Outsourcing

Stop providing free IT consulting work

If your consultancy provides free support to callers, think of how many billable hours you lose each year. Here are tips on how to reduce free consulting in your firm.

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.

Other methods

How does your consultancy manage customers who seek free consulting? Post your tips in the discussion.

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About

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 o...

53 comments
Logic Worshiper
Logic Worshiper

I can't stand IT consultants who act like this. This attitude makes proactive maintenance, and following good security practices impossible. I used to work on an IT department, and now I do some IT consulting work while I'm school. The "every minuet of my time must be billed" attitude is a big part of the problem. It leads to shoddy work, and poor technical decisions (like uneducated users logging in as admin). Nobody is going to pay a consultant for regular maintenance, and routine tasks, and if you don't take responsibility for that, you end up doing more work in the long run, and you risk your clients data being compromised. Have your clients retainer cover regular maintenance, and do it right. You're doing it wrong if you're deal with stupid user syndrome in a business environment. Stupid users shouldn't have access privileges to break stuff. I'd rather users call me before a problem gets worse, then wait till it's become a disaster. And for Christ's sake don't set the root password to abc because you get paid more if it gets hacked.

RockerGeek!
RockerGeek!

This makes me happy that I'm the tech...not in charge of fees and such!! Also, our policy states that if I help a client when I'm off the clock, all I can give is advice. No touchy-touchy their stuff

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...of my practice. Back then, most of my non-programming work was done on-site and it was nearly impossible to talk people through anything anyway. Then at some point in the '90s, I noticed that I was working long weeks, and yet billing out only a few hours. The ratio of time on the phone to time on-site was shifting as managers and users became more capable of handling simple IT tasks, and only needed to be directed. Clients had learned that it was free to call instead of paying to have me come out for every little task. Obviously, this wasn't sustainable. So I began charging phone time, albeit at less than my on-site rate. This was win-win, as clients got quick resolution to problems and questions, and I could service more clients. Remote access technology, first through dial-up, and then high-speed Internet changed the game further. I typically charge phone time in quarter-hour increments. I still do "free" for "short" calls with regular clients where I bill out more than $500/mo as a courtesy.

aharper
aharper

We follow what was outlined in the article, but here was our rationale: We bill on half hour increments. Anything beyond 15 minutes, Wether in phone or in person will be billed as a half hour. On site service gets an hour minimum. Some folks think they could get clever and run the clock to 12 minutes or so, end the call, and call back. The time is tracked by our billing system by customer on the same day, so 3 minutes into the second call, we break the bad news.

blckgreenlantern
blckgreenlantern

So I went to a up front fee to evaluate. The one time that I didn't collect my the up front fee, the customer tries to wisel out of paying for anything. Don't be afraid to uninstall apps you have loaded or reapply the virus files you cleaned off if you don't get payment. Just like a plumber, get your money for just showing up or answering the phone upfront. It business.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Electricians have the same problem ... although they tend to get more "but I thought it was free" on-site calls. Either that or the "I didn't think it would cost THAT much!" calls. But they still get the "I'm trying to install a new light and I just had one small question" calls. Usually followed by a loud ZAP and frying noise! :D

leighdrake
leighdrake

I just don't answer my phone anymore! LOL - I took my phone number OFF of my website. I have a batch of crazy, but loyal clients that adore me but got tough on them this year. One week one of them sent me 28 emails in a row. Now they have to email me the support request - I look at it, if I want it, I bill it and do it. If they don't

reisen55
reisen55

Good ideas here. When I first used RDP to a client's server in a hotel in Atlanta, drinking a nice glass of red wine while doing so (one has to be careful on this one)... felt guilty about charging for time. Life can be good!!!! I have only ONE client I do pro-bono for, and it is special - gives me references and also is a 501C3 museum, damn near broke, that I have been associated with since high school. My gift to the gods to keep them happy and content.

jomangan
jomangan

Do like the consultant in Florida did, he had a timer for Chess that he used to time his phone time. I fixed the customer even though it wasn?t hardware but a needed upgrade the customer had failed to do since software was purchased. Also it wasn?t like Oracle where the weasels show up middle of the night and would call for hardware support on-site and then start troubleshooting for the next 4 hours and ID problem but let me show up on site and do diagnostics!!!!

mailforashu
mailforashu

exactly what should be in the T&C terms and conditions. not in fine print but surely in BOLD AND HIGHLIGHTED

