Episode 49: Drowning in emails? How to manage traffic flow so you can be productive with your time and be profitable at the same time
If you can manage a client's expectations, you'll never really lose a client.
In this episode of The Wize Guys Podcast, Ed Chan and Jamie Johns, together with our Wize Mentor, Tim Causbrook explore the challenges of dealing with overwhelming traffic and share actionable tips on how your manage your traffic flow effectively for increased productivity and profitability.
So, if you want to know the Wize Philosophy on managing the traffic flow in your accounting or bookkeeping practice business, then listen to today’s episode!
0:00 - Intro
0:34 - Wize Philosophy on managing traffic flow
1:29 - The importance of communicating and building relationships with your clients
3:24 - How does traffic flow’s efficiency benefits the accounting or bookkeeping firm
8:49 - The 7 steps to managing traffic flow
9:50 - Accountants Highway to the Danger Zone Playbook
16:07 - Quad activities: What’s urgent & important VS What’s not urgent & important
16:35 - Is 20% chaos manageable?
18:31 - How to take action
“Just to pick up what Ed said, you could always address the symptoms and not the problem. So you've really gotta address the problem. I think the first point to recognize is it doesn't matter where you are in. Everyone's got eight hours a day. It doesn't matter where you are...You've got eight hours a day. So the problem is just time. Every firm owner I speak to just lacks time. That's really your first limitation. So you've gotta re you've gotta recognize your limitations…” - Jamie Johns
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Tim Causbrook: One of our three main themes of design, recruit, and scale. And today's is on the design theme and its topic is pretty close to my heart, which is drowning in emails: how to manage traffic flow so you can be productive and profitable at the same time.
I dunno what the first introduction you had to Wize was, but this was my first introduction to managing traffic flow. I think it's pretty foundational to our philosophy at Wize. It's a really great topic and I'm really looking forward to doing a deep dive just on this topic alone.
We're looking at designing, and that's really all about systems. Today's topic is how to manage traffic flow so you can be productive and profitable at the same time. As we'll see from Ed at the moment, nothing eats up profits fast enough than having this kind of washing machine approach to communication and also making scaling really hard if you haven't got this under control. So it's not just a topic for smaller firms. It's a topic really for firms of every size. It's so crucial to running a business properly.
So yeah, look to jump straight in. I'd love to hear, hear from you about this, Ed. I've got loads of questions, but just to start with, can you explain how important it is to systematize the business and get all the processes flowing smoothly, particularly looking at traffic flow and how that benefits the practice to get that under control?
Ed Chan: Yeah, thanks, Tim. Just before I answer that, I'll just take a step back just to give it some context.
If you deal with a business and they don't respond to you quickly, like they might take two or three days to respond to you, the body language they're giving to you is that they're not really interested, right? They've got more important things to do and you are really low on their priority list. And if you had to deal with company A or company B and company A responds to you very, very quickly and company B is very, very slow in responding, then you are going to deal with company A. Now, as a customer, that's easy to see, but as the provider of services, often we don't see that because we are drowning in our own problems and we're trying to deal with them. So we don't see it from the customer's point of view. I'd like to just start with that comment that if you take your time to respond, your body language is that you don't care. You've got other things to do. They're very low on your priority list. So that's not a good message to give your customers.
So now for the leaders of the organization, you need to understand that so that you can make sure that your staff understands it. Because often it might be obvious to you and me, but it's not obvious to the rest of the team sometimes, because we're busy ~ something happens, the computer breaks down, or there's a problem with something at work. So you're dealing with that and you're not paying attention to your customers.
Now, our policy is that we must return our emails on the same day immediately if possible. On the same day at the very latest the next morning. And if you can't do that the next morning, you need to get someone to get in touch with the client to let them know when you can respond. So that's a policy. It's not hard to do, provided you pay attention to it. That's the context. So let's now move on to how we address that.
