How NOT to handle customer consultations

Recently, a friend of mine passed along a newsletter she received from her CPA. Most of the content dealt with tips on preparing for tax filing, but one entry stood out.

Consultations versus “Quick Questions”

One of the things my clients have enjoyed over the years is relatively easy access to me for “quick” questions, by email or phone.

I noticed this past year, that sometimes I was overloaded with these “quick question” contacts during my busiest time of the year.  Even though I strongly encourage my clients to contact me for consulting during the other months for planning-type consulting, I was having to dedicate one to two hours a day replying to “quick” questions when I had 3 weeks or more of tax return work to attend to.  Handling all the “quick” questions was not happening quickly enough, and I fell even further behind.  My CPA association professional standards require me to obtain documentation for all advice given, which adds to the time needed to reply to your questions.

To help with the stress, and to be fair to those clients who have brought their tax information in to be worked on, I have decided to handle these email and phone “quick questions” a little differently this coming year.  It is an experiment, and I am open to hearing from you constructive comments on how I can better handle this area.

As announced in an earlier newsletter, starting February 1, 2011, I began handling these consultation requests more formally.  I will provide one “quick” question consultation, by email or phone for free to each returning tax client, per year.  Of course, there are limits to this, based on complexity and time involved, thus the implied definition of “quick” question.

After the one free “quick question” consultation, each additional such consultation will be provided to you for a small fee, depending on the complexity of the consultation and the length of time involved.

The minimum fee for these additional consultations will be $25 and will be due promptly.  If you choose to have me charge this fee to your credit or debit card, I will add $1 to cover part of the fees the card companies charge me for handling the transaction.

Yes, I know this is quite a change from the unlimited access to me you have enjoyed in the past, but I must get better control over my time, especially during tax season.  Your planning ahead on consulting questions, to minimize the fees I charge to you, will enable me to devote more time to tax form preparation during the busy times.

During the less busy times of the year, I will, at my discretion, waive the “quick question” consultation fees.

Please understand the limitations on my time during my busy time of year, which does not end until early May.  I will be working 70 to 80 hours a week during this time, doing my best to get your tax forms back to you as soon as possible.

One thing you might keep in mind, too, is that when you call for that “quick question”, if you talk with my receptionist or my tax assistant, and you will accept an answer from her, and she does not have to ask me the question to give you an answer, I will not consider this a consultation subject to the fee mentioned above.

What I am trying to accomplish is a reduction of the interruptions.  The preparation of your tax forms is tedious work requiring deep concentration.  Each time I have to stop to answer a phone “quick question”, even if it just takes 5 minutes, requires me to then have to regroup my thoughts and get back to the task at hand.  On a typical day in my busy time, I receive 20 to 30 calls a day.  I have a receptionist to take those calls and hopefully handle your requests.

Much is wrong with this, but let me point out a few items:

  1. The use of quotation mark around the word quick indicating that they are so-called by the client (his word) and that in his mind often these are not quick.
  2. Clearly, he uses the term client in all of its patron-benefactor denotation glory. He views my friend and others as the great unwashed, who can never understand the subtleties of his work.
  3. He acknowledges that these have become a problem, but rather that stratifying his clients (customers) and offering options, he decides to limit these connections for all.
  4. By limiting these interactions he is losing potential business. I am sure that some of these calls turn into engagements, now he will not ever get them because customers will be wondering if they should blow their one free call on something they think is insignificant.
  5. He also institutes a penalty of $1 for putting one of these on a credit card. I guess he would rather bill them in arrears and wait to be paid for at least 30 days. Why not just charge everyone $26 and call it even across the board?
  6. He insinuates that the answers giving by his receptionist and tax assistant have no value. If they answer the question then it must be unworthy. This makes them feel valued I am sure.
  7. Ultimately, he is blaming his own mismanagement of his resources on his customers.

Here is the kicker – he does not bill my friend by the hour, he fix prices all his work and as far as I know does not keep a timesheet. He could be a Trailblazer based on this. But the tyranny of time cuts deep, my friends, he is still mired in being a firm of the past.

Memories of Customer Conferences Past

Note to readers: This post is focused on Sage Partners. If you are not a Sage Partner, you might want to sit this one out.

Having been with Sage over seven and a half years now, I am hesitant to begin a story with the phrase, "When I was a partner…" So much has changed in the almost ten years since I practiced that hearing myself say this makes me cringe. But against my better judgment, here goes.

Among my fondest memories of when I was a partner, was participating in the Great Plains customer conference which is still known as Convergence, albeit a Microsoft event now.

In the first year of its existence, my firm was fortunate enough to have a few customers who were interested in making the trek from New York to the Swalphin (my wife’s pet name for Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Convention Center in Orlando). In fact, one of our customers won the first ever software industry award for customer loyalty.

The most dominant memory though is the fact that all of us partners felt as if we were cohosts of the event. As examples:

  • We gave each of our customers tee-shirts with our logo and the old Great Plains logo on it and asked that they wear it on a certain day of the conference.
  • We made sure to eat breakfast as a group and invited our friends from the GP support department.
  • We arranged for special walkthroughs of the trade show area with our customers in attendance.
  • We were encouraged to organize dinners and invite GP executives who graciously came and spoke to each customer.
  • We met our customers and GP friends every night at the dueling piano bar, Jellyrolls at the Disney Boardwalk.

All this was fun to be sure, but there is one important business result, we never lost a customer who attended the event with us.