Zianda
Zianda

just because i solved your problem within 15 to 30 minutes it doen't mean it was easy,the fact that you were not able to solve the problem it means its difficult,people like taking advantage all the time but this has to come to an end

ariansys
ariansys

This is a major problem world wide. I am surprised how even large reputable firms seem to think they do you a favour by ringing and emailing for free support. They just do not get it that if they employed someone on staff they would spend orders of magnitude more in wages and have a third of the productivity. I do not know the answer but think as someone has already add that a contract at purchase or sign-up time that clearly spells out what they get and what they pay. I have come to the point where I will no longer take on a client unless there is an agreement and that payment is made by direct debit which means I do not have to chase them for small amounts of money.

dkidd23
dkidd23

I've run into this as well. One tactic I use to encourage contracts is to include X number of hours per month of phone support in 15 minute increments as a part of the service contract. I always make it clear in the contract and on the monthly invoice that is generated how many hours were used.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

with friends and family when it comes to computer and small home network support. I've rarely not been paid something, though I'm not always paid in money. Which is fine by me. Today, I earned 20 pounds of venison and a gallon of homemade blueberry wine. :D

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

were Mom & Pop shops who understood the value of one's time, but every one of them would call and ask for free support. I wouldn't hesitate to provide quick answers, but would also point out that my time wasn't free. One of them tried so persistently to get free support that I finally asked, "Would you let me walk a six-pack out the door without paying you?" He got my point.

Gis Bun
Gis Bun

I've never done remote support for the reason of billing issues [and I find it less personal]. I do limit what I'd call free support. If I see it's too complicated [or the end user knows little about computers] I tend to halt any continued support and suggest dropping by. PS - To Erik Eckel. Time to drop mentioning in your bio the NT4 and Win 2000 certifications. Nobody now cares about them. :-)

j-mart
j-mart

Having a document, laying out your terms and conditions of service, and having them agree to it before you do any work for them, with your position on telephone support, clearly laid out, can be a good way to start out

tbmay
tbmay

I'll bet Erik and Chip made a lot of mistakes to begin with trying to garner business. I sure as heck did. No. Everyone within 100 miles of me doesn't like me. (And a few substantially further away as I do a pile of my work remotely.) I didn't set out to make enemies but if I kept doing what I was doing, I'd already be bankrupt. And I'll admit, the question you asked to begin with about why people think we should do all that and not get paid, chapped my behind and hurt my attitude. That is NOT acceptable as it for sure will hurt you with good clients too. Running a business is tough. We're in it because we have to eat. It's our job. Don't call us unless you plan to cut a check.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

For me, the real grey area comes when you and the prospect are still trying to feel each other out to see if you're a good fit. That often results in at least some free advice, but I look at that as a cost of finding new business. I bill telephone calls from existing clients in 15-minute increments, with a 15-minute minimum. Even if it's "just a quick question", that'll be $53 please.

pokeman
pokeman

I bought myself a black t-shirt and on the front I posted NO I WILL NOT WORK ON YOUR COMPUTER 4FREE. On the back I posted my fees. Made me feel like Clark Kent turning into Superman as I opened my shirt to show off my handy work of sarcasm.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]..."every minuet of my time must be billed"...[/i] Do you bill for waltzes and foxtrots too? :p

ejrom
ejrom

We as consultants have spent many hours/days/years sweating our hinnies off learning and achieving knowledge and expertise. Giving this away for FREE is like letting a stranger take your 69 Chevlle out for a spin..NOT. Even the oxen that pull the plow are fed for their labor.

tbmay
tbmay

Minimum charge for everything...including "quick questions." Quote intentional.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

two calls => 30 minutes minimum, even if each call was under a minute. The interruption costs far more than the time.

TobiF
TobiF

You could have a procedure that will execute everything in the quarantine after 30 days, in case bill is unpaid...

Erik Eckel
Erik Eckel

I didn't realize electricians (and others) get the same requests to provide free service over the phone. Ultimately, I suspect all service providers have this experience. We're in it together!

nelsonhoover
nelsonhoover

I used to do electrical work. Some of my customers would have had me step them through wiring an entire house over the phone if I'd have left them.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I'm glad someone else agrees with me here! The phone interrupts your normal work flow, and 99% of the calls do not translate into business. Please leave a message at the beep. I use caller ID to see if I should pick it up.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

At roughly $20/lb that's not such a bad deal!