Now, in a business, you get a lot of traffic coming through and the traffic is generally broken up between communication traffic and production traffic. Because as individuals we are strong in certain things and not so strong in other things. Then some people are much better at responding to and communicating with clients and others are stronger at production, they prefer to sit and just do the work. So firstly, you've gotta identify your strengths and weaknesses. Then you develop a blueprint of your team on how to manage the production and the communication and the traffic because it's an enormous amount of traffic that comes through an accounting firm. Whether it's strategic, operational, addressing concerns, sales, or whatever it has an enormous amount of traffic. And traditionally firms run flat teams.
What I mean by that is the traffic just comes in and whoever's there addresses it. There are a number of problems with that when nobody answers it. So, for example, I often see out-of-office messages when someone's not there, the out-of-office message says, ‘Contact the office.’ Well, guess what happens when they contact the office when nobody wants to take that call, sits there and everybody's waiting for somebody else to take the call and nobody takes the call. Then when it's imposed on someone, they reluctantly take it. So by the time they're facing the client, they're not very happy. So there's a number of issues that occur if you don't have systems and structure in the protocol and formal way of responding to things. So that's when we developed our deep and narrow team structures.
So putting people, playing people in position rather than outer position because of the person who is more inclined to that the people person. So someone who's a people person will be more inclined to take phone calls and respond to emails than someone who's a production person who would rather just sit there and do the production work. But the first thing is you have gotta start off with your blueprint ~ who's in this ideal team structure, and what would it look like? So the senior client manager takes all the communication, while the senior production manager is in charge of the production, and their level of communication with the client is at a more production level. Like, ‘You're missing a bank name, can you send me the bank name?’ in that level of communication.
Then the juniors and the production people underneath, sit there uninterrupted, getting on with producing the work, and not being interrupted all day. So if you can get that deep and narrow team structure moving designed, then you can then say, ‘Okay, now who am I gonna recruit or who in my existing team will suit those positions?’ And then you pick and choose the ones so that they're playing in position, not out of position. So it's a bit like a sporting game, everyone's got a position. So if you take soccer or football for example, everyone's got a position and you don't play them out position and you don't say, ‘Okay, let's be fair to everyone and everyone have a turn in this position,’ where it doesn't work because you wanna play the best person in that position. Well, it depends on whether you wanna win the game. If you wanna be fair to everyone, then that's different. But if you wanna win this game, then you put the best people in the right positions and they're happier as well. Yeah, because if you're trying to play someone out position, then they're not gonna do their job very well and they're not gonna be very happy. So for all those reasons, it's extremely important to design your team.
Now then that's going to address the managing of the emails. Because often I hear comments like, ‘I haven't got time to respond to my emails,’ and other excuses. A lot of it is real. It's not made up. It's because the structure is not right, which is then causing the blockage to production. So if you can separate out the roles, then, then you manage the client's expectations by educating them through the acknowledgment letters and the things that we talk about that to direct their traffic to the right people.
So typically I see owners of businesses take on all the traffic first and then they delegate it down to their staff. Well, 80% of what the client needs can be handled by the staff. So why take that initial core email and then delegate it down? That's just double handling. So the way we do it is we allowed traffic to go to the client manager first. A hundred percent of traffic goes to the client manager, and the client manager brings the partner in 20% of the time that's required. So you're keeping the partner's time at a very high level.
Tim Causbrook: Yeah.
Ed Chan: And then you can charge your time at that very high level. And then 80% of the traffic goes down to the client manager whose job is then to work with the production manager to delegate the work out to the team. And then that frees the partner up to do the top 20%. So you, they can charge at that rate and the senior client manager handles the client at the 80% level. They can push the work down and they can free themselves up to take the communication emails, and then that frees the production manager to handle the production emails. You manage it that way.
Often I see firms appoint a secretary to handle the emails. Well, that's just putting a bandaid on the problem. If you fix the problem rather than address the symptoms, then you don't need to put all these band-aids. I see other people taking emails to a central point and then distributing emails from there. But again, I think t that's a bandaid solution. If you address the problem, and direct the emails to the right person, to begin with, it's through education to the clients over time, then you don't need to put on bandaids and it works. It works pretty well.
Tim Causbrook: Yeah, it does Ed.
