If you aren’t billing clients for phone calls you really should start. Just be sure you know which types of calls warrant an invoice to your client.
Consultants are not only IT practitioners but typically business owners who must manage an exponentially larger client base than people would think. We must be very good at multi-tasking and time management. I alone manage 236 clients. I have a staff of 5 who handle a lot of the back end programming and graphics work, but I alone speak and interact with our clients. Accordingly, we must learn to think like other service providers, such as accountants and attorneys. That means billing for telephone calls, something I’ve found most IT, PR & Marketing people hesitate to do. Most of us believe the practice will rub clients the wrong way.
Last month, for the first time in my 13 years of being in the IT business, I kept track of my actual time on the phone with clients. Whether it was answering a “quick” question they had, or actually trouble shooting a problem, or assisting in what a lot of clients warrant as an “emergency”. I logged 82 hours of just phone time. If I would’ve billed for those actual hours spent with clients at $75 an hour, which is going rate for my line of work, I would’ve been ahead $6,150 for the month. Considering a 40 hour work week, and 4 weeks in a month, that makes a 160 hour work month. 82 of those hours I spent on the phone for UNBILLED time. I literally lost an average of four hours a day to telephone calls — that’s half my day. That time and expense simply must be accounted for.
When to bill clients
What does this mean? This means I need to make major changes to my way of conducting business. I was floored to see how much actual time I spent dealing with clients and making minor fixes for them and never billing them, because I “only spent 5-15 minutes with them” , and I feel bad about invoicing someone for mere minutes of my time. But those minutes all add up. I don’t intend to begin collecting credit card numbers each time I take a call, but it does mean I need to stand up for myself a bit more and let clients know that my time is money, and we have other clients that rely on us to complete their jobs as well in a timely manner as well.
I vow from this day forward to charge clients for any calls about these types of requests:
- Set up the customer’s email accounts on a new BlackBerry or iPhone or new computer or new software because they won’t take the time themselves to read the directions or call their carrier, or at least try and troubleshoot on their own, or just “google it”.
- Eliminate a virus or spyware infection remotely
- Give instructions on repairing a printer that’s not printing
- Teach them “once again” how to use the CMS portion of their website, since we’ve already shown them how, but because they don’t update their site often, they “forget”.
- Give marketing advice on how to drive more traffic to their site or store
- Set up their facebook or twitter accounts for them
- Explain why clients should get a twitter, FB, or Blog in the first place
- Set up new email accounts, since our clients have full access to do this themselves
We’ll see how well I do at my new vows. I have a soft spot for my clients and I’m bad at being a softy when it comes to them. I tend to spoil rather than teach. Seeing my numbers from last month, I now realize why I always seem to be behind and have no clue where the hours of my day went. It’s possible I could’ve had that vacation I’ve always dreamed of or the granite in my kitchen, or upgraded my own computer system, if I would just bill according to the actual work I perform.
I’m not trying to be petty, there are several reasons why we need to bill clients for these calls:
- The time me and my staff spend addressing these issues pulls them away from other billable tasks we need to complete for other clients. That means the time spent providing technical support over the telephone is actively costing us real money.
- When walking clients through troubleshooting steps and instructions for repairing errors, or giving your best advice on how to grow their business, I’m sharing expertise, knowledge, and know-how that possess very real market value. I need not fear “being the bad guy” just because I’m charging for time and expertise; in fact, I’m 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 contract or tax issue and not receive a bill. Clients who consume a half-hour of an IT person, or marketing persons time to solve a computer issue or figure out how to get a commercial shot or improve traffic to their business shouldn’t expect to be serviced for free.
Sure, potential new clients are going to call inquiring about the services we provide. Other callers will have questions about a quick network problem they are experiencing. (as long as we’re the ones who set up the network) 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 of doing business.
While it’s unnecessary to charge your regular on-site rate for telephone calls, IT and Marketing professionals should determine the hourly charge for telephone advice and support. More important, we should begin billing callers for services received, even if it means invoicing customers just for quarter-hour calls. Because, as my cell phone records prove, I often lose chunks of entire days just answering the phone.