To Charge or Not to Charge? A Moral Dilemma Averted

To Charge or Not to Charge? A Moral Dilemma Averted width=This week I barely escaped being forced to make one of those moral decisions that leave you feeling bad no matter which way you go.

It started with a call from a couple of elderly clients who have used my services several times over a period of years. They are not power users by any means. Their computer is primarily an email facility and occasional vehicle for surfing the Internet.

“Can you help me? Our computer went dark and will not do anything, so we bought a new laptop — well, actually my nephew ordered it for us from Dell. We tried to set it up, but it wants the Internet for the setup, and we cannot seem to access the Internet from the new computer. Also, the box has no lights.”

“Which box? Do you mean the DSL modem?”

“The one the phone company put in so that I can get on the Internet. It used to have lights, but now it doesn’t. The printer is acting funny also. It has a blue light where it never did before.”

So I prepared for a house call with three objectives: (1) determine what is wrong with the desktop (“went dark” is not very helpful), (2) investigate the issue with Internet access, and (3) configure the laptop and add a wireless router. We would see about the printer after considering the first three items. The fact that I had three objectives is important for avoiding the no-win moral dilemma.

Immediately upon entering the office area in their home, I asked the owners if the desktop had failed while they were using it. “No, we turned it off as usual, and we were away for a few days. When we got back, we turned it on and it made some noises, but the screen stayed black.”

It took a few seconds to find and press the power on button for the monitor. The screen lit up with a plaintiff message from the computer saying it was ready to go to work. Nothing else was wrong.

On to the Internet: an even quicker inspection determined that not only was there no power supply plugged into the back, there were no extra unused ones in the general mess. While rummaging around, I did note that the all-in-one printer combination was wireless and Bluetooth enabled. The Bluetooth light was on.

“Do you have any idea what might have happened to the modem power supply?” I asked.

“You mean the black thing? We took it and the box to the office because we thought it was not working right. They said it was okay.”

The best scenario I could come up with was that they had left the power supply sitting on a tech’s counter.

At this point, if they had not purchased a laptop and wanted me to set up it and a wireless router for them, I would have had to decide what to bill them for turning on a monitor and noting they were missing a power supply. These are repeat customers who have referred me to their friends with rave reviews. I did not want to rip them off, but I had made a house call and actually done something for them. If that were the end of the story, I would likely have joked a bit, suggested they purchase a new power supply, and walked out without charging them anything. But at the back of my mind would be the observation that they could spend an extra $800 on a laptop before thinking to call me, so a minimum service charge would not be a strain on their budget, and besides, I was entitled to something for driving out there. Like I said, it would have been a no-win choice. Such things are just part of the cost of doing business if you want to provide a service and keep your clients happy and coming back.

Fortunately they had the laptop. I took it, the router I bought for them, and their modem back to my office where I proceeded to sit it up the way I knew they would want, including piggy-backing the new router on my LAN so I could set up the security for them. After that was done, I swung by the AT&T office to get a new supply for their modem. (By the way, this visit followed the most unsatisfactory telephone experience I believe I have ever had. I called the local number to confirm the store had a power supply in stock and wasted twenty minutes working through the worst menu I have ever experienced. Even repeatedly punching zero only got me hung up. Finally I did get a human who was in the business office is some other city and said she would put me through to the right person. There was a click and eventual open line. I decided to just drive there and risk it. The irony is that this was the telephone service provider!)

Without much trouble, we got the new system going and then had to explain why they were able to look at the same email on either computer. That took a while.

The printer had problems. We all agreed on that. I suggested that I could work on it, but it would cost more than it was worth. They agreed and decided to get a new one and donate the old printer to whoever wanted it. Problem solved.

My invoice was written up to include my time, the parts, and two house calls. It was still less expensive than many alternatives they could have pursued. I felt good. They felt good. I even installed MSE on their desktop for them and did a scan, which luckily came up clean — one never knows in these cases.

I would have not charged them for powering on the monitor and noting a missing power supply, and I would have felt better about walking away than if I had charged them for a house call, but…

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  • Lirving

    Of course you should charge to turn the monitor on. You had to go to the house and do the job. Even if it was only 15 minutes you should charge it – otherwise you start getting lots of calls for trivial things and people will expect you not to charge. Self employed computer techs are really easy marks, they rob themselves. My mother bought a brand new washing machine after 1 wash it stopped working so she called the store she bought it from. The tech walked into the house turned off the “suds save” feature and gave her an invoice for $90.00. My plumber never does anything for nothing nor my Solicitor.
    Why should you?

  • Sdeforest

     I would never buy anything from the washing machine store again and I would tell my friends to avoid it, and I would probably write a nasty post dissing them.  The store would lose more money than it gained.  And that does not even consider Facebook or Twitter.  It all boils down to what your clients (customers) think is fair.  Besides my client had referred me to others.  That is worth something.  Nevertheless, it is a dilemma trying to decide how to maximize your income.  Do you go for a quick short-term profit or try to optimize your long-term income?  Small companies should probably error on the side of maximizing long-term income.

    • Stalemate .

      A technician’s time is worth something, and any time not invested in servicing paying clients is a loss, pure and simple.  