I'm glad you kind of talked about how you can use it to leverage. It's not just about kind of getting things under control and kind of minimizing the chaos. But it allows you to leverage in a big way.
Some of the firms I work with WizeGrowth a surprise that I can have such small teams handling a million in fees. So I've got several teams, just for context. Everybody, I've got several teams handling a million dollars in revenue per team, and like three or four people per team. And they managed to get through it pretty smoothly because they managed to separate out those roles as Ed's just kind of laid out for us. Thanks very much for that, Ed.
There's a lot probably to discuss from what you've said. I just want to hear from and that's kind of what you were talking about and what I was talking about just then. There's a little nice picture with the barrier in fees and how brute force won't get you to break through that barrier cuz you just don't have enough time unless you start building out those teams as Ed kind of really went through really well with us just then.
Jamie, just to pivot to you for a moment, you've got 7 steps to managing traffic flow. Could you lay out some of those for us this morning and how you've managed to do what Ed has just laid out for us in your own firm at Sky Accountants?
Jamie Johns: Geez, Tim, you put me on the spot in a minute.
Tim Causbrook: I know, I realize that it doesn't have to be all seven, we can just go through some.
Jamie Johns: Yeah, look just to pick up what Ed said, you could always address the symptoms and not the problem. So you've really gotta address the problem.
I think the first point to recognize is it doesn't matter where you are in. Everyone's got eight hours a day. It doesn't matter where you are, whether you're in Miami or Denmark. You've got eight hours a day. So the problem is just time. Every firm owner I speak to just lacks time. That's really your first limitation. So you've gotta re you've gotta recognize your limitations and I'd encourage anyone that's here to grab the little ebook that we wrote called Accountants Highway to the Danger Zone Playbook. So if you haven't got that, make sure you reach out to Selena and get a copy of that book. But basically in that book we go through why people run outta time and if you simply just keep winning more clients and then keep adding team members and getting everyone to report to you. Then you're gonna be overwhelmed ‘cause you've only got eight hours in a day. And that's where people just keep working and keep responding to all the clients, adding the clients, and adding the clients.
So part of that solution as this thing Ed touched on earlier, is definitely to have your A and B class clients managed by a senior client manager and you get your C and D class clients and they're being managed by your assistant manager. So straight away with the communication traffic, you've either got rid of it or you've halved it. So that's really the first thing.
But look, the other thing Tim, like you're showing on the screen there. On a mental level, I think the way that the firm works can sort out a lot of the traffic itself. I remember Ed saying this to me years ago, clients would ring the office and say, ‘Well, when are you gonna start my work? When are you gonna finish my work? How much is it gonna cost? Who's doing my work?’ right? So you get all these questions, ‘When do I drop it off?’ It's just over and over. So if you don't have a backbone, if you don't have a system to cater for that you're just gonna get, you yourself and your team are just gonna get all these questions.
So years and years ago, I just came up with these seven steps that really probably Tim got rid of 80% of all that traffic. The first one was in Australia, we were really early to adopt the cloud. So, moving clients to Xero was one. So it doesn't matter whether it's QuickBooks online, the cloud just saves time. I know 10 years ago when I moved Sky Accountants to predominantly the cloud, we picked up 30% productivity straight away because we had this thing called a single ledger, right? A single ledger is just what the client working on is what your team's working on. So, we were really reluctant to take on clients who weren't in the cloud because it was just 30% less efficient. So when we met clients, we moved the clients to the cloud for free. If they had their books on their hard drive and they used to drop them off on a disk or a USB, that's just so inefficient. Move it to the cloud and if you do it for free, sometimes we charge a fee depending on the size of the client, but you'll pick up that efficiency. So you can just imagine all the communication on emails and phone calls that dropped off because you could just log onto the client's file and have a look at what you wanted to see. And it was in real-time, Tim.
I don't have to say hopefully ironic understand that the second step there was to schedule all your work. If you're not scheduling your work, then it just tends to create chaos because people wonder, ‘Well, when do I drop it off?’ Or they just drop it off ad hoc. So you've gotta schedule the work and it's just we always talk about a quad two activity and quad one. Quad two's like just planning ahead. These days, if we don't send out our client scheduling letter, they are often so well educated. They say, ‘Oh when you want me to drop, I haven't got my letter yet.’ So schedule your work.
