Outsourcing

Five tips for cutting back on uncompensated consulting work

If your consultancy provides free support to callers, think of how many billable hours you lose each year. Here are tips on how to reduce free consulting in your firm.

People don't call electricians and expect free step-by-step instruction on how to repair a failed ground or intermittent circuit. So why do they call IT consultants expecting such assistance? I wish I knew the answer to that question, because I can feel my blood pressure rising just recalling some of the requests that clients, customers, and other callers have made. Clients have asked my office to provide free telephone support for a wide variety of topics, such as:

  • Can't you just walk me through this 17-step, 45-minute installation for free over the phone?
  • Just tell me the exact steps I need to follow to remove this Trojan infection.
  • Provide me with the 23 steps I need to follow to complete a complex task that requires expertise, experience, and proven knowledge to properly complete -- but don't bill me for it.
  • What do I need to click on or select when I get to that 14th screen, again?
  • I'm going to migrate all my old data myself, but what's a .PST file, where do I find it, how do I reload it, and will it work with my new PC that doesn't have office productivity installed?

Common calls like these increase stress and anxiety, but this madness doesn't need to continue. While all IT consultancies should strive to assist clients, you must guard against providing service without compensation. If employees in my office lose just 15 minutes per day providing free support to callers, my office loses 625 hours a year (10 engineers times 15 minutes a day times 250 annual workdays) that would have otherwise been invested in performing constructive tasks and assisting paying clients. That's unacceptable and it's a disservice to those clients who do pay for the consultancy's services. I encourage your consultancy to incorporate these tips to reduce free consulting.

Note: These tips are based on an entry in our IT Consultant blog.

1: Bill for short phone calls

Most accountants, attorneys, and other professional services firms generate invoices for telephone calls lasting 15 minutes or longer. Incorporate that practice in your office. If clients complain, explain that your office fields dozens of 15- or 20-minute telephone calls each day, providing expertise, answers, and other information that the office must charge for.

2: Charge for telephone support

Set expectations up front with clients. Regardless of whether a client is on retainer, if customers call with problems and the consultancy provides solutions, make sure that the client understands that's a service that the consultancy is reimbursed for. After all, those are sessions in which your engineers are providing expertise, so they're unable to assist other clients.

3: Encourage onsite service

Clients frequently call requesting quick assistance with what they believe is a simple or easy task. But there's no easy way for your office to know  whether the client's inability to run a program, for example, is due to a failed update, application incompatibility, virus infection, or other issue. Encourage clients to let you schedule an onsite visit (for which most customers have little trouble justifying service fees) to diagnose and troubleshoot the problem.

4: Charge for remote assistance

Just because you're not rolling a truck to provide assistance and correct an issue doesn't mean you didn't provide value. If engineers remotely connect to a client machine to diagnose, troubleshoot, or repair an issue, the office should be compensated for that time. Bill it, even if it's only 15 minutes.

5: Smoothly transition from free to paid

Volunteer to try to provide quick assistance via telephone to a client. But if after five or 10 minutes your office realizes the solution is going to take more time, inform the client you're crossing over from a goodwill gesture to a paid service and let the caller know you're going on the clock.

Bonus tip: Say no

Occasionally, callers will request free assistance for a project or service they don't want to be billed for. If the answer requires just a minute or two, that's fine; but if it requires more expertise or time to complete, tell the client no and explain that your office is unable to provide services for free.

Other methods?

How does your consultancy manage customers who seek free support? Post your tips in the discussion.

About

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

6 comments
Scott Hennes
Scott Hennes

I'm just starting out as a solo consultant, and really wanted to "give my clients the benifit of a doubt". The "benefit of a doubt" in this case meant not charging for a lot of the hours I put into various jobs, especially when doing work for the client at home (I have a home office) or on the phone. I did this partly to build clientele and partly out of insecurity about what I have to offer as a consultant. Well, after about three months of ending the month badly in the red, I decided (in desperation) to start charging for some of those at-home hours. I mentioned to a couple steady clients that I'd be making a change and they didn't bat an eye. After that I didn't even say anything to others; just started adding those hours to clients' invoices. I haven't heard a single complaint yet. Perhaps most readers of this blog may find it obvious, but the clients I've worked with so far seem quite willing to compensate me fully for the time I put in! So if you're new to consulting and feeling anxious your clients will abondon you if you bill them for what you services are really worth, try it! You might get a pleasant surprise.

wspivak
wspivak

The great thing about consulting is that you "work" for multiple clients. If after you've tried everything you could to make the relationship work (and for this article, stop giving away your time) and you can't succeed - drop the client. So, you loose some (not all your income, because we did say you had multiple clients) of your income, but you have all this additional billable time to now fill up! Wayne Spivak SBA * Consulting LTD www.SBAConsulitng.com

pgit
pgit

I was at an office one day and I overheard them talking about "firing" so-and-so. The name was the same as one of the employees there, but when I looked around the office she was standing at a front desk with a smile on her face checking in a client. So against better practices I stuck my nose in and asked 'what are you referring to when you say "fired" here?' They meant dumping PITA clients, the ones that complained too much, or (especially) always tried to get free work out of them. They would formally tell the person why they were dumping them and would no longer provide them service. I imagine if word of that gets around a town you'd end up with well motivated clients, so long as your service is desirable enough. (which in this case it surely is) BTW I asked and they said they had repeatedly given these clients clear warnings. The take away here is if you're the best service, and people are beating a path to your door then you have the luxury of discriminating against freeloaders. The remainder will be people you don't mind giving a little bit of free help to on occasion. In other words put turn the "freebie" equation on it's head, put yourself in the driver's seat so that anything you give freely is seen as an earned bonus and even a complement to the client for 'good behavior.' I've been working on this for some time, but I really do need to get around to firing a few clients. My goal is that any free work is pleasant, mutually beneficial, my call as to when and where and that the client appreciates fully for what it is. And that is not that they 'pulled one over on me' or 'got something for nothing' out of me... their perception is the dividing line between "fired" and "keeper." I'm just getting started along this line, after that office showed me the benefit of actually standing up to clients that are irritating you. The letters they sent "firing" the clients were pretty blunt. They got a lot of hate mail but they view this as proof they'd made the right decision. All made sense to me...

adarragh
adarragh

An Uncle of mine, a well known doctor, once told me this story. He was at a dinner party and was sitting beside a financial consultant. They were discussing the issue of always being asked for free advice when at this type of social gathering. The financial consultant said he had found a good solution, he would just send an invoice to the person who asked for the free advice, sometimes he got paid. My uncle thought no more about the conversation until the invoice arrived.

MartyL
MartyL like.author.displayName 1 Like

. . .and even though the invoice is filled out . . . we just have this quick question." Some of these tips could be adapted to the tail-end of a site visit. I get a lot of questions on my way out the door and some are easier than others to get paid for. What usually works is something like, "As long as I'm still here, I could call the office and tell them I'll be delayed getting to my next job, and they'll be able to tell me how to advise you regarding the cost. As long as I'm still here." If the answer is something like, "Press ctrl+F7 and hit Enter twice, then reboot," I give them that - on my way out the door.

polarverse
polarverse like.author.displayName 1 Like

I used to fall into the "while you're still here..." trap after I did the invoice so I started doing my billing at the end of the day when back at my office and not at the client site. I use a ticket system to record details and time which makes it easy to add on any while you're at the site which gives you all the info you need for the invoice later including those while you're here stuff.