Sunday, September 06, 2009

Clients Who Cannot Manage Themselves

One of the great disappointments we have is clients who take no role in managing their own technology. And, as a result, their technology expenses are out of their control and ours.

One of the great promises we make with managed services is that clients can accurately budget for their technology. And we can have accurate estimates of our income.

There are basically three types of clients who cannot manage themselves.

1) Ignore Advice, Pay the Price

2) Act First, Think Later

3) Technology Just Shows Up

For each of these I'm tempted to say "this is the most common," but they're all so common. Among clients who can't manage themselves with regard to technology, I think these three groups are pretty well divided.

Ignore Advice, Pay the Price

These folks know for an absolute fact that they should do what you tell them . . . but they don't.

So how do you spot these clients? Well, they send you emails like this (actual quote):

    "And, having just talked about the fact that my external drive is not backed up . . . when I was transferring files from the external drive to my new computer, I noticed that what I was transferring was taking a long time. I did not think anything I was transferring should take so long so I hit cancel. I later discovered that I was transferring some huge client graphic files by accident and when I hit cancel, those files (which are invaluable) are gone! Is there any way to recover them from the external drive?"

Let me translate:
1) I didn't take your advice.
2) I'm screwed.
3) The cost is irrelevant.

These people are perfectly honest and forthright: I should have taken your advice. I didn't. Here we are. The way they phrase the communication, there's no doubt that this is totally their fault. And billable.

The Problem: It's our job to manage their technology. Therefore, it's our job to stop this madness however we can. We don't WANT to say "I told you so" while handing them a bill.

Act First, Think Later

This group refuses to plan a single day in advance, let alone a week, month, or year.

These are the people who call and say they have a new employee starting today. WHAT? You had an emergency hire? You didn't define the job, advertise for it, collect resumes, interview candidates, negotiate a salary, make an offer, and schedule a start date?

You woke up and hired someone before 8:00 AM?

Or, let's take the example of the client who calls and says "Larry doesn't work here any more. Nuke him." We create a service request to follow our standard procedure . . .

- Determine who should get his new email
- Determine who should have access to his old email
- Archive his email to a PST
- Move data from his desktop to where it's supposed to be on the server
- Disable the user account
- After a pre-defined period of time . . . Delete the user
- Execute any client-specific procedures

and then . . . a week later . . .

A service request comes in to create a user name and logon for Larry. The same Larry.

I don't even want to know what's going on. But both of these events (out with the old, in with the new) are billable. No questions asked.

The Problem: It's our job to manage their technology. Therefore, it's our job to help them plan ahead. We hold road map meetings and have to practically drag some of these people into the conference room to save them money with proper planning! And then they still do this.

Technology Just Shows Up

I'll never forget the first time I walked into a prospect's office and he gave me a tour of the office. There were 100GB and 250GB USB drives scattered all over the place. In fact, at several stations he commented that he didn't know this person had one.

People brought in scanners from home and wanted them to work. They brought in "favorite" keyboards and mouses. Software just showed up and the company was grateful to have it.

We decided this is not the kind of client we want on managed service.

But, unfortunately, we have such clients on managed service. "I bought a great PC at Best Buy for only $399. Can you connect it to the network?"

Sure. $200 for an upgrade from Home Edition. Disable all the memory stick readers that create hardwired drives E through L. Upgrade the RAM for another $50. Add a three year warranty for $150. Labor for upgrades = about $450.

Man, you sure saved a bunch of money on that pile of crap! And it's still not a business class computer. It's a cheap piece of junk with a warranty.

The problem is: It's our job to manage their technology. This person needs to be served. But they love shiny objects and have a totally false sense of economy.

The worst case I ever saw was back in the days of modems and bulletin boards. I had a client who bought seventy (70) cube-shaped modems and velcroed them all together into a flexible wall of technology. I wish I'd taken a picture. It was funny and beautiful to behold. Until a modem in the middle of the wall had a problem. Then it was an hour's worth of labor just to get the little bugger out.

I think the real problem here is that people with a technical bent are convinced that what we do is "easy." And maybe it is. But easy in what way? It's easy to buy the wrong thing. It's easy to gerry-rig something to make it (mostly) work. It's easy to get by. It's easy to make bad decisions.

And that easy way always costs more money.

- - - - -

The Key Points

1) I'm not trying to create a system where I make more money off all these things.

On the contrary, I want to make a little less money, enjoy a lot less hassle, and have a client who is much happier in the long run. My long term view is that clients will eventually recognize that we're saving them money and they'll renew their contracts forever.

2) Technology does not have to be a hassle.

When I look at our best behaved clients I see:

- Servers that last 3-4 years with zero hardware problems
- Zero calls to HP for tech support
- Operating systems that are perfectly patched and just work
- Desktops that last 3-4 years with zero hardware problems
- Scanners, printers, and faxes that just work
- Reliable internet and network equipment

Technology is not a hassle. It is completely in the background so the client can focus on their work.

Total extra cost for that up front: maybe 10%.

Total savings over three years: hundreds of hours. Hundreds. Tens of thousands of dollars.

Some people believe that technology is always a hassle because they always cut corners and make bad decisions with no planning. They do this to themselves.

3) Converting people to the right behavior requires more carrot and less stick. It also requires a technician who is more preacher and less mule skinner*.

You can "punish" your clients by charging emergency rates for bad decisions, and full price to fix all their junk. And you can shove it in their face and make them feel like idiots.

But who wants to have that kind of relationship with their clients? Not me.

Technicians sometimes get into a frenzy of talking about all the stupid things clients do. But they're not stupid. 1) They're not technicians, and 2) They're making choices without complete information and a philosophy about technology.

A few people will get a big bill, learn their lesson, and change their ways.

But most wayward clients need to be talked to -- gently -- about how technology works and how we can all make good decisions that save money in the long run.

Our best clients request planning meetings between our quarterly reviews. They plan everything a full year in advance. They make rational decisions. They engage us in the process. And they save a ton of money every year.

Unfortunately, you can't convert these clients quickly. You have to gently guide them along month after month, year after year. Some never learn. But many become converts and begin preaching the religion of planned technology. And those are very enjoyable clients to have.

* For non-American readers, and all under 40: A mule skinner is the person who drives the mule train. They do not "skin" the mule, even if it doesn't listen. The term comes from using a whip to beat the mule. And because these lonely people spend all day and all night with only their mules, they talk to the mules. That includes threats to skin them if they don't behave.

Does that sound like one of your technicians? :-0


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  1. Very interesting Karl, unfortunately most of our customers at the moment seem to be in the wrong category.

    Recently picked up a client who appreciates technology and what a difference it makes!

    I really like the idea of moulding your clients into the right type, even if it can take years.


  2. We spend a lot of time "training" our clients to get them out of those three categories. We've got about 75% of clients that've been with us over 2 years trained now, but there will always be exceptions.

    I'm severely tempted to fire some of them and let someone else do their high-stress break/fix hand holding, but they're some of our most profitable clients for that same reason.

    I love/hate them. Great post, Karl!


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