Project Management

The art of triaging client emergencies

When clients call your IT consultancy with an emergency, they'll likely expect same-day service. Here are three steps to ensure clients know what level of service to expect in the event of an emergency.

For better or for worse, IT consultants' roles often mimic those of physicians. Frequently, following diagnostic tests, consultants must inform clients that a system's failures appear terminal. And, any IT professional who has ever had to inform a business owner that critical data is irrecoverable knows how devastating such unexpected news can be. While most client emergencies aren't life or death situations, sometimes they are; for instance, we support pharmacy organizations responsible for distributing pharmaceuticals to long-term care facilities, and we manage networks for physicians' offices.

Triage is another, sometimes dramatic way IT consultants' tasks mirror doctors' responsibilities. When multiple clients require immediate assistance simultaneously, chaos and anxiety often follow. If the situation is managed improperly, clients may become frustrated or angry.

You can adopt this three-step plan to ensure support technicians and systems engineers are dispatched effectively and so clients understand what level of service to expect from your consultancy in the event of an emergency.

Step 1: Set proper expectations

Most clients should not expect same-day service, yet clients often do; therefore, you must set proper expectations up front.

When working with a new client, present several service options and make it clear that clients possessing maintenance contracts and retainer services receive priority service. Unfortunately, you'll have to explain that in plain English this means: Clients who regularly pay for priority service receive priority service; clients who do not regularly pay for priority service do not receive priority service.

This is particularly problematic for contract-resistant clients who only seek break/fix services, so they wait until a critical server or PC fails before requesting assistance. When these clients do call, they'll call out of the blue (often after-hours or on weekends); their crises will be full-blown fires; their business operations will have already come to a standstill; they will have staff who cannot work; and they will be losing good money.

This is not the time to remind a client they are not a maintenance contract customer and therefore don't qualify for same-day service -- those expectations must be clearly presented from the start, and they must be regularly reinforced. Obviously, you want to do all you can to respond to every client issue quickly, but when multiple requests for emergency service arise simultaneously, clients need to know how your consultancy will triage each situation.

Step 2: Promote service contracts

You should promote service contracts on your Web site, on invoices, in conversations with clients, and even via voicemail. For example, voicemail messages can be set to inform after-hours callers that contract clients can press 1 for an emergency, while others should press 2 to leave a message to be returned the next business day.

It is your responsibility to ensure clients understand priority service is among the most valuable elements provided within a contract; as such, contracts should stipulate how quickly technicians will arrive on site (or be made available to provide remote assistance) when problems do occur.

Clients who require shorter intervals from service request to resolution should be prepared to pay higher rates. This is a necessary evil, as consultancies promising a large number of clients fast turnarounds must maintain sufficient capacity (staff) to respond to crises. That's the nature of service-related industries, unfortunately.

Step 3: Perform triage

When multiple requests for simultaneous help exist, the easiest way to determine which clients receive service first is to service contract customers first; after all, that's exactly what contract clients are buying: preferential treatment. Think of contract clients as possessing FastPass tickets, enabling them to cut lines when the need arises.

The trouble arises when multiple contract clients request emergency assistance at the same time; how should you determine which customers receives attention first? Business experts debate the answer to this question. Some experts argue that customers with histories of paying invoices on time go to the head of the line; others claim those with greater long-term earnings potential win out. I don't think this is a difficult question; all you need to do is use common sense and weigh the circumstances.

Here is a real-world example: If a retail client cannot process credit cards on the last weekend before Christmas, that's a bigger crisis than a manufacturer with one printer out of three malfunctioning -- unless that manufacturer is losing $17,000 an hour because that printer can't produce labels needed to maintain a production line, then that's the client you help first.

Still nervous?

That's normal. Any IT consultant focused on sustainable success should seek to build long-term client relationships. It's always difficult to tell a client they must wait a day or two for service, especially when emergencies arise. As a result, the best thing you can do for a customer is ensure they're signed to a service contract that properly matches their business needs.

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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 o...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Just restore your most recent backup Oh, last year eh.... Are you sitting down?


It all comes down to two things, especially with smaller clients: UpTime and Money. Everyone has the expectations that their systems will be up and running like a Google or Yahoo mail server. They don't "pay" for that service, so why does their fileserver in the office not have the same uptime? Setting expectations also needs to include simple comparisons. We briefly explain the "nines" to our clients, and let them know that "five-nines" is a REALLY expensive solution... Do-able, but expensive. When they realize that IT is not magic, and the more they get the more it all seems to settle into a realistic groove. Then revisit those expectations at MINIMUM once a year. I'm just sayin'


The company I work for writes business-management software to manage inventory, sales, commission payments, etc. We have been in business for over 30 years and have clients in several countries. Of course, we do provide support for the software, and our support contract specifically defines different types of support calls and specifies how long we have to respond/fix the issue. So when a call comes in we define it based on our contract rules and give it the appropriate priority. This essentially takes care of the triage. However, we still have some clients who mark every issue as "URGENT" and expect their calls to be handled first... But we are lucky in that our support load is light and we generally have same day turnaround in any case. Having the contract define expectations has been extremely helpful for my role in managing support issues.


I only have two categories that calls fall into, mainframe terminals and standalone PCs. MF terminals come first and then the PCs. After the terminals which come first, the rest are placed in order of time recieved. Sometimes I might juggle them a bit if I have more than one call in the same building, then I'll do the first one on the list and then the rest in order so I don't have to come back later.


Some how clients think that I can fix something that they've done with a magic wand. It could take minutes, but most likely will take hours of work. If it was my fault, I'll own it, but too many times it's the client mucking about with their system and wondering why things have gone pear shaped.

Forum Surfer
Forum Surfer

Too many times, if the IT department is bypassed or circumvented somehow, some genius always decided to buy the top notch product from a consultant. The only problem is, they'll skip the "overpriced" maintenance contracts because "our IT staff can handle that." Luckily, that battle was fault long ago where I work and IT is involved in everything from security, centralized HVAC systems and anything with a network cable going to it.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... who yell the loudest in an emergency. Good advice here from Erik on setting the right expectation (and getting paid accordingly).

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