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Is your IT Support provider billing you fairly?

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Andrew Leniart
Helping others, to help themselves...
A discussion about the billing practices of IT Support contractors and my ideas of what is fair and what is not!

Introduction


Having worked providing both On-Site and Remote IT Support to a variety of company clients for more than a couple of decades, I often get feedback from newly acquired clients saying that they thought they were being ripped off by their previous contracted IT support providers. 


I will neither name or shame other companies that I've taken IT Support over from at the request of client company owners because there are always two sides to every story and I don't know both sides, but here's a short list of some of the complaints that my newly acquired clients have made.


He worked on my computer for no longer than 10 or 15 minutes, but when I got the bill, he charged me for an hour!

Many IT Support admins think that when they work remotely, especially late at night on their client's computers, that they're not being watched. Nothing could be further from the truth, so they get caught out! It's hardly surprising for clients to want to watch what you're doing when working remotely because they may want to learn.


He told me it would be $120 an hour to fix my MAC at my house, but when I got the bill, it was $280 despite him only being at my place for only 50 minutes!! What a bl**dy rip off!!

I think that this type of reaction is fully understandable when you're not up-front about your fees. My guess for the bill that particular client received from his previous IT Support provider is that there was likely a "Call out Fee" which was not disclosed at the time of booking!


I watched what they were doing and it was clear to me that they had no idea! I made them wait 4 weeks before I paid them!

A lot of IT Support providers don't like to knock back any work, even if they don't really know the topic that the client is having problems with. Sure you get paid, but think of all the negative feedback you're likely to get on social media and the like. 


It's just not worth it so if you don't have a strong knowledge about the problem you're being asked to fix, so be honest and upfront. Suggest an associate that does have the skills required. Your client is unlikely to think the worse of you and will more than likely appreciate your honesty. Being upfront and honest about your skill set makes it far more likely that you'll get another call for help in the future and retain that person/company as a client, rather than them searching out another provider.


The last time I had a simple problem that only took a few minutes to fix, they didn't charge me! Now they're charging me for simple problems, even for telephone or email support!

That's the IT Support providers own fault and bound to cause bad feelings about the client being charged for future simple fixes. NEVER do any work for free! 


An excellent article called "5 Reasons why you should NEVER fix a computer for free" was written years ago in 2011 by a highly valued EE Member "DrDamnit" where he points out several reasons why you should never fix computers for free, and his advice still rings true today! I think the best two points in the above-mentioned article are "People don't respect things that are free" and "They will expect it forever


Never truer words have been spoken in my opinion!


My own policy of how to treat clients and billing fairly for Consulting Work


I've been in the IT Support and Consulting game for over two decades and without wanting to blow my own horn, I can honestly say that in all those years I've lost fewer clients than I could count on one hand. Here's why...


The Dos and Don'ts


Do be Up Front about your IT Skill Set


If you get a call about a problem and it involves, let's say Microsoft Exchange just as an example, but your skill set in Exchange is pretty ordinary, then tell the potential client that before even discussing fees. Most people will want to look over your shoulder when you work (or watch what you're doing while working remotely) and you shouldn't discourage that. 


But if you don't really know what you're doing, then all you're going to achieve is them thinking that they made a mistake calling you in the first place and the likelihood of them calling you again in the future is likely to be slim to none. So it's best to be upfront and tell them that Exchange isn't your forte` but that you have an associate that you can recommend to them. They will appreciate your honesty and likely still call you for other problems in the future.


Don't "Write-Up" your Invoices!


I have a lot of experience in both supporting and working with accounting clients. Some (not all) have a habit of writing up their bills. I've noted solicitors, in particular, are notorious for this type of behavior and I think it's grossly unfair! How it works is this. 


When some accountants and solicitors do jobs for their clients, they keep a track of time spent via a time sheet built into the practice software. At the end of the job, they add up the hours and generate a bill. That's how it's "supposed to work", but that's not what they do. They have this interesting habit (that is even built into their practice software) where that can "Write-Up" or "Write-Down" any Invoice they generate. 


How it works is this. Let's say the recorded timesheet hours from the various employees that worked on the job added up to an Invoice amount of $1,500.00, just as an example. The reviewing accountant takes a look at the work done and decides the work is worth more than that, so he/she will "write-up" the bill to $1,875.00 instead. They'll also very occasionally "write-down" a bill because of mistakes they may have made during the works done, but in my observations, such occurrences are far and few between.


Whilst as IT Consultants we also can often to have the opportunity to "write-up" bills, don't do it, it's not fair and akin to highway robbery in my opinion - and clients WILL often notice, so just don't do it! It's a sure fire way to lose clients if and when you're discovered.


The way that I treat and bill my clients


First of all, I've never really launched many advertising campaigns to obtain more clients. Save for a couple of dozen or so that approached me as a result of finding me via my website, the majority of my entire client base is a direct result of word of mouth recommendations. 


  • If you make your clients happy, they'll spread the word to their friends, associates, and Social Media. In my opinion, this is the absolute best way to get new clients. So here are a few tips on how to not only get new clients but also to make them so happy that they become extremely loyal to you.