As someone who is working on the first combined (partners and customers) Sage Summit 2011 team, I can tell you we want our partners to feel like they are cohosts of this new event. I am sure many Sage partners have heard about some of the things we have planned, but I would like your feedback as well on how we could make you feel as if you are cohosting the event.

Insights Session – Enhancing Your Customers Experience

On Tuesday, May 18th at 3:15pm at Sage North America’s annual partner conference, Insights, I will be co-presenting a session with Apryl Hanson of Blytheco entitled Enhancing Your Customers Experience (GEN54).

This session will be dedicated to the possibility that we can create deep, meaningful experiences for customers. Creating such experiences is hard work and not for everyone. It requires us to think differently than we have in the past. We are the ones who must change, not our customers. You are hereby invited by myself and Apryl to open a dialogue on a new model for building customer experiences.

image For those of you who plan on attending the session, please comment below with any thoughts or questions that you would especially like me to address during our time together.

Another reason why I am obsessed with uncovering value

I am often accused of being obsessed with uncovering value when in the discovery and dialogue step (sometimes known as the sales process) of a consulting engagement.

One of the key statistics I cite is from the Standish Group and their research on small and medium business information technology projects – 47 percent of SMB IT projects cost 190 percent of the original estimate. I often round it and say, “half cost double.”

This of course leads me to suggest using the McKinsey and Company mantra, that unless the consultant can help uncover three times the value of any price they would propose for a solution, then the consultant will not even propose a solution. In addition to being sound business advice, it is also quite a disarming comment for a consultant to make.

Well, there is more distressful news on this front this week. In an article in PCWorld by Chris Kanaracus entitled Widespread Discontent Persists with ERP Projects, the author opens with following citation of a recent study conducted by Panorama Consulting Group, “More than half of companies that implement ERP systems end up garnering no more than 30 percent of the business benefits they expected.” To round this one I would say, “half get a third.”

Now, I will not vouch for the veracity of these numbers. I believe that business is art, not science, and any attempts at making it science are of the pseudo variety.

That said, combine these two thoughts together and you have a pretty good explanation of why no decisions and other forms of stuck sales are so prevalent in this industry.

Think about it, we are in a position where prospective customers have (at least some form of) documented “evidence” that:

  • half cost double
  • half get a third

If you do not assist a customer in developing a perceived value in dollars, the following will (perhaps has) happen:

A company budgets $30,000 (software and “services”) for a new ERP solution. It ends up costing double, $60,000. Since the provider never got a solid understanding of value from the customer, the customer assigns the original price to be the value number, again, $30,000. A year goes by and the customer only feels like they gain one third of the value they thought they would get, $10,000.

To sum it up, spent 60K, got 10K. Oh yeah, let’s upgrade!

New Pet Idea

While listening to a recent podcast from the Cato institute on the value of globalization, I was introduced to something called the Stan Shih Smile Curve of Value.

The idea is that the lowest value item in the production chain is the manufacturing of the product. This is why, for example, that the while every iPod and iPhone are considered to be manufacturing imports we should not care. The real value of the product is in the development and end-use. It is estimated that of the $400 price of an iPhone a mere $5 goes to manufacturing in China, about $45 goes to Japan for parts, the other $350 to the US or, in this case, Apple. This is why every iPod and iPhone say, “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.”

Anyway, this got me to thinking about what this curve would look like for software implementation firms. Here is what I came up with:


What this shows is that the value to the customer is actually delivered at the extremes of the relationship.

What are your thoughts? I am just beginning to play with this model, so it is very open to criticism.

Sage Summit Sessions

A few Sage business partners have inquired as to what sessions I am doing at the upcoming Sage Summit customer conference in Atlanta next week.

Without further ado, here they are:

Tuesday, November 10, 2009



8:30 AM – 9:30 AM

GEN02 – Altruism, Profit, and the Basics of the 7S Model

11:00 AM – 12:00 PM

GEN03 – Creating Shared Vision

2:15 PM – 3:15 PM

GEN04 Creating Strategy in a Small Business


Wednesday, November 11, 2009



8:30 AM – 9:30 AM

GEN05 – Initiating Projects in a Small Business or Small Team

11:00 AM – 12:00 PM

GEN06 – Building Community: A New Paradigm

2:15 PM – 3:15 PM

GEN07 – Fundamentals of Strategic Pricing


It would be my honor to meet your customers, so bring them by if you can.

Creating a Service Level Agreements

Creating an SLA (Service Level Agreement) is by far the most frequent topic of conversation I have with partners of Sage. I recently came across an mp3 file I recorded while in Sydney, Australia delivering the service level agreement section from Customer Boot Camp, so I have decided to post it.

Please note it is not the best quality recording, but I think you will be able to understand most of it.

If you have any further thoughts or question, please feel free to post them as comments.

UPDATE: As of June 2010, I refer to these as Access Level Agreements not Service Level. I admit I was wrong. Sorry!

Thinking About My Dentist

What if you would refuse to accept any new customers unless they were referred to you but another customer? Would your leads dry up? If so, your new business problem is not marketing related, it is your service. FIX IT!

The lesson here is that if you are not getting active referrals from customers, your service ain’t great. The only thing more customers is going to do is put you out of business faster.

Imagine if your new customers, like my dentists, come from 100 percent referral sources. Do you think you could charge a premium? Do you at least think that discounting would go away?

It is time to take some stock and ask – Are we really as good as we think we are? If not, it is time to fix your service.