Thunder Data Systems

Reigning in On Unpaid Time

Reigning in On Unpaid Time

When do you invoice clients for changes and additions to their project? In one of my posts, I discussed our reputation for handholding and the challenges we have faced through the expectation that we would continue to work tirelessly on a client’s behalf–often at no charge well after development ended. In the last week, we have had four clients request changes, improvements, or additions, and most haven’t given a thought to possible charges.

Case 1: Website software – No matter how much you believe you’ve nailed down a design, miscommunication happens. Maybe this is a learning process for us, or maybe other companies anticipate these changes and charge accordingly. Regardless, the design our client requested was not the one we heard. And until I know how to get over that hurdle, we will always absorb the cost of miscommunication.

The misunderstanding came to light as our client requested new features. When I told him of the extra cost, our client believed he should not be invoiced since he already paid X amount. Stacy came to an interesting conclusion: clients feel that if they are paying $20,000 for a software product, they should not be charged for a few hours here or a handful there. After all, what is that trivial amount in comparison to the whole charge?

Total unbilled time: 14 hours

Case 2: Website Design – Our client wanted a very simple design. In fact, he wanted us to recreate a brochure design as his web interface–“exactly”. But six–count them, six!–modified designs later encompassing everything from logo changes, to border and background modifications, to an entirely different and final look, he settled on his current design. To our fault, it wasn’t until design #4 that we told him that his “exact design” was no longer exact, and the barebones price was no longer that. If he wanted us to continue, we needed a very nominal amount to pay for the fifth change. He didn’t like it, but agreed. Moreover, he ended up requesting yet another design at full rate.

Total time unpaid: 4 hours

Case 3: Website Application – Quickbooks is the standard bookkeeping software and one we like to integrate into our online applications. For this client, we were creating a ThunderCart extension to upload a complete parts listing, shipping weights, and general information for online sales. Any changes in Quickbooks–our client’s primary tool for shipping and invoicing, would cascade to the online commerce module. There were three additions to the software. We sent out the final invoice for all work today including all charges for the additions. We will report this outcome later.

Case 4: Website Application – We have completed one of our largest projects and to our credit (this time), we probably hit the quote right on the money, so we are happy there. But over the last few days they have requested minor changes to email alerts, interface wording, et cetera. This time has already cost a couple of hours. Minor? Yes! However, we realize that we must convey the message that this application’s development is over and has been complete for several months. I have a feeling that Stacy’s conclusion is going to show up in this case when we do point out that changes are not included after development is complete. We’ll report back on this project.

These four cases demonstrate the need for us to create even better documentation spelling out our obligations, client expectations, and how modifications or improvements are handled. We are working on some in-house processes to reign in some of this time. For example, we want to:

  1. Differentiate client improvements or changes from our bugs or errors and charge when appropriate.

  2. Convey the message that “10 minute” changes never actually take 10 minutes and that multiple, separately requested changes are far more time consuming than several handled at one time and may incur additional charges.

  3. Stop programmers and designers from making ad hoc improvements regardless of the reason without prior approval. Sometimes, a programmer feels that a few extra hours invested here or there will help improve the overall product. This is fine when we are dealing with a client that wants and is willing to pay for top-notch design. But there are clients that–due to funding challenges–want the greatest measurable results at the lowest cost even if the design might be slightly more cumbersome. Their philosophy is “grow as you go”, and they are willing to hold off on bells and whistles until they have the money to implement them.

  4. Reduce overall client communication. We can do this by waiting to address a single item to see if one or two more crop up. Or we can cut down on pleasantries in our emails to keep them to one or two lines. Shortness can be confused with terseness. I’ve told everyone here that when emails are particularly short, we can add exclamation points and smiley faces to soften the tone. All agreed! :)

We’ll continue to monitor our efforts on reigning in on unpaid time and report back our results. Time is money, and these four cases alone would have bought us a heck of a lot more than a couple of rounds at the Gingerman!

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