared for zero backlash. In reality, this will affect very few clients. And they will understand and come into line quickly. After all, these are very reasonable policies.

If you get in the habit of working too much, it feeds on itself and you feel that you can't get out: you can't change the way things are.

That's not true. Just decide to change. You can make it happen.

Comments welcome.

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About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete "table of contents" for SOP Friday at

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Next week's topic: Is This a Profitable Hour?

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