Outsourcing

Should IT consultants provide warranties?

Do you give clients warranties on your IT consulting work? Find out why Chip Camden says he doesn't and then share your answer.

 

I received the following email from TechRepublic member Carl Miller:

I recently had an instance where a client was asking about warranty on regular computer work that I had done for them. I'm curious to know what the TechRepublic community opinions on this topic may be.

Do you provide any warranty for your IT consulting work? I don't. In fact, the only reference my contract makes to the quality of my work is to deny any liability "for any damages arising from the use of the software developed under the terms of this Agreement." That doesn't seem as though it would inspire confidence, now does it?

I'm a big believer in Tom Peters' formula for success: "under promise and over deliver." I haven't always been good at following that principle, which is why I'm such a big believer in it. I've learned that lesson the hard way, by having to live up to the unrealistic expectations I created. The last thing I want to do is to codify in a legal document a promise that I might not be able to keep.

Another argument against warranties has to do with the type of service we perform. Consultants don't typically create discrete products from scratch. We usually improve on existing products or practices, so what the client is paying for is our expertise and insight rather than something you can put your hands around. How can you point at any failure and say with certainty that it's exclusively the fault of the consultant, unless it's a blatant error?

Even in consulting work products that can be assigned a responsibility, how do you define a failure? Let's say I developed a utility class for a client; nobody else touched that code, so it's my responsibility. Within five years, the system constraints have changed (usually relaxed), which means that the client now uses what I created in slightly different ways (usually without realizing it). Maybe now the client's application is multi-threaded, so a failure to be thread-safe is seen as a bug. But five years ago, the constraints on the system didn't allow for creating a thread-safe solution. It looks like a bug now, and it is a bug for the client's system now, but it isn't my fault even though it's happening in my code.

Okay, it probably sounds like I want to give all consultants a big free pass. We screw up, and clients should pay anyway because they're paying for our time -- that's not how a good consultant conducts business. The most important principle for successful consultants is absolutely keeping your customers happy. So when something is really your fault, you have to own up to it and make it right. Even if it isn't your fault, make it right anyway (within limits), and let the customer know how much time you're giving them gratis. The goodwill you create can go a long way.

This doesn't mean that you should promise you will do that in writing. Actions speak much more loudly than words, and the words only serve to give the lawyers a leg to chew on. I recommend under promising and over delivering.

How would you answer Carl's question? Do you provide any warranties to your clients? If so, has that ever come back to bite you? If not, have you ever been questioned about that policy?

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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...

76 comments
Tim Faith
Tim Faith

It's a problem. If you read the license agreement for most software makers, they disclaim all warranties of any kind that their lawyers could think of. If Microsoft won't warrant their operating system, how can a consultant provide a warranty that changes the consultant made to the client's computer running a Microsoft product will perform a certain way? Of course, as an attorney, my clients can sue me for malpractice and I carry malpractice insurance in the event I do screw up. This is true whether my practice management software had a bug that lost their files or not, and regardless of whether the software maker disclaimed all warranties to me. As an IT consultant, I am not required to be licensed, nor do I carry malpractice insurance in the event I screw up a user's computer system. But those days may be ending. And as a result, the costs of computer consulting services may increase to cover the cost of the insurance.

pwhite
pwhite

Most of our clients require liability insurance and, we have never had a claim. Some times it is very difficult to make a determination on just what may be considered wrong. And wrong is usually determined after a consultant has left the project depending on what the consultant is bringing to the table. Corp America places the blame on the person who is no longer on the project; employees or consultants and sometimes it is a way to "CYA". But, as mentioned above, good communication w/all involved along w/a good work ethic goes a long way for success! Treat the client the way you want to be treated, As to liability insurance, it is worth the coverage and not expensive.

tomas
tomas

No warranties. I work in an area where "Fix mah computer" and "But y'all were the last ones to work on it" are often used statements that reflect their "appliance" mentality about computers. Sometimes if you replace a defective power power supply and two weeks later their PC becomes spyware infected, they'll expect you to warranty your original work and work for free to disinfect their PC. I've seen some competitors who advertise that they "warranty" their work in this "appliance" environment, end up driving 100 miles round trip for subsequent free "warranty" visits, and end up going out of business. Sorry, but a warranty for IT consulting isn't in my plan of future offerings..

