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You expect me to PAY for that?

“I’m not going to pay.” – not a good sign in a vendor/customer interaction.

Some customers think they should get useful info for free. Other people feel it’s worth paying for.

Some IT professionals give away free advice and hope to make a profit later, others expect to be paid a fair price when they provide something of value.

No one’s right, or wrong. It’s a matter of style and preference. Where people get into trouble is expectations that are either not set, or set incorrectly, or expectations that change in the middle of a project. For example, if you help someone and then you have to fix a complication, some people consider that “covered”, while others understand that sometimes stuff just happens.

So what to do?

TALK. WRITE. CALL. EMAIL. CHAT. FAX. Whatever communication you need to do, do it in 3 places: before the project, during the project, or after the project.

Blanket statements like “we charge for our time” are terse and usually don’t sit well with customers. Conversely, statements like “you didn’t really fix it that last visit so I’m not paying you” don’t sit well with service providers.

Why is this such a problem? Well, the IT industry is still very young. Doctors and lawyers have many decades behind them where their professions have been honed and accepted by the mainstream. Nearly all attorneys bill for the smallest interactions. Doctors don’t get paid on the visit that “cures” the patient, they get paid for every visit. And that’s part of the reason we say that doctors and lawyers are “practicing” their craft.

But some IT people think it’s good to help with free advice and then charge later. Others feel they should be paid. Customers have their own expectations. And few IT people like to dwell on awkward business interactions like “oh, by the way, I’m charging you for this, is that ok?”

Whose job is it to determine “is this something I’m going to be charged for” ?  Is it up to the customer so that they don’t get a surprise invoice in the mail?

Is it up to the service provider so they don’t get a surprise lack-of-payment from their customer?

It’s really up to whomever is going to be the most upset by a surprise.

Here are two phrases service providers can use with customers:

  • “If it’s worth it to you, we can research this for you and it should take approximately [duration] – we would charge you for this work. Would you like us to proceed?”

  • “This will be around [duration] of billable time. We’ll proceed unless you tell us not to.”

And here are two phrases that customers can use:

  • “I’m concerned about having to pay for this if it doesn’t help me – will you charge me for the time it takes to put this together?”

  • “Can we agree that if this doesn’t work that I won’t be charged for the time you’re spending on it?”

No one likes surprises. The slightly awkward discussion about billable vs. non-billable work up front should avoid a much more awkward discussion down the road.

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