At a networking event recently, I spoke to a young woman who worked at a consulting firm. She’d transitioned out of a client-facing role into a staff job because she wanted more control of her life. She’d done too many projects where the clients expected around-the-clock availability or the higher-ups promised that availability to win the bid.
The exodus of people who want a life out of client-facing roles is a problem for many professional service firms. It’s one reason they continue to find themselves disproportionately male in the upper ranks as clients themselves become more diverse. As Bob Moritz, U.S. chairman and senior partner of PwC, put it in a speech at the recent MAKERS Conference in California, "If you’re not mirroring what the organization across the table from you looks like, you’re out of the game."
So what can be done about it?
Moritz believes that you can train your clients to allow you and your team to have a life. While that might sound as perilous as trying to train a dragon, there are ways to do so without getting scorched:
You can’t train your clients to manage requests and respect boundaries if your own managers don’t do this either. Moritz told me that PwC held a "flexibility contest" last year, in which numerous teams submitted plans for how they’d accommodate people’s personal non-negotiables during a normal-length engagement. People's non-negotiables included not being gone from home more than three nights in a row and having enough time to run 40 miles a week. Keeping employees happy is a management skill, and it’s one your team members should see rewarded.
A client who wants a crash project will be given it—but she has to pay for a certain number of additional team members. The script, Moritz says, is that "the team will be here all the time, but we’re going to bring the team in in shifts." That way people can cheerfully work late two nights a week knowing they’ll get other nights off. Flexibility is "more of a team sport than it is an individual sport," Moritz says.
As part of this, you need to manage client relationships so that anybody can be a point of contact. Clients sometimes get antsy if they don’t see their favorite person in the team room or if she isn’t responding to emails on Tuesday night (because she’s not about to commit the faux pas of picking up her iPhone in yoga class).
You can make sure that clients have the opportunity to get to know all your talented team members. Take turns delivering good news and bad news, and make sure all your team members have brushed up on their soft skills.
If the client won’t cough up the cash, then the project scope needs to be reduced or the deadline shifted. Each individual’s work hours shouldn’t be the first thing offered up on the bargaining table. True, that can reduce profits. On the other hand, so does replacing people who leave because they’re burned out from client demands.
Moritz recommends having a heart-to-heart with particularly overbearing clients about overworking team members, framed in terms of their business interests. Tell them, "You’re not getting the best people to want to come here. It’s not great for you and it’s not great for us. How do we work together to solve this problem?" Your best people have other options—not just outside your company, but within your company, working with other clients who aren’t insane. You can offer your difficult clients a star, but only if the clients agree to your star’s reasonable demands.
Client service is never going to involve a flat 40-hour workweek with no work outside of business hours. But it doesn’t automatically mean you can never have a life either. If you train your clients well, you may be able to keep the kinds of people who can deliver excellent client service—even without working around the clock.