Why Have Everything in Writing When it Comes to Invoicing?

sign-contract

Guest Post by Micah Lahren:
I’m sure we’ve all been there before. We’re called in to migrate applications and data from an old machine to a new one, which may or may not include proprietary software from obscure companies who only do business with a limited industry sector. You’ve arrived, and get down to it. You start going through the checklist of items on the old machine, asking the client or the client’s employees exactly what they use on the computer, and what other data will need to be transferred. Meanwhile, they’re more interested in listening to the latest album of their favorite band on their MP3 player than answering your questions. The answers you get?

"I don’t know if we use that or not…"

"Well, I don’t think we use that one…"

"Steve’s out of the office, he knows all that stuff…"

You’ve possibly driven an hour or more to take care of this client, but the individuals left in charge of the office aren’t knowledgeable enough to answer your questions. Perhaps they were only hired a few months ago and aren’t completely familiar with all the operations performed by the company. Just to be safe, you include the programs the client wasn’t sure if they needed or not, and perform the transfer. Upon completion of the transfer, it’s discovered that some of the applications refuse to perform correctly, or worse, fail to launch at all. Upon further inquiry, you discover that the individual you’re dealing with doesn’t actually possess the installation media in any form, and also doesn’t know where to obtain it.

A routine data transfer has more or less turned into a circus act, minus the screaming monkeys. On the other hand, maybe you’re the one screaming like a monkey now. After you do some technical detective work and track down the companies responsible for the inoperable software, you finally get everything installed and working correctly. All the network drives have been remapped, and everything is how it should be. The printers, scanners, fax machines, and other pieces of hardware have all been reinstalled and are operational. Convincing the client to drop their MP3 player just for 10 minutes, you reboot the system and inquire as to whether everything they need is working as it should. Upon final testing, everything seems to be finished.

After several hours of jumping through fiery hoops trying to locate proprietary software sources and obscure business application companies, downloading hundreds of megabytes of printer software and drivers because original media was missing, and final testing to ensure absolutely everything is working, you leave the premises and return to other service calls. The next day, the client calls you back. “Nothing is working! You took too long to do it anyway! We’re not paying you, and we’re calling someone else!”

Have Everything in Writing Before and After the Work

Routine service calls such as malware removal or simple hardware installation rarely turn messy like the scenario mentioned earlier. You usually deal with the individual who is most knowledgeable about the system you’re working on, and they generally care enough to know what they need done. But occasionally you’ll run into scenarios where you’re dealing with employees of a company who sometimes couldn’t care less what happens to their computer until they are under pressure to complete tasks that require them to use that computer.

In situations like that, you need to have everything in writing beforehand. Two basic steps will save you a lot of headaches, and possibly much more, including your reputation as an experienced Tech. If you already have the CBK from Technibble, which I will talk about in a bit, you’ve already got all these bases covered with the plethora of forms available to you in the kit, but if you don’t, you’ll need to implement the following steps below with your own forms.

1. Do investigative work and use preparation techniques. Write/Type out everything you’ll be doing, and require their signature or written consent to perform it. If this involves migration of data and applications, require a list of all data locations and applications that will need to be transferred to be given to you via email or fax, before you do the work. This requires the client (or the client’s employees, if the client isn’t knowledgeable about the systems being used) to be at least marginally knowledgeable about what they actually use on their computer. Require that all installation media for the applications be available, and when media is missing, require contact details for the companies responsible for the software you will be dealing with.

Most companies have this kind of information easily available in a filing system for future reference. For other service calls of a less detailed nature, simple notation of what work you’re about to perform should be sufficient, along with their signature or initials for confirmation. You should also have some information regarding what liability you will or will not have depending on what issue may resurface after your work is done, such as a warranty limitation or exclusions. This may seem like overkill, but in many cases, it will protect you and your reputation in the long run.

2. After the work has been completed, pull out that paperwork you prepared, with a space for them to add their signature with a note that all work was completed to their satisfaction, and that all programs and applications are completely operational. Any issues that may pop up later, due to the incompetence of the computer user, cannot be traced back to your previous work, as all work was noted as being completed to their complete satisfaction, with their signature. In the case of routine service calls such as malware removal, this will also negate the possibility of individuals complaining that you didn’t actually remove the malware, when in all actuality, you did remove it, but they inadvertently repeated the bad move that put the malware on their system in the first place.

This kind of paperwork requires that you be absolutely sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have completed all requested work. For basic examples, the malware was completely eliminated with no traces left, or you tested all applications you transferred to ensure compatibility and operational status, or you located all the data you transferred and ensured there was nothing missing.

