Stay in business as a technology consultant for five to 10 years, and you'll learn some clients are never satisfied. You'll learn, as a few declare bankruptcy and leave you holding the bill for hardware, software, and services already delivered, that not all clients pay. Still other customers may possess unrealistic expectations, prove slow to pay or experience myriad other troubles and challenges. The trick as a consultant is to learn how to deliver optimum professional service while minimizing your own organization's financial risk and exposure.
Make a call
Sending email is easy, but misreading the sender's tone is just as easy. Don't take a chance when responding to a complaint or issue that your message will be misunderstood or misinterpreted. When difficult challenges arise regarding quality of work, immediacy of response, or the question of whether a newly deployed solution is delivering upon its promises, call the client. Don't rely upon an email message to resolve a problem; email messages often make situations worse. Resist the temptation.
Go to lunch
Whenever a client relationship begins going sideways — and you know the signs, a snippy phone call here, missed payments there, unreasonable or frustrated requests that service be provided in hours as opposed to the business day or so you used to receive — it's time to go to lunch. Clear the air. By meeting in person, especially at a relaxed, informal venue, you can really gauge the status of a relationship.
People are less confrontational, generally, in person. And if difficult conversations regarding past due bills, project status, or expectations must be discussed, those topics are all always best reviewed face-to-face.
Send your ace
It's no secret a veteran engineer can sometimes identify a solution a less experienced technician may overlook. When a client issue or complaint persists — one of the most common avenues by which a customer relationship sours — send your office's ace. It never hurts to have another set of eyes review a problem, collect information, and develop a second independent diagnosis. Every office needs a wolf. Send yours when circumstances require.
Inevitably, one of two things happens. Either the ace identifies an overlooked alternative solution, which appeases the client who really just wanted a problem fixed, or the wolf returns and confirms what your office already knew. Often, that likely means the client needs to make additional investments, refresh old hardware, replace retired software, better train its users, adjust expectations to match budget, implement a more responsive service level agreement (even if it means increasing monthly service expenses), or make some other adjustment. But at least now your office can assure the client it's been thorough in making the diagnosis.
Insist upon a meeting
If phone conversations, informal lunches, and confirming all other options are exhausted fail, it's time to call a meeting. But such a sit-down requires more formality. Prepare for such meetings by researching and collecting statistical information, program application software and hardware requirements, service ticket histories, accurate estimates and any corresponding dispatch, invoice and payment histories. You owe most clients that much.
When you call a sit-down, the purpose isn't to present options. The purpose of a formal meeting is to present the client with the solution and not a choice. As a last resort, technology consultants must demonstrate why the recommended course of action is appropriate. Thus, the burden of proof is on the consultant.
Then, if the client refuses the correct path (legally licensing software, properly implementing HIPAA protections, replacing a seven year-old server that's giving up the ghost, paying open balances, etc.), it may prove time to sever the relationship. You will at least know your office took the correct and appropriate steps in informing the client of its obligations.
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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.