As each year backfires into December and the summer break, I have become used to two feelings grating up against each other. On the one hand, excitement at the prospect of a low-demand rest, and on the other hand, the rising anxiety at the cost of a break and no income.
Bear with me, I am tired, its been a long year, and I am overly pensive (and a little grouchy). That is a warning, so you may want to quit reading now.
In professional services, most of us sell our time. We should probably focus more on a value exchange, but to be frank, most clients always equate a fee to time and keep the value exchange out of the conversation. Its tricky, there have been times where I have been paid for my time in thousands of rand, but have been clearly told a while later that I assisted a business in turning hundreds of thousands to millions of rand in value through my efforts. It was never about me, but its an interesting proposition to link value to overall impact. And of course, that could swing both ways, no impact, no value, no fee?
Most employed professionals work for 12 months of the year and receive the equivalent of 13 months’ salary (not always, but most bonus and incentive schemes reward professionals in full time employment). In my game, we can earn for about 10 months of the year to cover 12 months of expenses (generally we need decent breaks and some months are littered with school and public holidays and clients just stop booking work). It’s a hard slog.
The end of the year is as much about celebrating as it is about trying to catch up on rest to remain sharp and focused, and to measure and manage a nest egg to cover the quiet months of the year. In truth, I generally suffer from low grade anxiety all year; I hate to admit it, but I actually do.
Don’t get me wrong, the perks of self employment are attractive – flexibility, choice, a sense of meaning and variety, however I do think these characteristics of self employment are far harder to enjoy in reality. And I sometimes feel only people who have sold their time for a living can truly understand this.
So here are a few thoughts if you wish to take the leap into my world, or indeed if you are engaging with a consultant who sells their value (through time) to your organisation.
Let me share a few experiences.
The first was with a large organisation where the HR function was trying to evolve its culture. It was a vast brief and they wanted guidance and assistance. They call me in on a referral from a colleague (just setting up the time in my diary takes about 20 minutes of back and forth communications). It takes me 45-minutes to get to the meeting, I pay for parking, and arrive 15 minutes early (I prefer breathing room before important meetings, but it could also be my pedantic, German blood). That is 1 hour 20-minutes of my time. We meet for an hour, and I am asked to pull together a proposal. In total the entire engagement to the delivery of the proposal takes me 5 hours (which is unpaid for). The kick in the teeth, was that the organisation did not even bother to respond to my mails or thank me for the proposal. Half a day wasted, and it went nowhere. I would love to say this is once-off, but it happens more often than I can afford. That time is lost, unsold, and unrecoverable. Did the client get value? Yes, I believe they received immense value, but at my expense.
Then there are the late meeting changes, and cancellations. Each of which throw a time-focused diary into disarray, and often lead to more lost hours. Admin, calls, follow ups, collating notes, continuous professional development, financial tracking and reporting, marketing and networking, all critical and also hours lost in a day, week and month that do not accrue an income.
Often times the biggest drain of time is travel. A session might be an hour-long coaching engagement, but it requires preparation and post session reflection, and travel to and from the client offices. It is quite often the case that a one-hour coaching session, requires up to 2,5 hours of time (sessions booked in town for the early mornings can take up to 4 hours of my time, for a 60-min session). A 7 hour day of facilitation usually comes with an additional half day of briefings, prep and travel. The maths eventually just doesn’t stack up.
So shouldn’t we be talking about a value transaction, rather than a time equation? I believe we should, but how? I have attempted to offer packages that include the behind the scenes preparation, planning and general logistics and investment of time. They have all been categorically rejected with a clear message of ‘we will just focus on the time you spend with us, don’t worry about those add ons’. For the sake of the relationship, I usually just swallow the add ons for my own pocket.
My metric of comparison is that of a clinical psychologist who has been in practice for at least 15 years. I am first a Clinical Psychologist, but now consult into organisations. At face value some of my fees look like they are double to three times that of a psychologists hourly fee in private practice, but on a month to month basis, I am always short by at least 25% in comparison. It leaves me wondering and often questioning whether this self-employment thing is truly flexible, free and as ‘lucky’ as we often think. I could be in private practice, waiting for people to come and see me for 6-7 hours per day. I would be unhappy, but its also a sobering comparison.
I wouldn’t change my choice to be an independent professional. I am not in the job market, and would be challenged in such contexts, but in the spirit of true partnership I believe we should be exploring how to equate professional services to value, and not only time.
Any ideas? and examples any of you could share to assist?