The Doohickey and the Thingy

This is the third article concerning why and how technically oriented but unemployed individuals should consider offering freelance technical support. The first part is here. There second part is here.

Part of the problem in educating clients is their reluctance to stray beyond the surface of the technology. They do not, for example, necessarily know the names of the parts of the interface. For them, the mouse and the cursor are the same thing. A window is, well, pretty much any squarish thing on the screen and the screen itself. A toolbar is a row of buttons is a bunch of little pictures. A file is a folder is a document is a program is an application is a page is a thingy. They misuse the jargon, and you’ll find yourself correcting them.

I usually modify Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law like this: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable.” Period.

What does this misuse of the jargon tell us? Well, for one, your clients are productive without having mastered details. You might tell them that if they learned keyboard commands they’d be a good deal more productive than if they used the mouse for everything. But their jobs can be done without keyboard commands. They accomplish, usually, what they set out to do.

None of us ever reaches absolute productivity: even those who know computers from the bit level up to the least GUI widget seem to master high levels of productivity only to create more time to waste. That ten minutes saved every day because you know all the Word keyboard commands is in contrast to all the time you spend sending instant messages full of trash talk to the rest of your fantasy football league.

The lesson to be learned from those who do not know the details of the programs is that the technology is masked for them. They are unconcerned with its subtleties. Ultimate productivity is only the province of managers and employers, and particularly in a home environment, lingering slowly over a task is akin to mulling over the lines of a poem. Inefficiency can be useful. It puts the work back into the head of the user, and pulls the task away from the tools. The result becomes more important than the process.

Few are the writers who can sit before a blank page, either virtual or physical, and in one pass, without editing, compose text that is error-free and suitable for immediate publishing. The same goes for computer tasks: it cannot all be done or learned in a single pass.

What you are imparting to your clients is not necessarily how to become better computer users, but how to do their work with skill and quality. That requires a different kind of teaching.

Avoid turning education and learning into tyranny. There are benefits to the slow route.

The Money.

Some techs have a nickel-and-dime mindset that’s hard to shake. The way I see it, that nickel-and-diming is doom for a tech support freelancer.

Here’s my advice:

Don’t bill for travel time. In a city like New York, even with the high density of businesses, you can spend up to a third of your work day traveling from client to client. I’m sure it’s similar elsewhere. It’s kind of painful to accept that most of your day is spent on non-billable tasks.

I know there are people who do bill for travel time, but I disagree with the practice. This is another whole level of work: we are not dealing with the EDSs of the world. We are dealing with small businesses who will not pay for forty-five minutes you spent on the subway, or traversing country roads behind a tractor, or inching along the cloverleaf exchange.

Travel time should be silently accounted for in your agreed-upon billable rate, not separated out, because clients only want to pay for what you do when you’re on-site. It takes a whole chunk of potential distrust out of the picture, because clients don’t have to drum up the faith to believe there really was an accident on the autobahn which made your commute a half-hour longer than it should have been, an accident for which you intend that they compensate you. It’s better never to have to have that discussion about which parts of travel time you will and will not bill for.

I also say, don’t charge for phone and email support. For one thing, if you can solve a problem over the phone or via email, it saves you from having to visit an office. That’s commuting time saved, thus your money saved, and gives the impression of responsiveness. Time you don’t spend traveling is time you can give to another client, and for which you may be able to bill.

Solving a fifteen-minute problem on the phone beats traveling for twenty minutes each way to solve a fifteen-minute problem and billing for your hour minimum, and not including it on your bill looks great to the client. Clients accept that you have a minimum billing time of an hour or two, but they don’t like it. If an invoice is crowded with 20-minute jobs which are billed at a full hour each, then more trust has drained away, because it looks like maybe those jobs could have been consolidated. You need to have the client trust you, and you do this by removing all the possible ways they can distrust you.

Giving away free telephone and email support also allows you to handle more than one client at a time. A good deal of tech time involves waiting for something to finish: an installer, a boot process, a disk check, a format, a phone call for warranty support. If you’re not giving the phone and email work away free, clients feel like you’re cheating them by double-timing with another client. And do you think you’ll be able to get away with saying, “This call I will charge for, but that one I won’t”? It’s all or none because you who do the billing cannot be trusted to track and log all your phone calls. That’s just the way it is.

