What the cabbie and Southwest Airlines taught me about agency efficiency

Today’s post skews a bit toward agency management but team productivity is good for all types of managers to think about.

The other day I was taking a cab from the north side of Chicago to downtown. Usually, there are several different ways you can go to get to your destination. And every time, the cabbie asks, “Which way would you like me to go?” For the passenger, it’s like a game of chance. Why should I have to decide this? Shouldn’t he know which way is fastest? Yet, even when I say, “whichever way you think is quickest,” I invariably can’t help but feel I’ve been taken for a ride in a bad way.

But this time, the cabbie did something that surprised me. He took me down a route that nobody else had where he didn’t even have to ask me which way I wanted to go – he just took me. And the way he took was absolutely the fastest and cheapest fare I had ever paid. Amazed, I said, “Why thank you. I’ve never gone this way and to be honest, it’s the lowest amount of money I’ve ever had to pay.”

He replied, “I know. What most cabs don’t get is that the faster I get you there, the faster I get to the next fare. They try to draw out fares by going the long way and taking more time but it never works out in their favor like my way.

Sometimes agencies act like those other cabs my newfound friend was referring to – they draw out each assignment over more time rather than less for the purpose of giving themselves a nice steady feed of work. Hey, we all want steady work in times like these. But if we try to draw out each project as much as possible, we’re only hurting ourselves. If we do a great job and get paid sooner, we’ll come out ahead by either that client giving us additional work or hopefully that client referring us to another potential client.

Note that I’m not advocating speed. I’m advocating efficiency. Agencies routinely confuse the two. If we know a project should be done in a certain amount of time, we shouldn’t milk it for all it’s worth for so much extra time than we need to. It becomes almost an issue of ethics and honesty at that point. So let’s look at this from the positive angle – if we say it will be done in 3 months but actually get it done in 2, we’re opening ourselves to begin new projects with that same client vs. sitting around and collecting money on work that’s already been done.

Southwest Airlines does an excellent job of managing time and expectations. Over the last several years, I have made dozens of trips on Southwest to different parts of the country. Almost every time, a person comes on and says, “I’m sorry Ladies and Gentlemen, but we’ll be taking off a few minutes later than we’d like.” Lo and behold, by the end of the trip, they not only make up the time but actually get there several minutes early. Every. Single. Time. As if they planned to do that all along. Which they probably did.

What will you do with the extra time? Be proactive (a common complaint people tend to have about agencies) and do some brainstorming on additional ways you can help the client’s business without them asking you to. Then you can potentially upsell your client on that work or at the very least, demonstrate how you think outside of what’s requested. Don’t tell me you won’t do this until you get paid for it. That relegates you to “order taker” status and makes you less of a proactive thinker.

Or let’s turn the focus inward. Fill the time with additional new business efforts. Use it to work on your own agency’s self-promotion, which is never, EVER considered slacking off.

Remember, it’s not about speed. If you’re feeling like your team has no margin for error as you’re churning and burning, that’s not efficiency. That’s about speed and turning your agency into a factory. I don’t think there’s much value in being the speed demon of agencies. But there is tremendous value in being the agency of doing things smarter to achieve financial goals faster – even if it’s a matter of hours. I’m talking about understanding what you absolutely need to deliver the kind of product you and the client can be happy with in the most sensible amount of time.

For example, I once told a client that we’d have the ads done to her by “end of day.” But her end of day was different from my end of day. Her end of day was around 3:00pm because she had family obligations at home. To make her happy and meet our goals, we needed to adjust by about four hours to buffer in time for her to review the work and make any possible revisions. She didn’t need to sit with it forever. By getting that work done and wrapped well before 3:00pm, it allowed our managers to think about new business tactics, our designers to check out inspirational websites, even for us to take a break for darts. So you never know the positives that can impact not only your client relations but internal relations.

Point being that if you act like that cabbie who surprised me and choose the route of efficiency over milking each project, you may get your client faster to where they want to go and get yourself onto the next project that much faster. If you’re worried about how you’re going to fill the space with work, that’s a new business issue you needed to address a long time ago anyway. In that event, maybe you ought to give someone like Steve Congdon at Thunderclap a call. If it’s an operational flow issue, that would be Rob Jager at HedgeHog Consulting.

What other excuses do you have for not getting to your best ideas more efficiently?

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