How charge codes can help with resource planning (and keep you profitable)

Managing and planning your resource is a vital part of keeping your agency profitable. Allocating ‘charge codes’ to your activities is a great way of forecasting capacity, assigning rates and assessing profitability. But what exactly is a charge code?

Think of managing your agency’s resource as being similar to managing stock. You need to know how much of each item you have, how much you’ve sold, what’s still available and what brings you the best profit margins. If you don’t know all this, you could easily over or undersell your stock.

But you’re not selling products. You’re selling people’s time. And when you’re estimating a job, you’re unlikely to know exactly which person will be working on the project. So essentially, you’re estimating the time required for each role involved.

This is where assigning categories — or charge codes — comes in.

Charge codes group together the activities you offer so you can assign the right hourly or daily rate for each one.

It’s a balancing act, though. Too many categories and it becomes very complex. Too few and you won’t have the right data to inform decisions.

You team will need to be able to choose the right category to use for estimates and timesheets, so you need to keep it simple and straightforward if you want to get the right data.

First, identify the key activities or roles your agency performs and group them together. For example, design, copywriting, project management, marketing direction.

Then you can decide your charge-out rate for each code. These could be:

  • A flat ‘blended’ rate (either the average rate or highest possible rate for that activity)
  • Different levels based on experience, for example junior, mid-weight, senior, director
  • Based on specialisms – for example a type of developer.

Ultimately, this then becomes your agency’s rate card.

You could also calculate and assign a ‘charge cost’ to each charge code, so when you estimate a job, you can estimate profit at the same time.

When the project’s finished and you know exactly who worked on the job, you can calculate the actual profit based on the true staff costs using their timesheets. See How to accurately calculate an employees' cost rate (aka profitable cost per hour).

You can either use a system like Synergist to automatically calculate estimated and actual profit on your jobs or set up a spreadsheet and do the calculations yourself.

Remember your non-charge codes, too.

Inevitably there will be some non-chargeable costs attached to a project. You could create ‘non-charge codes,’ for these, so you can track activities and identify potential profit leaks. Again, keep it simple and think about what you want to analyse. I recommend as few categories as possible. For example:

  • Business building: marketing, new business etc
  • Professional development: training, courses, mentoring
  • Admin: general admin and meetings
  • Absence: holidays, sickness, maternity/paternity leave and other absence

Soon you’ll have a steady supply of accurate data, which you can use to forecast capacity requirements and make better-informed decisions. Which in turn, can help keep the profits flowing.

Best-practice month-end processes... and why they’re not just for month end

The month end can often feel like a mad rush in an agency, to say the least. Sending invoices and sorting expenses to manage cashflow against targets. But while it might always be a busy time, it doesn’t have to be a stressful one. Here’s how...

Putting a robust month-end management process in place can and will pay dividends. And as your agency grows, it becomes even more important to have a strong process in place to make sure you’re recovering all your costs and invoicing to the max.

My first top tip is to remove the idea of ‘month end’ as being when everything has to be done. You need to be getting accurate data all the time. By filling out timesheets and logging expenses and costs to every job continuously, you can see straight away if you’re over or underservicing, or going over budget on a job.

Ideally, you’ll have someone in operations or finance who’s monitoring performance data every week, so you stay on track — or have a plan to get back on track. This also means that, when month end does come around, you’ll have accurate, up-to-date data to work with.

Read How to avoid the overservicing/underperformance trap

When you do get to month end, there are some key steps I’d recommend:

Check all timesheets, costs and expenses have been logged/posted
  • Missing time reports: is there unaccounted-for time that staff still need to post?
  • Check all costs have been logged against a job
  • Ensure any expense sheets are submitted, approved and posted
Check billing plans / schedules are up to date
  • Review job with billing plans/schedules – update dates if work has been completed early or later than planned and billing is affected
  • Make sure all new jobs have billing dates or schedules in place
Invoice everything possible

(You can usually cut off last month’s invoicing a few days into the new month)

  • All completed jobs
  • Project phases based on billing plans / schedules
Close down completed jobs
  • Mark jobs that have been fully delivered and invoiced as 'complete'. You can then analyse the job profitability. Ideally your job costing and/or timesheet system should block any new purchase orders or timesheets from being posted against it. Any extra time or costs should now be billed as additional work.
  • Check if any time or costs haven’t been allocated to an invoice. For example, if a client asks for amends once a job has been invoiced, you’ll want to invoice them for the additional work. But if you can’t, you’ll need to write off the costs. Ideally, your job costing system should track how much you’ve written off (aka invested) in each client, so you can try to recover the costs in future work, plan for extra work or amends if it’s a trend with this client. You can also identify ‘vampire clients’ — those who offer very little profit but are draining to your agency.
Reconcile your accounts system
  • Enter all invoicing and purchase data to your accounting software. If you’re using Synergist for your project accounting, sales and purchase transactions transfer to most leading accounting packages seamlessly.
Complete your monthly reporting
  • Conduct performance analysis: looking back at profitability and performance to inform how they steer your agency forward, for example:
    • Project estimates vs actuals
    • Staff utilisation
    • Project profitability
    • Client profitability / investment
    • Staff profitability
    • Month-end reports
  • Forecasting:
    • Revenue for next month and establish whether you’re hitting targets
    • Costs
    • Capacity – what’s sold/available
  • Business finances: fundamental finance documents you need to keep building
    • Profit and loss report (P&L): this shows the historical profit you’ve made each month, quarter, year or any other time period
    • Balance sheet: a snapshot of the stability of your agency at a given point in time, usually the month end or year end
    • Cashflow statement: this forecasts your cash and assets going forward
    • If you’re using an agency management system like Synergist, it should automatically create the performance and forecasts for you and give you the data to create business reports super quick.

Read Analysing your agency's performance: top financial KPIs for the new year

Removing the concept of ‘month end’ for everything really will help your agency run more smoothly; giving you clear and accurate data to work with when the end of the month does come around. And having a set process with established steps to follow will transform the month end mad rush for good...