granvillea
granvillea

The simple and only correct answer is YES. Because under the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) if you do not explicitly provide a "Limited Warranty"or specifically and clearly state that you are selling your services "as is" you are giving a basically unlimited warranty for whatever the statutory period in your state. This is why every software program comes with a warranty, this is why almost everything comes with a "Limited Warranty", so you can limit your liability and/or specifically exclude a warranty. So one time have a "Limited Warranty" clause written up that basically says you warrant that you made your best efforts based on the time constraints of the engagement and that you offer no other warranty or else you just did warrant your work without intending to.

jwlaiko
jwlaiko

As a system developer, any client who asks for a warranty is probably running scared because the project is late for whatever reason and this is another CYA for poor project management. As a business analyst, even if I got a firm user specification in writing and signoff on a fesibility study or system development/enhancement recommendation, there is nothing to prevent a change in business strategy from ruining (reduced funding and/or access to key resources) testing and implementation activities. Any business who hires an IT consultant without checking credentials and references is open to sloppy IT execution. There are hack doctors and engineers out there that don't supply warranties for their work. My simple answer to providing a warranty for service is thanks, but no thanks to the contract because the client cannot be trusted to hold up their end of the deal. Interesting, isn't it, how often this happens? john.wlaiko@primus.ca

tony
tony

Your have to for mission critical and safety systems.

ps2goat
ps2goat

My warranty is that I can get something to work. Once it works, responsibility is out of my hands unless the client purchases a maintenance contract. Even then, the warranty is only for the number of hours they purchase. I work mostly on software, though. My warranty on fixing hardware is less generous. I can't guarantee that I can fix your computer-- half the time I won't even try because there's no way I can charge the customer that much (slow computers = costlier fix). I tell people to go to another shop if they really want to keep that pc or copy their own data and buy a new machine; the speed difference and computing power are enough to justify the purchase.

blarman
blarman

Why not use a sign off process instead. If you are doing something for someone else, pre-arrange a specific length of time they have to report bugs or establish a formal review process that has them go through the work with you to identify that things work the way they should. The review verifies that you have done what was asked and satisfies that they got what they paid for. The problem with computers is that things change all the time. Computers are a user-configurable tool and (unfortunately) and change can break something. You can only guarantee that the product worked within a given set of parameters or operating conditions. If something comes up out of the ordinary, it really isn't fair for the consultant to spend a lot of time debugging/fixing an issue at their cost if it falls outside normal operating parameters.

aharper
aharper

The problem with warranties is that a client may not understand what you are underwriting. We spell it out on the invoice. As an example, we guarantee that the client's machine was free of malware when we leave, but we don't guarantee it will stay that way if a client persists in high risk behavior. On the other extreme, if we install a wallplate to wallplate network in a building and certify it (levels 1&2), we will warantee the cabling for 25 years. Plates and equipment has it's own warrantee from the manufacturer, while we guarantee the cable and workmanship. Naturally there are tamper stickers over the screws and if they pull the plate, the warrantee is void. We have ***never*** had a claim in 14 years of operation. As a marketing angle, I don't think it's effective. We have received more business due to our lower prices and fast service than because of our warantee. The customer is usually quite surprised when we hand them the certification and warrantee certificate in a 3-ring binder, but maybe it gives us goodwill in the marketplace and word of mouth advertising. The truth is that we'll never know for certain.

pvm
pvm

In the changed world of "Business Value Based Billing", I guess we all will be transitioned to the point of IT consultants providing warranties. Otherwise, there are many IT consultants do not deliver what they promise but still charge the client, which isn't fair

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

For example: Write a program for somebody from zip - yes Just Install or set up something -no Modify an existing program - no

gwd3
gwd3

This is an old question that's been around for at least a decade. Many clients would agree that a warranty against failure due to poorly written code is needed. However, at what point is it considered a failure of the coding vs failure of infrastructure or an unforeseen failure brought on after the handoff of the product to the client, possibly due to introduction of another piece of code, such as an OS patch or additional (incompatible) software installed. I say it's hard to warranty against that and that if the proper rigors of testing allow certification of the original software, and the client "buys off" on the software, then a warranty would be senseless.

robert.johnson2
robert.johnson2

I don't believe that a consultant should provide a warranty on their work. I do believe that that there should be mutual agreement between the consultant and the client on a statement of work / project plan with milestones and that the consultant's work should meet or exceed (underpromise but over deliver) those requirements or milestones.

jck
jck

That what I provide works in the fashion that I and the client agreed upon before I began working toward that goal. They want extra, they pay extra. They say I didn't do something, I pull out the specification and say "You did not request it, and I did not agree to it." Past that if they wish to pursue it, they can contact their attorney.