As I mentioned, this may sound like overkill to many, but I vividly remember experiences where this kind of paperwork could have saved me many headaches, but I had not yet implemented my paperwork strategy to that level of effectiveness. Most of us love working with tech, and I speak for myself when I say sometimes the paperwork aspect can suffer as a result of being focused on the work more than the paperwork. Perhaps you don’t feel you have the time, energy, motivation, or creativity you need to effectively create the forms that would be indispensable in situations where having things in writing is imperative. You don’t have to create them yourself. They’re already available in Technibble’s CBK, the Computer Business Kit.

In the CBK, you’ll have access to forms such as the Data Backup Checklist, which outlines exactly what data you’ll be backing up, and has slots for the client to list exactly what applications they’ll require along with keys or serial numbers for those applications. Browsers and browser data are also included in the information gathered beforehand. You’ll also find the Engagement Forms, which detail such things as liability in the case of data loss or other situations, along with information regarding liability in the scenario of incomplete or inaccurate information supplied by the client, which is a successful prevention method of severe complications and many headaches.

You’ll also find the handy ‘Work Order’ form, which includes warranty information regarding your work, along with exclusions designed to protect you from such things as user error or user inflicted infection of the computer you just finished working on. All of these forms are easily modified to fit the specific situation you may find yourself in, so I really recommend getting the CBK. I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg, you might say, in the way of the amount and variety of forms encompassed in the kit, as I’ve only mentioned a few. You’ll most likely also find the maintenance forms useful as well, as most of us do regular maintenance for companies who rely on their machines 24/7.

In conclusion, I’d just like to reiterate the importance of having everything in writing. You never know when you’ll be asked to do work around the lines of the scenario mentioned at the start. It will happen, sooner or later, and with the Computer Business Kit under your arm, you’re well prepared for any similar situation. I’m sure you’d agree that your reputation, time, money, and sanity are worth the paperwork involved in having those work forms filled out and signed by the client. In addition, you’re much less likely to put on a screaming monkey act when things go awry.

Guest Post by Micah Lahren – Micah covers a wide spectrum of the tech industry, including PC repair, front-end development, WIMAX networking and installation, and more. He currently works with an ISP in Texas that also provides web hosting/design and computer repair, although he’s been tinkering with computers since he was 6 and eventually turned it into a career. He also enjoys traveling and doing volunteer missions in other countries.



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Comments (10)

  • BigNerd says:

    What you have described is essentially a Statement of Work, a damn good thing to have. This requires the input of the customer, in detail, and if you can’t get it you should consider halting work until you do get it, especially on larger projects.

    • Micah says:

      You’ve hit the nail on the head. When you’re working on a large project it becomes even more important.

  • Tony Scarpelli says:

    I have the opposite opinion. I feel that having a client, especially a brand new one you met a few moments ago sign anything resembling a legal contract will have the effect of scaring of some. People seldom read them and they will wonder what is in them. They instinctively know that they are to protect you not them. Their guard will go up as they feel they are about to be hoodwinked or hog tied. They won’t say “I dont trust you but I am not going with you.” they will say things like “let me think about it.” and you never hear from them again. This is an invisible cost to you as you will never know what happened.

    Perhaps not so in some of the more litigious states like California where nobody does anything without talking to their lawyer but it definitely does hurt you in trusting environments such as in the Midwest.

    I was operating about 3 years when I got into a disagreement with a client about the exact way of completing a job and I ended up doing more work for free (in my mind) to get the job completed and to get paid. This angered me so i went out and got a contract/invoice that clearly spelled out my scope of job, when I get paid, who pays court costs and put some responsibility on the client to check and approve some of those check points in large projects/items during the course of the job rather than a pass fail at the end. I had these contract-invoices layed out and printed professionally by a print shop. They were very attractive, expensive, had a map/ledger on part of the front with room for me to write directions from the closes major intersection, I was very proud of myself for having accomplished this. They were 3 part NCR paper so I could give a copy with the bid, another copy for my work order and their copy for the final invoice for payment. I think I had about 5000 made and it cost me a bundle.

    Front was the invoice, back was the terms. I made sure it was all in non legalese so not to scare folks. It was plain language. It had 13 one or two sentence statements/elements or paragraphs and fit easily on one page the back of the invoice.

    It also said that if they refused to pay, if I wont in court they would pay court costs.

    My acceptance rate on jobs and projects immediately fell like a rock. I am the type that writes down all my proposals/bids and keeps track of my closing ratio and using that ratio as an indicator of whether something is wrong with my presentation or price or changes in the market and what have you. My acceptance rate dropped like a rock and which immediately pointed to the new invoices. Previous to that i had used a invoice pad purchased at office max with my name/address and logo printed on the top with a ink pad I would stamp on them after purchasing the pad. No legal mumbo jumbo, no declarations….

    I tried using them for a month or so to see if it was me, some how focusing the attention to them and causing my own problems. Never recovered my sales until I stopped using those invoices. They were nothing spooky at all. Why did they effect my sales. I had no idea that they might so it wasn’t a self fulfilling prophecy.

