You knock a tough project out, and then the client calls not to say thanks but to question why the bill is so high. These are delicate situations that, managed improperly, could cost your consultancy a client. Here's how to handle such an episode.
1. Check the facts
Don't assume the client is just complaining -- that's a rookie mistake. My office maintains excellent systems and processes for tracking time onsite and billing equipment and software purchases, and yet, we've still managed to bill a client improperly (once we billed a client twice for the same hardware components, albeit on two invoices). Any IT consultant who tells you they haven't done so is lying -- no one is perfect, and service-based billing has never been an exact science.
So begin by reviewing a copy of the actual invoice and verifying its accuracy. Double check to confirm the client hasn't received duplicate bills, which sometimes happens (especially when clients drag their feet paying outstanding balances. and they receive multiple requests for payment).
2. Review the time onsite
More than likely the client is questioning whether a project's time is being billed accurately. The client might believe one these scenarios:
- Maybe the project was simple, and it shouldn't have taken the engineer so long to complete. Check to see whether this is the case (for instance, maybe the engineer had never programmed a WatchGuard firewall and was delayed trying to figure out its interface). If it is the case, discount the bill accordingly.
- Maybe the engineer left (to track down a hardware component necessary to complete the repair) and returned to finish the job, but the client doesn't want to pay for the time the engineer wasn't actually onsite. If the client was insisting that the repair be completed immediately, and your office could not wait for a regular supplier to mail you a replacement component, explain that your firm must bill for the time on the road tracking down and obtaining the emergency replacement.
- Maybe the onsite technician stopped work for 20 minutes to knock out an emergency remote session for a second client while on the first client's site. It's critical that you remove that time from the second client's invoice.
3. Stick to your guns
Sometimes, though, clients just want to complain that IT investments are expensive and they don't see the value. You need to extract yourself quickly from such inane conversations.
For example, a client might complain that $600 is way too much to charge for antivirus software for 20 desktops or that migrating 50 gigabytes worth of photos, email, music, and documents shouldn't have taken your engineer two hours. That's when it's time to explain that your firm makes very little margin on software and that those licensing fees are just a reality of the marketplace. Similarly, you can explain that 50 gigabytes of data is actually rather a lot for a desktop and that such transfers require considerable time to complete.
I don't recommend discounting such charges just because a client complains; it's likely the client is not a good fit for your organization anyway.
How do you handle client service charge disputes?
If a client has ever disputed your service charges, how did you resolve the situation? Share your experiences in the discussion.
More billing tips for IT consultants
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.