Justin James
Justin James

The is the problem with any kind of software warranty is that you can't guarantee what can't be measured. It's bad enough that you spend 2/3rds of a project going back and forth on the spec itself, let alone what a jury or a judge will interpret the spec to have meant and whether or not the implementation met the requirements. J.Ja

Shatter Points
Shatter Points

I would not provide a warranty for consulting, after all when doing so you are not the only person a company or individual will consult with. Also if and when you create an enterprise environment of whatever the scope you create it based on the needs and to the best of your precognitive abilities try to create a scalable solution. I don't think it's possible to warranty such work because of variables beyond your initial duty/ control. I do agree with the OP that if you do mess up, own up to it. There is no better way to burn bridges than to screw up and do nothing about it. Goodwill can and does go a long way in any service industry.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

How do you provide a warranty on advice? I guarantee my advice will be the best I can give within the limits of the information available to me? And that I will always act in the client's best interests accoording to my lights. On the other hand, I will sometimes give a satisfaction guarantee - cancel in the first 30 days and owe nothing. Usually associated with something I've given for free. So is it a guarantee or a freemium or both? Only your consultant knows for sure! It's hard to return an intangible for a refund. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.trainingnow.ca http://www.learningcreators.com/blog

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It will be a sad state of affairs if we ever catch up to the medical profession on that score.

ryan
ryan

Yep, I get that too and it drives me frigging crazy. Ever since you were here......

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I refer all of my local hardware calls to an associate who likes that kind of work. What I charge per hour would pay for a brand-spanking-new computer before I could even get through an OS install these days.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

In theory it's a good idea. You just have to be careful about defining the sign-off process, to make sure it wraps up pretty quickly. And then, some customer is bounds to discover a true boner after the sign-off -- in which case I'd tend to give them a freebie for good will.

shane.freman
shane.freman

I recently went through this on a project and while it never went this far I did have our attorney peform the necessary research to know where we stood in the event everythign went south. In this case we developed an online web app for our customer. Since there was no warranty provided in the contract and also no language specifically stating a lack of warranty our attorney surmised that the project would be covered under our state's uniform commercial code which provided our customer an implied 7 year warranty. Knowing that we did everything in our power not to provoke that type of judgement. The books and research I have read say to provide a warranty but make it an appropriate amount of time from the sign-off. For projects of $10,000 or less we provide a six month limited warranty with language drafted by the attorney.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... and even in the client relationship, these definitions (or lack thereof) make warranties an unnecessary evil.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

I know, I know this is your job but I thought I'd point out that guarantees and warranties are a numbers game. Any marketer/copywriter will tell you that warrantees exist to remove an objection and increase trust. Any marketer will tell you that your price needs to include an amount to cover returns. And that if the number of returns isn't high enough then you aren't marketing aggressively enough (meaning you're leaving money on the table). If you are marketing agressively enough you will get a certain number of customers who: a) are out to cheat you b) buy against their best judgement c) buy without thought d) suffer buyers remourse So from the marketers point of view, consultants should give a guarantee ... and should expect a percentage of returns. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.trainingnow.ca http://www.learningcreators.com/blog

ryan
ryan

Thirty feet or thirty seconds whichever comes first. I love it when the client tries to blame you for something after you leave that had absolutely nothing to do with the work performed. I call it, "ever since you were here...". Yeah I get that from clients all the time and it's quite irritating.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... was to install your new upgrade." Then after digging a bit, you find that they rewrote an entire section of some other piece of code, and that's what caused the difference. Users and developers often assume that if you change something and it doesn't blow up immediately, it must be good. So whatever changed last is the culprit. But it ain't necessarily so.

jck
jck

involved federal, state, and energy-regulatory safety factors. I made sure that thing worked right so no power workers would get popped due to my software. It took me a few months longer than the department manager there would have liked, but I wasn't gonna have someone losing their life on my conscience over a few thousand bucks they had to pay me extra.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

you don't expect any support for any software packages you buy?