    I am sorry and I do not mean to be disagreeable to the author of this article but I feel strongly that people should be aware of the alternative actions that might happen if they bone up on “paperwork.”

    • Micah says:

      Not having seen your paperwork, it would be impossible for me to say what might have scared off your potential customers. I do know that having this documentation is very important, especially for larger businesses who provide services to other major businesses with the potential for data loss or scenarios where liability could become an issue. I always recommend that the client look through the paperwork and ask any questions if they have any concerns about any of the terms.

      Sadly, you will run into individuals who intend to cause trouble when they contract your services. If your current clients were scared away by your new paperwork, it might be interesting to ask them what about the documentation discouraged them from using your services. If it was potential clients who were scared off by the paperwork, it might be interesting to ask them the same question as well, and the answer might be that they intended to rip you off from the start but see how professionally you’ve documented everything and aren’t willing to attempt it. It is also entirely probable your paperwork protected you from taking on jobs that would have wasted your time, money, and resources, but these are only my estimates of the situation, and as you know your community best, it would be better for the business owner to discern what would work best in their community and adapt to it.

    • BigNerd says:

      Tony, you are misunderstanding what a Statement of Work is. It is a separate document from a contract, though often incorporated as an amendment to the contract. It doesn’t say anything about terms, jurisdiction or anything like that. It speaks only to the scope of the work so that you can avoid working for free, as you mentioned in your post. The best Statements of Work are the ones that you sit down with your customer and agree on the Statement. You should never write it up, hand it to your customer and demand that they sign it. In order for it to be a successful project, it requires you and your customer to fully agree and understand what is to be done and what each party is responsible for.

      They were a requirement in my last corporate job and I can tell you that businesses like knowing exactly what they are getting for their money. And yes, it will save your bacon. But it will also give the customer something they can use to hold your feet to the fire. Done right, it is a good selling point and a sign of professionalism.

      • Matthew says:

        I think Tony is exactly right. It’s not that WE don’t know what a statement of work is. Its that the customer doesn’t. In fact, I’m been in this business for 20 years and can probably count on one hand the customers who wouldn’t be either offended or put off by signing a “statement of work”. I’m not disagreeing with its merit. In fact I think it’s a wonderful idea.. in a perfect world. Maybe this is an area by area thing, I don’t know. In my neck of the woods though, this wouldn’t fly at all.

  • Brett D says:

    How is this the proper way to do business at all? I get the point of the article is about proper documentation – but if you get yourself in the situation you started with — holy cow.

    You show up to an office and perform a migration of all their software suites on a whim? You go off of what sally-the-receptionist says they use and don’t talk to the people in charge or use the system daily? You don’t verify all the major software packages, required vendors and go over what the procedure would require and the estimated time before hand? You don’t check with their vendors on system requirements/versions/etc etc?

    Honestly I’m just flabbergasted at how many steps were just done incorrectly from stage one of this job, documentation is almost the least of your worries…

    • Micah says:

      I share your consternation of the scenario I discussed. Proper documentation from the start would have been invaluable. The individual in charge was perhaps unavailable, and wasn’t even knowledgeable to any helpful extent as far as the software his business used. The individual at the outset was speaking to those who used the system daily, but they cared little about functionality while the work was being done. They had also refused system recommendations from the Tech, and had gone out to Walmart to get ‘cheap computers’ for their office. They also had poor to no documentation for their software, which left the Tech scrambling to find anything he could use. It was a good illustration, however, of how important preparation is, including documentation, and the necessity for paperwork that covers such scenarios.

  • Tony Scarpelli says:

    I was so focused on saying what i disagreed with that I forgot to say what I agreed with.

    I do agree to write a brief email, letter, or even text if it does the trick saying what was agreed to be performed.

    At technibble we run the gambit of break fix to full fledged consultants so no situation is covered the same way for all of us. I am not against scope of work however I have only done business once or twice with a company that wrote a scope of work and I got screwed so i start walking backwards when someone presents a scope of work letter to me.

    In nearly every project of substance (more than 1, 2 or 3 hrs) I use the letter rule. This is where you send a letter (these days an email) and if they letter is not replied to with substantial disagreement then it has the effect of a agreement as in a written contract.

  • Archie Courtney-Wildman says:

    Leaving aside the problem of covering the possibility of recovering the goodwill or unpaid monies from clients, it seems that the subject, as treated, is somewhat false.
    On all my machines I have a copy of BELARC Advisor.
    This recalculates each time it is opened and gives a Computer Profile Summary that lists a complete statement of the state of that computer.
    In the case of installed software (used or unused)it states whether a piece of software has been used recently or within certain time scales. This is given so that unused software can be checked to make sure one does not pay for unwanted updates.
    Please try this next time on a client’s machine and you might be surprised at the quantity and quality of data given.

    Thank you Technibbble

    Regards

    Archie Courtney-Wildman