You can imagine the amount of traffic that reduces because they're just organized, and collect all the information before you start the job. That sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? Collect the info before you start the job.
Then the next one, or maybe you should give them a price before you start the job so you don't have to fix the price. Even if you're time billed, you can still give them an estimate. If you think about this, everyone, what you're doing here is you're building a system that automatically manages expectations. So if you can manage a client's expectations, you'll never really lose a client. We look at the fifth one there. Explain to the client what's the turnaround time ~ when you will finish the job. That's the next one because everyone wants to know when the job is finished. It depends depending on your firm's policy, but we tended not to charge for phone calls and emails and that's just little ones, just, just sort of little ones. We would just build that into the package.
And your last one is making sure your A and b class clients have an annual general meeting with them. Your bigger clients speak to them and often you can give them a health check or a wealth check as well. So that was sort of the seven steps that a long time ago now that I developed.
Then you can see down below the apps, Tim, that you can build around that. So it doesn't have to be those apps. But what you've gotta do to get this right is to overlay the technology with your policy and then how you do things, which is really your content, or your intellectual property. And then make sure you've got the people trained in that process. So we used to have big posters around our office of this. We used to have it in.
Tim Causbrook: Yeah, I love it.
Jamie Johns: I got these big posters drawn up. Over the years, the apps might change or that sort of thing. A lot of people can see that app there. Like, you can use Karbon, or Practice Ignition, there's a go-to proposal, and there are so many apps that you can use.
So I just found Tim that backbone if you like, or that guarantee, whatever you wanna call it, it just really helped with reducing the amount of traffic that our firm had and a great deal. If you overlay that with the deeper narrow team that Ed touched on. Have your production team, your assistant manager, and your senior client manager. It just works absolute wonders.
These days I run five teams and are close to forming in turnover and it just works. Every time we don't do one of these things. It used to be me as the senior client manager, but these days it's the other senior client managers, they will just get updated with traffic particularly as you scale to 600,000. That first barrier touched on is not an exact science, but they're rough, the barriers that you'll hit. But once you've got the secret ingredient to this, you can build your second team, and get your first team done depending on what your goals are and how big you want to grow your firm. But once you learn the recipe of this that bakes the famous cake, you can do your first team and your second team in a way you go.
Tim Causbrook: Yeah. Love it, Jamie. I really love it.
When you were talking before and something Ed was saying before made me think. All of this is just building a system that helps you manage your clients and they don't manage you. They don't manage you.
Jamie Johns: That's exactly, yeah. You manage your clients.
What I found was, before I had all this back in the early days when I started Sky Accountants, the client's chaos was my chaos. I handled it by brute force up until maybe 400,000 - 500,000. Like it ended up in the hospital from an overwork course. You have to get to a system, a point to, to get a system and be highly organized. Now we haven't even touched on the org charts here either.
Tim Causbrook: Nah. There's so much we could do.
Jamie Johns: Just the all-charts people in the right seat doing the right work. We haven't even touched on that. You want your junior accountants and your bookkeepers doing the right work. You don't want your most expensive person doing the wrong work, doing the easiest work. And often that happens all the time.
If you get a chance in the WizeVault to read about the quad activities ~ what's urgent important versus what's not urgent important. So, probably I'll finish him in my role at Sky Accountants as the CEO. I still look after the HR portfolio. I still do all the hiring. My number one priority is making sure every team has enough capacity. Because if your firm doesn't have the capacity, hiring's such a big thing. I'm relentless. I'll just keep hiring until I know each team's got capacity and once they've got capacity, that's like business101. That's it.
Tim Causbrook: Yeah, no, that's great.
