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.
How does your consultancy manage customers who seek free support? Post your tips in the discussion.
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 of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.