A client of mine, who works for a law firm, asked me to address the etiquette of working with service providers who charge by the hour and the etiquette service providers need to be aware of when working with clients. He wrote, “How do you politely mention to someone who is billing you by the hour to stay on track? Or, the inverse, how do you have a friendly discussion with a client whom you are billing by the hour without making them feel like they are paying for you to have a few minutes of friendly discussion?”
When we are paying someone by the hour we can be very sensitive to the ticking clock. I have sometimes found myself wondering if the pleasant chat I’m having with our occasional gardener will be included in the time he works on our yard. Or if I’ll be charged when my bookkeeper corrects a mistake he made. I also am very conscious of time when I’m working one-on-one with a coaching client and we get off topic.
Let’s start with the etiquette of working with someone who bills you by the hour. If this person continually gets off track and you wonder if you’re being billed for it then you have every right to say something. For example, “I’d love to learn more about your trip to France, but while you’re on the clock do you mind if we stick to the business at hand?”
When you establish a relationship with a service provider it’s a good time to bring the subject up. Just as you’ve asked questions about this person’s services, fees, clients, etc., ask how she or he handles charging for non-related chit chat. That way you’re clear up front. You can also lay out your expectations and say, “Do you mind if we focus on business (bookkeeping, legal advice, gardening, etc.) when you’re on the clock and save our socializing for later?”
For those of you who are service providers it’s important you’re mindful of your time when charging your clients. I’d suggest you avoid having off track conversations while you’re being paid and possibly even state to your clients that you don’t charge during socializing time. That said, if you have a client who continually goes off track, you may need to charge him for the time he spends chatting about unrelated topics. I would suggest you first try gentle reminders by saying something like, “I want to be sure we have time to finish the xyz project while I’m on the clock, do you mind if we get back to it?” If after several times of having to say this, your client continues to go off track it’s fair to bill for the time.
I’m all for socializing and chit chat, but it’s important we service providers are mindful of when we are charging for our time. Clients also need to be aware of how they are using the service providers time, thus spending their money.