When more clients request same day service than your IT consultancy can accommodate, you need to manage the problem so it doesn't lead to frustrated engineers, lost customers, and bad business. Here's how to prevent a meltdown when all of your clients want same-day service.
Set expectations up front
The problems often begin during the first client meeting. IT consultants sometimes promise the world to get a new client. However, it's disingenuous to suggest that your firm can respond to service calls within four hours if the office isn't equipped to act that rapidly.
You should explain how triage really works. There's nothing wrong with promising a quick response due to a multi-site outage -- just make sure clients clearly understand what qualifies as an emergency. I've had clients blow up our phones after hours because they can't sync iTunes to an iPod. I'm sorry, but that's not a crisis.
Consultants must accept responsibility up front and ensure proper expectations are set from day one.
Define response times in contracts
Client contracts should clearly state how quickly your office will respond to an outage. Response times should be defined in a way that leaves no room for misunderstandings. It's too vague to state "Consultant agrees to respond to trouble tickets in one day." Instead, the contract should read "Consultant agrees to provide onsite support within four business hours when email- or Internet-affecting outages occur" (you can change the language to match the service your office will provide). The response times promised in the contract must be something that you can back up.
Don't get angry
There's a natural temptation to feel angry when clients demonstrate shortsightedness or prove difficult. For instance, customers who have been warned repeatedly to replace their obsolete systems and then demand you recover the failed machine's data and replace the unit the same day the computer dies. Or, the clients who take 90 days to pay, dispute invoices, and demand you have a technician onsite within an hour of their call.
Getting angry doesn't help the situation. You signed up for this when you became a consultant. Take a deep breath and move on.
There's a reason so many other industries adopt rush fees: they work. I suggest doubling your regular rate for same-day service.
You should satisfy clients who require same-day service in a way that discourages them from making unreasonable demands while covering your office's resulting coordination and change order efforts and overtime fees. When you respond to unanticipated calls on short notice, it almost always means someone must work late to accommodate the day's other regularly scheduled tasks.
Plan for it
Our consultancy has started planning for same-day requests. This may be the most difficult lesson for IT consultants to learn. In an economy in which we've become accustomed to so much doom and gloom, and in an era where everyone has to do more with less, it's hard to leave engineers' schedules open.
On those very rare occasions when an engineer isn't needed on a remote session, on the workbench, or at a client site, that individual can take out the trash, manage some RMAs, clean the office, and perform other housekeeping duties. More often than not, if you leave a slot or two open a day, it enables your consultancy to say to a client with an urgent request, "No problem. We'll get someone there in two hours."
The more often you make an exception for clients, the more often they expect it. This balancing act is difficult for even the most seasoned veterans to master.
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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.