Project Management

Deliverables: Reality and perception in client invoices

Trust, honesty, and openness with your client are especially important when invoicing for a project that require days or weeks of attention before reaching a milestone.

For most of my clients, my invoice contains a section that details what I worked on during each day and how many hours I spent on it. I've had a couple of clients who specifically asked me not to include that level of detail on their invoice, and state only the total number of hours worked. I can only guess that they needed to keep my activities secret for some reason. The rest of my clients appreciate the ability to allocate costs to each of the projects I work on, as well as to see exactly what they're getting for their money.

When preparing my invoice, I imagine my client reading it -- and I hope that what they're thinking is something like:

- We're getting a good value for our money here.

- Look at all the things he's accomplished.

- I'll need to give him more work.

Rather than:

- Is he ever going to finish that project?

- We've spent too much already -- maybe we should suspend some features.

- I'm being taken for a ride.

Within the limits of my freedom to choose what I work on, this awareness of being watched by my client sometimes leads me to choose the work that includes the highest frequency of deliverables that I can easily enumerate on my invoice. That's not all bad. In general, shorter cycles are better -- both for getting things done and for creating opportunity for frequent feedback. But a lot of projects need to receive days or even weeks of dedicated attention before reaching a milestone. Those projects can become discouraging enough every time I hit a snag, without worrying about what my client will think when they see an invoice that reads:

5/07/2012 8 hrs Begin work on phase 3
5/08/2012 8 hrs Continue working on phase 3
5/09/2012 8 hrs Continue working on phase 3
5/10/2012 8 hrs Still working on phase 3
5/11/2012 8 hrs Yes, really

To overcome this fear and (more importantly) get these sorts of projects done, we need first and foremost to develop a relationship of trust with our client. Don't ever fudge numbers or churn. Use the time you bill diligently, and unless your client is a paranoid sociopath they will come to realize that how long you took is how long it takes.

When possible, break down these projects into smaller chunks. That not only gives you more to talk about on your invoice -- it may also help you decompose the problem better. Don't be afraid to detail your work on the inevitable blind alleys. If you're always honest with your client, they'll realize that wild goose chases are often a natural part of exploring a problem domain. But you can also phrase it that way, as research -- you don't need to make yourself look completely clueless.

No matter what level of detail you include in your invoice, none of it should come as a surprise to your client. You should be communicating with them on a daily basis so that the invoice is only a summary of what they already know has happened. The more open communication we have with our clients, the less we'll need to worry about how something sounds.

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

12 comments
reisen55
reisen55

At my father's consulting company, we maintained long project reports on ALL projects being worked on by our engineers and monthly submitted it to the client. Same thing in miniature with an invoice, it should SPELL OUT in reasonable, brief terms EXACTLY what the time is for in a one-sentence desc, two lines if you need a header. If a project takes toooooo long, do not invoice for time IF you have your Turkey Dinner already paid for. At a point, the client will see never ending projects as a money grab, i.e. SAIC and CITYTIME. I also try to put a cookie on the table too. One client needed a hinge on his laptop fixed, took 15 min to do. OK, that is a no-charge item. Free. It cost me nothing to do and if it is not skin off of my back, and can be balanced by an already good invoice, WHY NOT??? Even if just symbolic, clients like to this they got a cookie. A little one, not a big one. Whenever I make a site visit to a client, I leave behind a status statement too, paper on their desk indicative of where things are and what I have done. THEY LOVE THIS.

601076
601076

Hi This post is timed nicely for me as I am getting into this right now. Can you recommend any tools that work with google apps that help create time sheets from email / calendar / contacts? I can see some are available and am really looking for recommendations here. Thanks

Mark Reynolds
Mark Reynolds

The format I use on invoices is: 1st Page: Breakdown of Charges: Hours Charged Callout Charges Materials Charges Total Charges (ex-tax, tax, inc-tax) Discount provided 1st half of 2nd Page: More detailed chart of charges: Hours Worked, Hours Charged, Deduction (if applicable) Callouts Made, Callouts Charged, Deduction (if applicable) Materials Charges Total Deductions (if applicable) Total Charges: Without deductions With deductions Ex-tax, Tax, Inc-tax 2nd half of 2nd Page: Outline of Materials Charged Outline of Deductions Applied Reason for Activity Service Sessions 3rd Page onwards: Outline of services performed (even if a little technical, helpful for future reference) Outstanding Issues Recommendations for future consideration I try to be as transparent as possible. I sometimes worry if I overdo it. Some customers seem to respond well to it. Sometimes it backfires with some customers who go through the outline of services performed with a fine tooth comb and find something to pick on. It seems that it's difficult to please everyone. I figure that some customers don't pay much attention to the outline of services performed, but at least it's there for them, and they can see that I've done a lot even if they don't understand it. Overall, I figure as much transparency as possible is best. Mark Reynolds www.markreynolds.com.au

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

The only thing I would add is to keep in mind that not all managers want their Accounts Payable departments knowing what is being done. And if you are working for a 3rd party the end client may never see your invoice. The way around that issue is to plan your communications. For example, you might put the list of delivered on a seperate sheet of paper from the invoice itself. Of course, that may mean that the right people (your customer's boss) never gets to see your deliverables list. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.vproz.ca

bp1argosy
bp1argosy

Chip, once again you've hit a home run column ... deliverables are one of a consultant's best friends. When you pair that with great communication skills, then you have a great consultant in your midst. And, thank God no invoices were harmed; the people at PETI would be so upset if that were the case!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... the invoice sample above is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual invoices is purely coincidental. No invoices were harmed in the making of this post.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, these build goodwill. It does take some discipline to make sure that they don't become so habitual that they're taken for granted, though. They should always have an element of surprise, or they've lost their punch.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I just keep a spreadsheet for each client, and make entries manually. I keep threatening to write something for myself, but I never get around to it. Cobbler's children, etc.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It's better to deal with the odd nitpicker (or get rid of them) rather than to create mistrust among all your clients by keeping them in the dark.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Page 1 has a summary of hours and dollars, plus a statement of account from the last invoice to the present. Page 2 details work performed. My invoice contact (usually a project manager or C-level) can then file the latter and forward the former to AP with their approval.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

PETI -- that got me laughing, and thinking. A lot of invoices need a good ethical treatment.

bp1argosy
bp1argosy

And, hey ... if you're in IT without being willing and able to laugh, then you're doing it wrong!

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