Product businesses sell products, and service businesses sell their time. In fact, all service businesses have to sell is their time. Even with automation, human input is still necessary if you want to deliver value to your customers.
So timesheeting, or time tracking, has always been the lifeblood of the service business. It certainly has been for ours. As the famous saying goes “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” so if you’re not tracking time, you can’t tell if you are making money, or burning through cash. And then sometimes even though you measure you still burn cash – but that’s for another blog post.
Unlike a lot of agencies, we have only ever expected our FTEs to work 40 hours a week (with rare exceptions), and we offer flexibility as long as the 40 hours are worked. Obviously, that is self-limiting as to how many billable hours we could possibly hope to bill in a week / month / year, so apart from creating other income streams (we have built two products), we have had a strong focus on productivity.
For anybody who is trying to;
- manage a web project
- estimate how long it will take
- how much money you need to charge for it, and,
- to anticipate the riskiest areas where stuff usually takes much longer than you thought
the easiest way is to analyse what’s happened in the past. And the only way to effectively do that is for employees to record the time they spend on projects.
I’ve learned a hell of lot about how to run an agency over the years (sometimes the hard way) and I’d rather that other people don’t make the same mistakes as I have, so if I could offer one piece of advice it would be to make sure your team knows why they have to timesheet. Otherwise, it will always be something that management have demanded must happen for ‘reporting’ – whatever that means…
Here are our ‘why’s’, they might help you to develop your own:
Am I succeeding in my role?
Anyone worth their salt wants to know if they’re doing a good job. One of those measures for an SME service business is by recording time spent on productive work. It might be time spent on client jobs or internal projects, but it’s a hard measure of an individual’s contribution to the company. And it’s a great platform for a conversation at an annual review.
Timesheeting also provides transparency and accountability within the team. It uncovers where you have capacity to spare, or where someone is working over capacity and needs a holiday!
Are we delivering on time, on budget and to expectation?
The holy trinity of project management. Add to that quoting, scheduling, workflow management, and capacity planning, and you’ve got a stack of KPIs that require a means of measurement to understand how projects are tracking, and where improvements can be made.
Timesheeting gives the project manager all the information they need to successfully understand and manage projects. And retrospectives become essential to learning, adapting and improving – especially when quoting future projects.
Are we making any money / can we pay the bills?
Mogul is in its 12th year of business this year. We started in 2007, right in the middle of the GFC, so we have seen some tough times, but we have always paid our bills and our staff. And that’s mostly down to knowing our business metrics really well.
Through timesheeting we have always been able to see what we are wasting time on and what we should do more or less of. This has allowed us to pivot our focus quickly and adjust investment in resources accordingly. We have known in advance when we needed to recruit, when we needed to change or refine a process, and when we needed to charge more.
With hundreds of online products on the market now it makes timesheeting easy to do, but it still requires discipline. Everyone I have ever spoken to about timesheeting has had to work at it.
So my second bit of advice is to put some rules in place for the team:
- Make everybody in the agency record their time.
Yes, it sucks, but no exceptions.
- Try to keep it really simple.
Minimise tasks and jobs wherever possible.
- Analyse the reports every week, without fail.
You will be surprised at what you learn about your business.
- Be flexible.
Not all rules work for all jobs. And when people change, so can your focus. Learn to adapt.
- Use the best software for the job.
Don’t use a spreadsheet and for goodness sake don’t use pieces of paper.
Hopefully, this helps you to have a different conversation with your team about the skux life of timesheeting.
There may come a time when timesheeting is a thing of the past, but for the time being, I can’t see how we could have stayed in business for this long without it. We certainly haven’t nailed it yet, but we constantly work to get better.