4 June 2012 Jay Shepherd

Every little bit doesn’t add up

Back when I had my law firm, we would sometimes take business that didn’t really seem ideal for our practice. Either it wasn’t the right type of client, or they didn’t really have enough money to truly be able to afford us, or something else was wrong with them. But in the end, we would compromise our principles. There was always pressure to bring in more revenue. We had to pay the rent, the payroll, and other expenses. You couldn’t have too much revenue.

Every little bit added up.

And that’s what a lot of people say when they’re trying to justify doing the wrong thing. “Every little bit adds up.” The only problem with that is, it’s not true.

Every little bit doesn’t add up.

Taking on business because it’ll bring about a marginal amount of revenue even though it’s not the right type of client for you is a bad approach. Sure, it’s true that incremental amounts of revenue add up to more revenue. But what that fails to take into account is the hidden costs of taking on bad business.

The time you spend doing the wrong kind of work or doing it for the wrong type of client is time that takes you away from the work you really want to do. And when professionals are doing the wrong kind of work or doing it for the wrong kind of client, they tend to be unhappier. It becomes harder to do the work. Quality suffers. Morale suffers. Yes, every little bit of revenue adds up. But too many professionals fail to account for the emotional costs of doing this incremental work. And they justify it by saying that every little bit adds up.

All kinds of companies make this mistake. For example, look at this rate card from a Las Vegas hotel. I’m not going to name the hotel, because I’m staying there in the near future. But it’s one of the largest hotels in the world. They do a robust business, and they make plenty of money. And yet they have this rate card of incidental charges connected to its business center. This is serious nickel-and-dime nonsense. Eight dollars for the first page of outgoing faxes; a dollar per page for incoming email. (Of course, who even uses faxes anymore?)

hotel price list
While I am not privy to the strategies and mindset of this particular hotel, I am certain that someone there reasoned that every little bit adds up. If they can make a little bit of money on every fax, email, and package received, it will add up to a lot of money. But what they fail to take into account are the costs associated with that. I’m not talking about the actual expenses of receiving packages or sending faxes. Those costs are negligible anyay. I’m talking about the emotional cost of ticking off its customers. Nobody likes to see this sort of nonsense on their hotel bills.

Look at the airlines, and their growing tendency to nickel-and-dime passengers for almost anything they can charge them for. What used to be covered in the cost of buying a ticket is now an additional charge. Baggage fees and change fees are the biggest offenders. Last year, American Airlines took in half a billion dollars in baggage fees and change fees. Arguably, this mitigated its $2 billion net loss for the year. You could say that this is an example of the mantra “every little bit adds up” coming true.

That is, until you look at Southwest Airlines. Southwest is the only major airline to show a profit. Not coincidentally, Southwest is also one of the few airlines that eschews baggage fees and change fees. By avoiding the emotional costs that those nitpicky charges exact on passengers, they run a more successful business.

I’m sure that the bean counters at American Airlines look at the revenue that comes in from baggage fees and change fees and say, “Every little bit adds up. If we didn’t have these fees, we would have suffered an even larger loss.” But I believe that if American were more like Southwest, they might actually make money from flying passengers rather than charging fees.

Another area where the “every little bit adds up” mentality comes into play is in cost-cutting. A lot of companies believe that if they skimp on certain things, “every little bit” that they save will add up to substantially lower expenses and higher profits. But that mentality is misguided.

At one point, someone at my law firm raised the suggestion that we start using less-expensive paper. The paper that we had been using was an expensive, heavier bond that was brighter, whiter, and more substantial than what most other law firms used. It was also much more expensive. And over the course of a year, we spent thousands of dollars on paper. If we switched to cheaper paper, we would save money. Every little bit would add up.

But I wasn’t willing to compromise on that. To me, the written documents that we filed in court or sent to opposing counsel or delivered to clients represented a major part of the value we provided. Sure, it was the words on the paper that mattered, and not the paper itself.

But there is an emotional quality that attaches to the physical documents and to the paper. The paper sent a message that our firm cared about the details. That we cared about how our documents looked. That we put a lot of effort into making sure that our documents were just right. That’s why our documents used a carefully selected font rather than Times New Roman. That’s why our document design was painstakingly developed, rather than merely relying on the default settings of Microsoft Word. And that’s why the paper we used was expensive Hammersmith rather than the bargain Staples generic copy paper. Because every little bit didn’t add up.

Now don’t get me wrong about expenses. Paying attention to important expenses is good business sense. You can make a much bigger difference by saving money on expensive office space rather than using chintzy, generic copy paper. It is the major expenses that actually add up onto you bottom line.

But enough about expenses; let’s go back to revenue, where most professionals have difficulty.

I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to worry about where the next bit of revenue is going to come from. I know what it’s like to not have enough in your firm account and have the rent or the payroll due. It is very difficult in times like those to turn away any client that comes in with a pulse and a checkbook. But trust me: it’s worth it.

Here’s what you can do to help get through it:

  1. Tell the client that it’s not a good fit. Turn away the work politely. If you can, refer them somewhere else.

  2. Figure out how much attention you would’ve had to pay to doing that not-right work.

  3. Commit to spending that time and attention doing tangible things that will lead to getting the right work and the right clients. Get a speaking gig. Teach a continuing-education class. Get an article published. Write a couple posts for your blog. If you don’t already have a blog — hey, it’s 2012: time to start a frakkin’ blog.

Do these things and you will soon find that you’re doing more work that you want to be doing for more clients who you want to be working with. Because here, every little bit does add up.

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