Baron von Headloq
Baron von Headloq

SEVEN years? My goodness ... a lot can happen in that time. Software, config, hardware, phases of the moon. You done well to have limited warranty conditions!

jck
jck

If it gets too involved, I always draw up something stating exactly what I will do or what the solution is to provide them. Then if there's any question, I have a contract with their signature agreeing to terms. Law says if I meet my terms that I said I would provide, I have held my end of the contract.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I'd rather leave some money on the table than have any customers who even claim to be unsatisfied. But I might feel differently if I really needed more business.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I don't know about the work you do, but when that happens to me it's usually a case of the existing system being so brittle that doing anything to it breaks it.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

that would answer those questions. If it aint on the page, it aint in the program.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I expect a reasonable amount of help, but the exact extent of my expectations is hard to define. At what point does 'it's a bug' transition to 'it isn't what I expected, even though it's what I asked for'?

jck
jck

I'm considering leaving IT to go be an attorney...the uncle is retiring in a few years, and wants me to take over his practice. I've dealt with enough vague references on TR to be able to see how people twist syntax. But with a contract, you just have to know how to write it. The biggest things to know: 1) May, Could, Will, Shall, Can, and Must are ALL LEGALLY VERY DIFFERENT 2) Provide, Implement, Install, Configure, Procure, etc are too 3) If your client is picky about things, when doing a contract be 100 times pickier...even if it means re-reading/re-wording things 100 times. Of course if your contract is well-worded, it doesn't matter what the lawyer says or thinks. It's what the judge/arbitrator determines the content and intent is. :)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Lawyers can easily reinterpret vague terms to apply to things you never dreamed of.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

One of the lessons that it took me way to long to learn was that you will never make money, even in the long term, from these kinds of clients. And you certainly will never have fun or be happy in your work for them. There's a reason that they always complain about bad service from previous vendors; it's because the quality consultants know that they aren't worth the time and effort.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... to see what kind of relationship you'd agree to. Good for you that you stood your ground.

LLL3
LLL3

I like the business card idea. Kind of like match making... At a marketing seminar once the speaker said something I've always remembered: "People who shop by price alone cannot SPELL the word loyalty." Ironically, the longer I've been in business I've noticed it's often the very small clients who are quick to pay and less micro-managing. I did have one client who tried to change my agreement to say that if they decided they did not want my software anymore in a year, I'd refund them 100%, in 2 years 50%, in 3 years 25%", etc. After I said "NO, maybe you can get Microsoft to do that for you instead..." they became clients anyhow and are great clients. But that definitely put me "on guard" with them.

aharper
aharper

Consider... She badmouthed the previous tech, bragged about screwing him, she's too frugal to purchase machines that come close to matching, and she tried to make you be more competitive by implying they were shopping around. Why would you put yourself through that? I have a stack of business cards from my competitor expressly for folks like that. Let him loose money and waste time. You go after what he can't because he's tied up with the prima donna client. No, seriously. It works a treat.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... you can sometimes take them on, if you can manage them. It's very important to stay on top of expectations and make your policies rock solid, though.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

They will screw you in every way possible. The free work will be the killer thing...hours you could have billed to another customer were given away for free.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've had them before myself, and I too am hoping that the economy turns around before I ever have to go back to them for more business.

LLL3
LLL3

It would be a red flag to me if a client asked for a warranty. I stand behind my work and if something's wrong I do all I can to fix it, no charge (unless they changed their system/request mid stream). But the TYPE of client who even thinks to ask for a warranty on consulting work is likely to be high maintenance in many ways. And when you're a consultant who is NOT charging the kind of rates that would cover "returns," having clients who are nervous and nit picky can really drain your time and resources. I'd rather be happily serving those clients who trust me and end every conversation with "Don't forget to invoice me." With that said -- I do include language that guarantees my product to work on the "standard" system they provide for programming, but then I do all I can to troubleshoot in all situations that arise, at no cost because I want the client to be happy. So far I've always been successful but to guarantee that in writing -- one really bad situation could kill my business. I just remembered one client with a hodge podge of horribly configured computers who, as I was struggling with one of her demon machines, bragged to me that the last consultant had to refund them because he couldn't get his product to work on ALL their computers. I replied "That's why my contract only guarantees it to run on one standard setup." She said "OH. That was smart." I got everything to work and never charged her for time spent fighting her horrid system but when she went to upgrade she made it clear to me that I was competing against others. If that was a tactic to get me to lower my rate it had the opposite effect. I definitely did not fight for that business. Now if this economy doesn't improve, I may be calling her back with an improved attitude...