reisen55
reisen55

That can be a tricky one. Our next door neighbors, good people, we going through a bad patch and needed a laptop with a killer malware removed. It took about 4 hours to do that as there were other issues if memory serves. So, I gave it back and charged nothing. They took us out to dinner. However, their choice of meal on the menu was the LOW END of the spectrum and we are not talking huge expensive stuff either. We ordered the same and I realized that even a half-time I still came out short. Needless to say, that practice ended then and there. Neighbor across the street had a problem, solved and promised a check within a few days. After a month I had to ASK for it in hard terms. His service came to an end too.

bspallino
bspallino

j is right - if you manage the expectation that they're going to get something for nothing, you're in better shape. Spell it out clearly and early and you'll have no complaints. The reason that Lawyers etc. bill and get paid for all work is that they've raised this expectation. I learned this the hard way and had to lose clients in the process, although is losing a non-paying customer really a loss? ha ha

phil
phil

Very interested in this article and comments as I am about to trial a free IT consultancy service with the prime focus on getting a job through networking. I will have strict terms to only provide support through an agreed mandate and receipt of recommendation/reference afterwards. Comments on that are welcomed or do get in touch if you want to know how I get on.

bkindle
bkindle

I love that! Does the shirt have any logo's or business info other than your fee's?

Techcited!
Techcited!

Lots of good replies here. Like Chip, I too find that any interruption takes so much longer than the interruption itself. Let's see...12 minutes for the "quick question". 2 minutes to document the question and response. 10 minutes to get back to what I was originally doing, then another couple of minutes on the back end for billing the "quick question". Now I know why I started billing every call with a 30 minute minimum. Another point here. Free customers are cheap customers. They typically don't "get" the value of what you are selling. They are also cheap in the sense that they are a dime-a-dozen. The best customers I have will never ask for anything free. They pay a premium rate. And, although I have never asked them, I have a hunch that they think they are getting a sweet deal. As hard as it it to pass up the promise of additional work later for a little free advice now, run like your hair is on fire. Eventually you will find some customers that are really valuable. One more thing, like Chip says, caller ID is one of the best tools ever!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Disabling or destroying a client's system for non-payment can get you into some very hot water legally.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... don't understand alternating current. They think that if they turn off the wall switch, it's safe to handle the fixture wires. *POP*

SKFee
SKFee

Thanks for that link. I am reminded of what I have found some clients\attorneys using. A program called "Time slips" designed from an antiquated system of client folders with tear off time sheets and stickers for clients. In the old days they would pass the client folder and stickers around the office and combine them at the end of the month. The idea was computerized into a network version.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

So, unless something is a royal pita, I 'charge' in accordance with what I know of their financial situation. I couldn't do this for a living. Too irritating. Too much 'careless end user syndrome'. I lack patience with that...

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

You mentor me in wine-making, and I'll mentor you in keeping your PC happily humming along. :D

tbmay
tbmay

I didn't try exactly what you're trying, but I did my share of work for little to nothing for all "reference assistance" that never happened. Just say no. But you probably will try anyway, and I wish you luck.

cbnsingram
cbnsingram

Unfortunately, I have worked for employers whose typical method of reducing costs for anything, including IT consultant services, is to proclaim how they can help the vendor with their contacts. Unfortunately, despite receiving high quality work at a cut-rate, these same employers were slow payers with short memories. They would become incensed when the consultants requested payment of their deeply discounted fees - "what, don't they know how to manage their money well enough to cut us some slack considering what we can do for them?" - Then of course the consultant is written off as uncooperative and unworthy of a recommendation and I would be told not to request bids from them on new projects. In short - get paid. Working for free or at a discounted rate does not increase a client's respect for you as a professional, it merely brands you as either a patsy or as a consultant who does not provide enough value to charge the full rate.

TobiF
TobiF

Oh, customers love promising that if you help them, then they'll help you a step closer to a job. The catch, however, is that many people don't realize the value you provide, unless you charge them... And, getting recommendations among people who don't want to pay for your services may, of course, lead to more job, but still unpaid. So, remember: it's your call: - Selectively pick your "clients". - Limit number of free clients and amount of free service provided. - Don't expect too much.

TobiF
TobiF

These references to people asking electrician about advice make me nervous. If someone asks an electrician about really basic things, then he may be up to blowing something far more precious than just his own computer.

DaemonSlayer
DaemonSlayer

To a degree that would be the ideal case: turn the switch off = safe. Realty: NOT! Not every electrician wires properly or to code as much as they should, and not every inspector catches all the errors. So.... don't be a dummy with electricity. :)

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

to squash my butter nut? (Sorry, resistance is futile)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

make sure it doesn't consume time that you would have spent on your 'bread and butter'.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Depends on your market, but I'd say converting 2% from free to paying would be ambitious.

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