People don't call electricians and expect free step-by-step instruction regarding 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 clients, customers, and other callers have made.
Clients have asked my office to provide free telephone support for a wide variety of topics, which include:
- 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, complicated 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?
These common calls 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 (10 engineers times 15 minutes a day times 250 annual workdays) a year that would have otherwise been invested performing constructive tasks and assisting paying clients. That's unacceptable and a disservice to those clients who do pay for the consultancy' services.
I encourage your consultancy to incorporate these tips to reduce free consulting:
- 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 in which you provide expertise, answers, and other information for which the office must charge.
- 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, ensure the client understands that's a service for which the consultancy is reimbursed. After all, those are sessions in which your engineers are providing expertise and are subsequently unable to assist other clients.
- Encourage on-site service. Clients frequently call requesting quick assistance with what they believe is a simple or easy task. There's no easy way for your office to know, however, 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 on-site visit (for which most customers have little trouble justifying service fees) to diagnose and troubleshoot the problem.
- 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, that's time for which the office should be compensated. Bill it, even if it's only 15 minutes.
- Smoothly transition from free to paid. Volunteer to try and provide quick, say five or 10 minutes, of 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.
- Say no. Occasionally callers will request free assistance for a project, or service for which they don't wish to be billed. If the answer requires just a minute or two, that's fine; but if the process or project requires more expertise or time to complete, simply 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 consulting? Post your tips in the discussion.
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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.