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Clients/Bosses and "written proof"

The following quote from the "get it in writing" thread struck a nerve.  I decided to start a new thread rather than hijack that one, because in addition to commenting on the sometime ineffectiveness of getting it in writing, I wanted to get comments on how others have dealt with clients who call continuously for help on the same problem but don't want to pay for that help.

Here's the quote:
"Then when it gets to "but you said it would only take a day to put it in" I just forward the mail. "

Of course this doesn't work when you get someone who never reads their email and/or ignores the parts that don't jell with their internal recollection of what actually happened.

We have a situation with a "client" like this right now. 

Them: "We need support" (on a discontinued product, purchased five years ago.  Purchase price under Cdn$1500.  Not super relevant, but they also stiffed us five user licenses which we eventually wrote off.  The problem they are having is that this web app is not working correctly under IIS 6.)

Us: "You can try x, y or z.  To fully troubleshoot the problem you'll either need to buy a support contract or pay by the hour.  Here are our rates."

**** Some months pass.  Periodically, their part time support guy calls (can only call outside of business hours because this gig interferes with his real job) and spends time whining at us while we try new suggestions and gently suggest that we could be more effective with access to their machine, and that they should buy a support contract or pay us already.  Hours go by, even though the actual contacts are short, because even five minutes here and there adds up ****

Them:  "Your suggestions didn't work, and we aren't happy about the amount of time it takes you to get back to our support guy"

Us: "Our records show that we've been providing same-day email service, often within an hour of receipt, as well as outside of business hours phone support.  But we will try to do better.  We've exhausted the suggestions we have for making your system work.  Suggest you buy a support contract or pay us by the hour"

Them: "Oh, your support has been fine, it's the guy who answers the phone who has had trouble getting back to us. [ed note:  not according to our records, but this is their tech guy trying to pass the buck on why the system is still busted.  We don't push the point.]  What is the next step?

Us:  "You pay us money because we can't afford to keep providing free support especially since we are effectively operating in the dark since you won't give us access to the machine for troubleshooting" (okay, so this description is blunter than the actual exchange)

Them: "Your last suggestion didn't work, what should we do now?"

Us: "You pay us money"

Them: Quoting our entire email exchange (more than twenty), each of which has our rates and estimated time it will take us to troubleshoot the problem. "What are your rates?"

Us: "Our rates are x".  By this time, the time required to deal with them has really dropped, because we are just cutting and pasting our previous responses.  We start joking that we could write an email bot to deal with them.

Them: "We need to get this fixed. When can you come and fix it?"
Us: "We are going on vacation from x to y.  Back at 2:30 pm on y."
Them: Quoting email. "Please come on y at 1:00 pm."
Us: "We are on vacation from x to y.  Back at 2:30 pm on y."
Them: "You didn't show up on y at 1:00 pm. 
Us: "No kidding..."

Saga ongoing. 

Phibian
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Have you signed a contract at some point that says you have to provide support? If not, strong-arm tactics time.
"We can no longer provide support for this product as it is now obsolete, and outside the scope of the original contract. If you require further assistance or development, you will need to purchase a support contract at a cost of $X."

No more, no less, and don't even try and answer any more questions. Just repeat that line. If they carry on phoning, give them two weeks and report them for harrassment :)
(OK maybe not the last bit)

Andrew Cherry
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Yeah, we did get to that point, probably not as soon as we should have, but hindsight is 20/20. But even after that point, I estimate that we spent a good half hour simply in reading their emails and responding with our cut and paste comment about how we can't be of any further assistance without troubleshooting which will cost them money.

Eventually they changed their tune to say that they want to pay us, but now we've probably spent another hour trying to set up a time.  I swear we aren't trying to make this difficult either, though I wasn't prepared to cut my vacation any shorter for *this* "client".

Phibian
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Weren't prepared to sacrifice your vacation? What kind of support is that? :)

Seriously though, maybe saying something to the client something along the lines of "all our time is billable", and having something along the lines of the "lawyer's surprise" where you chat to them on the phone, and then receive an invoice the next morning!

