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.
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.Get weekly consulting tips in your inbox TechRepublic's IT Consultant newsletter, delivered each Monday, offers tips on how to attract customers, build your business, and increase your technical skills in order to get the job done. Automatically sign up today!
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.