  • Treat all your clients as if they're the most valuable client you have. Take their problems seriously, even when you think they're making a stupid request and you know there is a better or more effective solution to their problem. Talk to them and suggest alternate solutions by all means, but if they're set on wanting to do something a certain way, work out a way to satisfy what they want and don't argue with them.


  • Almost every IT Consultant is either a reseller or affiliate of certain software packages or hardware solutions, so they tend to push those solutions on their clients so that they can score a commission payment for a sale. That's a bad idea if there is a better product you know about - so forsake the few bucks of commission you'll get by pushing your own product(s) and suggest competing software solutions or hardware when those products are better suited for the client's needs.


  • Be brutally honest when speaking with your client. I can't stress this point enough. As mentioned earlier, if something is beyond your skill set, don't take on the work and suggest an associate who does have the necessary skills and experience. Not doing this will only serve to make new and existing clients feel disappointed and ultimately resent you, potentially resulting in losing that client forever - not to mention bad word of mouth to their friends etc.


  • This should go without saying, but never write up your invoices because you think the end result is worth more than the time it took to complete the job. You may get a good fee a fee a few times, but eventually, it will result in losing the client to a competitor. I've scored countless clients as a result of competing IT consultants who have padded their bills, so I'm speaking from many years of personal business experience here.


  • Always give your clients a little more than they expect and make sure they know that you've done that and they'll love you for it. I'll often spend, say two hours, on a job but the actual fix I was hired for only took an hour and a half. I'll then do something like a health check that might take 15 minutes or so and find things that need tweaking, so I'll fix those problems for them as well. When I tell the client what I've done, they're so pleased and grateful that I've sometimes been tipped in cash before I've even raised an invoice. It's a great way to get loyalty from your clients.


  • Finally, be totally upfront about what a repair is likely to cost before agreeing to accept a job. Ensure that there are no hidden costs. If asked for a firm quotation, always tell your clients that due to the nature of the beast, it's almost impossible to give a firm quote, so avoid such scenarios. Doing so will sometimes lose you the occasional job, but it's far better to lose a job than to do it and then disappoint the client (or make them angry) when you issue them the bill at completion.


I've found that treating my clients per my policies above has served me well for over 20 years now.


So how do you treat and bill "your" clients? 


Please do share your thoughts and comments below.


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LVL 99

Expert Comment

by:Lee W, MVP
When I first started consulting, I was under the impression that I'm being paid to know what I'm doing.  I can't bill for learning on the job.  But it's also important to understand that technology is complex.  You can't know everything.  You CAN understand certain fundamental aspects of how things work.  And using those fundamentals, you'll be able to know and research the problems and resolve them appropriately far faster then most of your clients.

One example I give is attorneys.  Attorneys are paid whether they fix things or not.  And they often have to research case law to determine the best way to proceed with a difficult case.  They are paid not to know everything, but to know where to look.

Technology is really the same thing.  You often have clients who complain, "You charged me $150 to walk in and push a button" - yet if it was as easy as they think, they would have known which button to push and would have never called!

Further more, the clients need to understand that a consultant isn't just keeping 100% of the fees they make nor are they making $1000+ per day.  Read my article on what an IT consultant should charge to understand this!  https://www.experts-exchange.com/articles/1905/How-Do-I-Know-What-to-Charge-as-an-IT-Consultant.html (old but the concepts really don't change).
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LVL 18

Expert Comment

by:William Fulks
I used to work for an MSP and every so often we'd take on the personal machine of some business owner in hopes of doing more business with them later, and dang near every time there would be a problem. People would show up with computers that were 6+ years old and expect us supercharge them. We'd put a couple of hours into them cleaning up malware, bloatware, registry issues, etc. Often having to reboot multiple times which could take as much as 5 minutes just for that, then the client gets a bill for $200 and gets all mad because they could go buy a new PC for $299 at Best Buy. Well, maybe you should have....
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LVL 99

Expert Comment

by:Lee W, MVP
It's important, in my opinion, to state from the onset, that repairs billed by the hour could quickly exceed the value of the PC.  If I can't fix a machine in 30-60 minutes, I give the client the option of a complete reload or buying a new machine... but you also have to keep in mind, it's not JUST the cost of the hardware and to a lesser extent the software.  There's configuration and data migration.  If they want things EXACTLY the way they were before, add that to the cost of a new PC and fixing the old one, even when the total charge is as much as a new physical computer, it may prove considerably cheaper.  (You buy a new house and the expenses don't stop there.  Now you often spend at least a little on "upgrades" and customizations - paint, carpet, new appliances, the move in costs... etc.... house costs $200000... but you then spend $20000 more on incidentals/extras
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Expert Comment

by:Brighton Davies
Brilliant write-up – completely agree with your thoughts on transparency. Can’t tell you how many times I got ripped off by subpar support b/c they weren’t upfront about knowledge/rates/etc. I’ve learned to take care of a lot on my own (Google FTW) but when I need an expert eye/opinion mustardit.co.uk doesn’t let me down or charge ridiculous fees.
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