They sound like a nightmare though, i'd seriously question whether you'll ever make a profit on anything you do with them. If the answer to that is possibly no, just tell them where to get off, or charge them so much they could get IBM instead.

Andrew Cherry
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Maybe you could send them to a competitor or vice versa.

Ewan's Dad
Thursday, August 12, 2004

I can empathize b/c we went through this a few years ago, too.

It seems to me that your mistake is offering support if they pay.

Unless you really need this client and/or what you're charging in support is worthwhile for you (and that seems unlikely, since the original license was $1,500), the way to settle this once and for all is to tell them: "This product is discontinued.  There is no support available."

Don't even leave the door open for them to continue business with you (e.g. "if you buy our latest, supported version..."); they seem like a bad client, and you should really just use this as an opportunity to dump them.

anonymous financial IT guy
Thursday, August 12, 2004

>Them: "We need support" (on a discontinued product, purchased five years ago.  Purchase price under Cdn$1500.  Not super relevant, but they also stiffed us five user licenses which we eventually wrote off.

This is a good example of when to "fire your customer."

I expect to get a lot of flameage and trollage from that previous statement, but since these folks decided 5 years ago that they were not going to pay you, they aren't likely to change their tune: they are not customers, they are freeloaders.

You already have a lot of "sunken costs" involved with them, and need to determine for yourself, and your business, when is the correct time to cut them off. I think you have realized that you reached that point.

I would try to explain something to them along the lines of:
1 - this product is discontinued.
2 - you didn't pay us for this product in the first place.
3 - the new product is X and costs $Y.
4 - wish them luck in their future endeavo(u)rs.

Once upon a long time ago, I worked for a company like the one you are describing. Long after I quit, I would get calls, letters and emails asking for help (they refused to hire a replacement). I changed my phone to an unlisted number, changed ISPs, and eventually moved. They weren't interested in paying me for my time (stiffing me on every invoice, since they wanted to pay me "on the clock" at the rate when I worked there, and only if I drove 30 miles to the office, punched in and worked there, even though all my tools and computers were at home), and were only willing to buy lunch (and food not worth driving to the corner at that) for my time and efforts. I ended up wishing them luck on their future endeavors.

Peter
Thursday, August 12, 2004

I'm with Peter here.  This customer is a drain on your business.

www.ChristopherHawkins.com
Thursday, August 12, 2004

A customer is someone who pays you for a service. Someone who expects service for no money is not a customer.

I'd be sure to get a PO before I did any work for them, and probably ask them to pre-pay. If you're set up right you can blame your collections person, your accountant, or company policy.

Miles Archer
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Good thing I read the replies after we went to our meeting this afternoon :)  I'm not a huge fan of firing clients unless they are actively trying to defraud you (not the case here).  And in this case, the client is in the media relations business in a relatively close-knit business community (Ottawa), so are potentially a valuable reference.  They have also provided glowing testimonials in the past - not something to cast aside lightly, even if it means writing a script to respond to their emails <g>.  In all honesty, I don't think they realized what a pain they were being.

But I must say, we did tighten up our procedures considerably as a result; we are tired of being taken advantage of by a few misers.

For those interested, the meeting was finally set up after a little more flakiness, including a last minute "can you meet at 8:00 tomorrow - we'll check our email tonight to see what you replied" to which we replied "yes, please call or email in the morning to confirm".  At 10:30, the client called to apologize for not responding - apparently a case of barbequed feet - "operating a grill is apparently something one should not do barefoot" (!).

Net result though: we've extracted several hundred dollars from them and may yet extract another few hundred after they consult their budget. And learned something about bbq safety to boot :)

Phibian
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Play tough. Tell them, no money = no support. End of story.

There is an opportunity cost to dealing with timewasters like them, that is - earning real money from clients who don't fight nickel-and-dime for everything...

TheGeezer
Thursday, August 12, 2004

I'm with Peter too.  If they still continue to call, do what Dell does - put them on hold for 15-20 minutes every time.

Past and Future Student
Thursday, August 12, 2004

It's so nice when things turn out okay.

Aussie chick
Thursday, August 12, 2004

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