I think one thing I hear sometimes from the firms I work with is that they're complaining about the clients. They got this client's no good. They're demanding or they're always asking me questions about ~ How much it is? How much is it's gonna be? How quick is it's gonna be? I always think, Jamie, what Ed also talks about dealing with the problem, not the symptom. And if I just look at their step one through three really makes the production team's job and life a lot easier. Because they don't have to do three months' worth of work in one month. They don't get stuck on jobs ‘cause they get all in, they get as much information as they can get before they start, and steps four through really seven make the client manager's life easier, but genuinely makes it easier. It's a better experience for the staff, not just the clients.
Jamie Johns: The whole thing just hums Tim. As we would have our office manager collect all the information. Then, over a few years, people would say, ‘Oh, how do you get to train your office manager to understand what a loan statement is, what a settlement statement is, or a car contract?’ And we would educate them. They would order and have a big list of stuff that we needed from the client.
It's a bit like a tradesperson. They come to build a fence, they didn't bring the nails and they left the hammer back at the shed. It's just inefficient. We all know ourselves. If we've got all the equipment, all the information that we need before we start a job, man, you can fly through it, and productive people are happy people.
Tim Causbrook: Yeah, exactly. Awesome. Thanks, Jamie. I really, really love this stuff.
It's kind of the most basic stuff and it seems so simple when you and Ed talk about it, but I think it's all in the implementation as well.
Jamie Johns: I love what Ed said years ago, like if you can get 80% of this right. What we're talking about is there's gonna be days when there will be chaos. Like someone will need their work done tomorrow because they're selling a business or they're getting a loan. But you'll be able to deal with the chaos. That's the thing. You'll be able to drop everything and say, ‘Okay, I've got time because the rest of my firm is 80% organized right.’ So there's always gonna be chaos, but it's just if you can deal with the chaos.
Tim Causbrook: It's manageable. 80% chaos is not manageable. That's It.
That's awesome. Thanks, Jamie.
This is a great topic. We could talk all day on this one. But Ed, can you leave us with one action point you'd suggest taking? Where should we begin if firms on today's call have, this is all new to them and it's a bit overwhelming, 7 steps is a lot, and deep and narrow teams are a lot. What's one thing they could do it again?
Ed Chan: Yeah. One action point. Well, it depends on where you are. I guess if you haven't even started this, the action point is to design your blueprint of your ideal team. In the WizeVault, it's got it all there. You can just go in there, do a search and there's a map if you like, of what the ideal team is. So design that first.
If you've already done that and you are trying to get your staff to buy into it. Then, hold a meeting and bring them all in and well have a one-on-one meeting with them first to get their buy-in and then you're going to get pushback. Alright? So often firms come back to me and say, ‘Oh, I got pushback.’ I said, ‘Yeah, what did you expect not to?’ That's what leadership's all about. It's about leading them.
There's a saying, ‘If you want to go fast, go by yourself, but if you want to go far, you've gotta bring your team with you.’ And how effectively you bring your team with you is all about your leadership. I have people say, ‘Oh, someone pushed back so you gave up.’ Well, that's not leadership. Leadership is persistence in continuing to push forward and convince. All that's happened when someone pushes back yet you haven't been an effective enough communicator and you haven't been enough leader to convince your people to come with you on this journey. I say, often that some people are early adopters, they get it and they come along straight away. Others are middle adopters whom you've gotta have several conversations with them. And other people are late adopters and you've gotta have 20-30 conversations with them before they change their habits. But an effective leader understands that. They show patience and persistence.
So, depending on where you are in your journey will be the action point that you'll take. And, but it's all about leadership. If you don't lead, you can have the best people in the world. You can have the best systems in the world, but if you don't lead, if you don't lead your team, it's all gonna fall over. So part of our sessions here is to help you with your mindset around leadership because nobody taught us how to lead. And often we promote our staff to manage us and expect them to lead their team without any education, without training.
I often say, if you are hiring someone to do your work, do your tax work, or your accounting work, you need them to have experience and you need to train them. Yet we promote our people to managers, but we don't give them any training. These sessions are about helping with the mindset with the ability to manage because managing is completely different from doing again different to managing. It's a different task and not everybody can do it.
Tim Causbrook: Yeah. Awesome. That's a great one to leave us on.