      What the client thinks is fair is secondary to what the technician has ascertained is a fair value for his services (all incidentals, competition and repeat/word of mouth prospects being considered). The client will almost always opt to pay less, or nothing.
      A client who does not learn how to use his equipment should expect that others will benefit from their ignorance, as in any other field. One pays for services he cannot provide for himself, or is uninterested in learning himself.

      • Sdeforest

         I agree in principle, but suppose the buyer posts a flame on FaceBook and the store loses even one sale because of it?  That is not unreasonable.  If a large store is vulnerable, a small business that depends on word of mouth advertising is more vulnerable.

    • Casey Frennier

      Personally, I would expect the sales staff or whoever installed the washer to inform her about the features. There was nothing wrong with the washer other than that the customer wasn’t informed. She could have informed herself with the user manual. I don’t think any blame falls on the service guy for this. 

      Short term profit and long term income are not mutually exclusive. Short term profits over time are long term income.

      • Sdeforest

         Short and long term profits are achieved differently for large and small businesses.  You do not expect much personal service from Wal-Mart. A  small business that comes into your house is another story.

        • Casey Frennier

          I’m not sure Walmart is the best example, yes they have horrible service but they are also have a lot of the lowest prices. Sometimes you get what you pay for and you should get paid for what you offer.

  • JH_Radio

    I agree with you. There is no way  you should charge for such a simple task such as turning on the monitor and a power cord not plugged in. Especially when you consider the fact they are telling there friends about your business. Remember, they’ll probably tel there friends ’bout how the nice  person didn’t charge for such a simple thing that they might not have been able to figure out. (if that was all there was)

    • Stalemate .

      And the next client may well expect the same VIP treatment, balking at every invoice you submit for what *they* then consider “trivial”, no matter how hard you’ve worked to acquire your experience and knowledge and how much you have invested in your career. 

      I speak from personal experience. I’ve had to close my own services consultancy simply because a) invoices kept getting second guessed and b) my skills were trivialized by expectancies of discounts and the like.

      Food for thought. 😉

      • Sdeforest

        Yes, food for thought, and your comments are well taken as are the others.  That is why the piece was labelled a dilemma.  I think that are good arguments to support almost any action.

      • Casey Frennier

        Yeah I agree. It’s hard to put a price tag back on your services after you have devalued them by giving them away. Besides, you incurred expenses (gas, per minute 800 call, not working on something else that would pay) to go there if you don’t get paid you operate at a loss.

        Some people will take a free sample cause it’s free and never buy. The client may never call you again even if you don’t charge them or if they do call you they’ll expect the same free service cause you destroyed it’s value by giving it away the first time. Think about how (if it’s a business) they would otherwise be paying their employee to sit around an do nothing or how they would otherwise be losing business or creating a backlog if the workstation doesn’t work.  The service has value even if the job is trivial or easy.

  • Stalemate .


  • Casey Frennier

    It sounds like you haven’t figured out your pricing to me. You should have set rates for house calls or a rate per mile traveled. Also, set an hourly rate and a minimum of 1/2 hour to 1 hour. Inform the client about these costs before you go. Then if you show up you get paid something and nobody is surprised. Also, if you work for yourself don’t tell them so if its something stupid like not having the monitor turned on you can tell them you have to bill them anyway. Find something to do in the minimum time you are billing like air dusting their computer or giving it a scan for viruses or check their msconfig for things they don’t need in the boot or disabling the 1,000 tool bars they probably have installed in IE. 

    When the computer is open if you see empty ram slots up-sell more RAM & installation it for them. If you see their network is outdated up-sell upgrades to them. If you see that they have a printer attached to every workstation offer to set up a networked printer so they can save on ink by only supplying one printer.

    Charge to go there, have an hourly rate, have a minimum time, inform the client. You get paid for showing up. If it’s something stupid you get an opportunity to learn more about them and their needs and sell them different things. If you can’t sell them on something you still walk out with the trip having been worth your time.

    • Sdeforest

       Let’s agree that the piece was poorly titled.  It should be read “An Economic Dilemma”.  While morality is more important than many people acknowledge, the point I was trying to express is how to best turn this service call into the maximum income.  Charging an immediate fee might be the right answer, but given the history of ongoing business and referrals from this client, I am not sure.  This is a crowded market and one thing that sets me above the others to my clients is the personal service I give them.  A wise man once told me I should always leave a little something on the table.  It will pay off in the long run.  He was a self-made mufti-millionaire who followed his own teaching.

  • Casey Frennier

    I agree with the comment on the self employed computer techs being easy marks and robbing themselves.

    Just because it’s not hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bill for it. I take my car in for an oil change and a mechanic sleepwalks through the task that is probably quite mundane for them but they still bill me for hourly labor even though most of the time spent is just the oil draining out slowly.  For me disposing of oil is enough of a pain that I don’t want to do it myself.

    The washing machine tech doesn’t set his prices. He can’t not bill the client for showing up even if all he did was press a button. It’s not up to him. Maybe he could have spent some time balancing the washer or something so it spins out quieter or maybe he could have spent some time teaching her to use it and informing her about the features but he probably needed to get to his next repair job.

    Or maybe she could have just read the manual.