When Your Client Asks For An Oil Change – Don’t Tune The Brakes For Free

Nobody likes surprise bills – especially not our clients.

In an effort to keep surprise bills out of sight of their clients –  consulting firms often engage in  what’s known as  “eating time”.

That’s when they’ve told a client that a task will cost $ x when it actually costs $ x time two.

The problem is the task usually does only cost $X. But  they’ve unwittingly caused it to expand in cost by widening the menu of items (aka scope)  that they’re fixing without informing the client (who probably would have gladly paid for the extra service).

I liken this to bringing your car into the mechanic for an oil change – and the mechanic fine tuning the brakes or transmission (at no cost) while your car is up on the lift.

This little action costs the garage nothing and it builds goodwill. Or does it?

Offering a little something extra for free is a great idea.

I’m all for these types of add-on services which are often referred to by various phrases such as “going the extra mile” , etc. But they need to be factored into your engagement planning and the “little extra” that you provide should be well planned ahead of time and not a haphazard policy of fixing every minor pain that the customer brings to your attention during the time you’re on site.

The problem is not offerin the free added service. The problem is when you offer  free services and something goes wrong.

Let’s say when I leave my mechanics shop I notice that now my brakes (which we’ll assume they tuned as a freebie while I was getting my oil changed) are squealing every time I slow at a red light.  So I bring my car back to the mechanic and they’re obligated to schedule me in quickly (at no cost) and repair or replace the issue that presumably their “quick/nice guy ” free fix to my brakes caused.

Note: Let’s pretend for the sake of argument that your mechanic is honest and admits that as a freebie they adjusted your brakes when you were in for a simple oil change and admits fault — which I understand is somewhat of a stretch.

What’s the problem here?

Expanding the scope of what we’ve promised to a client is excellent. Except if those free add-on services  aren’t planned in advance (which most aren’t) and create problems down the road that we have to fix for free.

Congratulations! You’ve now given away a free service which created a problem which  requires you to spend unlimited time fixing for free. Here’s hoping the problem isn’t a big enough issue that you lose the client.

What consultants overlook is that in total all those little “I gave them some pointers” often push the job budget sky high and way out of the scope of what had been discussed with the client.

And as soon as the consultant touches the computer for any items not related to an upgrade – -THEY NOW OWN THE ISSUE in the client’s mind.

Invariably there are followup questions related to that “quick pointer” and sometimes even serious bugs or procedures that consultants wind up owning and later fixing for  free.

Technology is complex enough that the days of being a “good guy/gal” and covering/curing every minor client pain (most self-inflicted) are long gone and those consultants who do that as a practice probably are effectively making about $40k a year with all the free time they give away.

Instead what I recommend is that as you practice “going the extra mile” that those extra services you offer are well planned and scoped in advance. Instead of tweaking every customer’s brakes – provide a less invasive and risky service extra.

For consulting engagements on ERP systems it might be leaving the customer with a monthly checklist or running through a list of best practices that they implement on their own – or you can help them with for a fee.

The free services you provide should be limited in scope and defined ahead of time. Don’t walk into a client site guaranteeing an upgrade price and deliver a complete upgrade, system re-design and three day training class just because you’ve observed that the client could really really use the help.

Define ahead of time the little extras that will be offered on every engagement. These should be very low risk items which don’t typically generate follow-up calls but provide client benefit. For extra items such as clients confused about procedural issues unrelated to your upgrade (and I find that 85% of questions have nothing to do with the upgrade engagement) have the client keep an issues list separately.

As a part of closing out the upgrade with your client – review their issues list and ask which items they’d like to solve.

Then give them a price. But whatever happens, unless you think working for free is good business, don’t fall into the common trap of solving the unrelated issues list items while also completing the other engagement which you’ve both quoted and agreed upon the scope.
Image credit : flickr

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