Know when to bill clients for phone calls

If you aren't billing clients for phone calls, Erik Eckel says you must start -- just be sure to know which types of calls warrant a charge.

 Consultants are not only IT practitioners but typically business owners, too, who must manage an exponentially larger client base. Accordingly, IT consultants must learn to think like other service providers, such as accountants and attorneys. That means billing for telephone calls, something I've found most consultants hesitant to do, mistakenly believing the practice will rub clients the wrong way.

Last quarter my cell phone logged 60 calls on a single Friday. If I spent just four minutes, conservatively (some remote support and assistance calls require 20-30 minutes or more to complete), on each of those calls, I would have lost four hours in a single day to telephone calls -- that's half a day. The time and expense (the cell phone provider charges my consultancy handsomely for those minutes of service) simply must be covered.

When to bill clients

This doesn't mean your consultancy must make major changes to its business operations and begin collecting credit card authorizations each time it accepts calls; no, it just means using common sense.

Bill for these types of calls

You would, however, charge clients for any calls about these types of requests:

  • Set up the customer's email account on a new BlackBerry or iPhone
  • Eliminate a virus or spyware infection
  • Repair a Windows system that will not boot.
  • Reset passwords
  • Provide step-by-step directions on how to restart a failed QuickBooks Database Server service
  • Give instructions on repairing a stalled printer

There are several reasons why your office needs to bill clients for these calls:

  • The time you and your technicians spend addressing these issues pulls you and your staff away from other billable tasks you would complete for other clients. That means the time you spend providing technical support over the telephone is actively costing your consultancy real money.
  • When walking clients through troubleshooting steps and instructions for repairing errors, you are sharing expertise, knowledge, and know-how that possess very real market value. You need not fear "being the bad guy" just because you're charging for time and expertise; in fact, you're providing solutions.
  • Attorneys and accountants charge for telephone calls, often billing in quarter-hour minimum increments. You wouldn't expect to call an attorney or accountant, spend a half hour discussing the implications of a tricky contract or tax issue and not receive a bill. Clients who consume a half-hour of a technician's time to solve a vexing computer issue shouldn't expect to be serviced for free.
Don't bill for these calls

Sure, potential new clients are going to call inquiring about the services your firm provides. Other callers will have questions about a quick Windows or network problem they are experiencing. Still other calls will be maintenance contract clients reporting a problem or requesting an onsite service appointment. There's no need to bill for those calls. Those are costs (both in time and cell phone minutes) of doing business.

How much to bill clients

While it's unnecessary to charge your regular on-site rate for telephone calls, IT consultancies should determine the hourly charge for remote telephone support. More important, consultancies should begin billing callers for services received, even if it means invoicing customers just for quarter-hour remote support calls. Because, as my cell phone records prove, consultants often lose chunks of entire days just answering the phone.

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