Anyone in a professional field feels that their station is deserving of a vacation or two each year. Even new hires at most companies are allocated a week off. However, this conviction begins to wane when working with non-salaried positions. Thanks to the fee-for-service arrangement, consultants, Doctors, and Dentists are expected to always be available when needed .
Of course all Doctors, Dentists, and consultants take vacations like everyone else to maintain a decent work-life balance. This is in direct conflict with a solid consulting practice of being as available as possible for clients. The trick is to plan ahead and handle the situation professionally and unapologetically.
I learned this lesson the hard way when launching my consultancy. Enamored with this idea that I was beholden to nobody thanks to my new entrepreneurial freedom, I decided to take a week off on a whim. I only had one serious client at the time, so I decided that taking advantage of my light load with a vacation was a great idea. It wasn’t until my one client asked on Friday to meet the following Monday when my vacation started. I explained that not only was I unavailable on Monday, but the entire week.
My news took the client by surprise. We had been working together almost every day for over a month. Why did I not think to tell him? Did it matter to me at all that it would push his development schedule back by a week? This was certainly out of line from what he had grown to expect from me. After seeing things from his side, I completely understood where he was coming from. I apologized for not notifying him earlier, and agreed to work remotely so his schedule would slip less (but it still slipped a little due to my absence). We came to a decent outcome, but only because we were both flexible and had a good history.
I learned that day that my notion of ‘beholden no nobody’ was way off the mark. A consultant is beholden to each of his or her clients; just to a much lesser degree than an employee is beholden to a single boss. Think of it as ‘beholden diversification.’
Here are some things that I always consider when planning and taking my vacations:
- It doesn’t count as vacation if work is done. I’m amazed at the way some of my colleagues spend time traveling only to work for most of their trip.
- Advanced planning is the best way to keep people happy. In many cases, vacation time can be written into contracts.
- Give any client that may like to know as much notice as possible, and remind them both a month and a week ahead of departure.
- Plan around known critical times like product launches, prototype testing, etc…
- Set an auto-responding email message so dormant or potential clients don’t think they are being ignored.
- As long as the above professional courtesies are offered, don’t apologize for taking time off .
No matter how much planning and notice is given, it is normal for the vacation to create a conflict for at least one client. The negotiation that is sure to ensue can be a challenge because the client likely has a genuine need for help. This is where being both professional and unapologetic is helpful because it sets the right expectations. I’ve been ‘brought out’ of vacations by clients in the past (either by skipping the vacation or by working remotely), but only in some cases with strategic clients.
Taking vacation can be a real logistical challenge, but I can’t remember a vacation that wasn’t worth it. There have been more than a few times where the unstructured time resulted in ground-breaking client developments that didn’t cost them a dime!
James Benson is writing a series on 'Engineers As Consultants' to educate and encourage salaried engineers to consider if hanging a shingle is right for them. New posts on the first Monday of every month.