On the other hand, if you give support away free to one client while sitting in the office of another, the client whose office you are sitting in knows she can have the same service in return. That kind of multitasking goes some way to giving you sense of presence in more than one place at a time. Your clients have the impression that you are readily available, even if you’re not present. You also reduce the perceived response time. Even for the largest problem, just returning a phone call is often enough to give an a client the impression that the problem is on the way to being handled.

Of course, you’ve got to be a good judge of when a problem cannot be handled over the phone.

Some techs charge for phone and travel time in order to prevent clients from calling for useless requests or idle questions. I think this barrier is best put in place by having a minimum charge for each on-site service call: a one-hour minimum charge, a two-hour minimum charge, whatever you think the market will bear. Others set a flat rate each month for phone and email support, a kind of all-you-can-eat plan in which, say, 100 minutes cost $100. This sort of avoids the trust issue, but it causes another problem: Clients will be less inclined to call you.

An additional advantage to not charging for email and phone support is that it strengthens the ties between you and the client. You may want them to feel like they can call you for anything, at just about any time, without worrying about a running meter; that’s how you get more office visits and thus billable hours. If they feel like they can call you for just about anything, then they’ll be more likely to call you to have you come in to look at a problem. Of course, as mentioned, some clients don’t know when to call and when not to call, so you have to open that “call me anytime” window on a client-by-client basis.

Having free phone and email support also lets you keep in touch with the daily problems you might not otherwise hear about, and it lets you inside the working patterns of the office. This makes up for one of the weaknesses of having a freelance tech rather than someone on staff. As someone who is not always present to watch the company’s machinery churn, you are less capable than you might be at heading off problems before they occur, recognizing when preventive maintenance should be done, and developing long-term strategies. Phone calls from clients remedy some of that.

And you become the hero: so often problems are resolvable over the phone that you seem to be a magician who can wave her wand from afar. It’s nice. Even better, it’s faster. If the client has the patience to be walked through twenty minutes of troubleshooting, and the problem is resolved, it’s faster than waiting for you to visit in person.

That’s not to say that you should always work this way. Handling support remotely is a double-edged sword, and more often than you might expect, you’ll be wounded.

I recently, as often happens, took over a client from another freelance tech support person. He was technically capable. A bit of a social misfit, but he knew his hardware and software, and had a solid in-depth understanding of Windows-based file, web and email servers.

But his weakness was that he stretched himself too thin. He installed PCAnywhere on all the office machines, opened up a port on the router, setup a VPN connection, and handled a good deal of his tasks remotely. He charged for his remote time.

The network was fairly solid. The client machines were stable. There were a few niggling but recurrent problems, but all in all, he was doing a pretty good job behind the scenes, handling most issues remotely.

But he was fired. Let go, if you prefer. Why? Because the client never saw him. They couldn’t connect the decent reliability of the systems with the work he was doing off-site, and when he sent in his monthly bills, they had a hard time with the itemized hours. Sure, he could say he did those things, and spent that time, but it required a level of trust that they didn’t quite have. Now, it’s true: if he’d done the exact same work on-site, they’d have just about the same level of disconnection between his performance and the results. They didn’t know what he was doing, no matter where he did it.

But the key was that when they saw him, they knew he was working, even if they didn’t know the exact details. This is not particular to this client; this is the way human beings work. It’s one of the biggest pitfalls of telecommuting: people need to see you. They need to be reminded of your presence. When reminded of your presence, they are reminded of what you do for them.

This fired fellow might not have been let go if he’d have changed his way of working. For one, he often used his remote access for preventative maintenance. It was the kind of thing the client didn’t ask him to do. On the bill line items it would show up as “purged log files” or “optimized drives,” but only when the work was reactive and responsive to a problem did the client feel it was “authorized.” That is, although they would not put it in these words, exactly, they felt he was doing make-work and then billing for it.

A better way of handling it might have been to include such maintenance as part of a standard schedule, or better, to do it when called in on some other matter, preferably one that was mundane. When you say, “I went ahead and updated the virus definitions while I took care of that other problem; you should be all set for the next month” it sounds like a bonus. Added value, as the buzzwords have it. Like so many other things, it’s a matter of presentation.

Another way he might have changed his way of working would be to send informative email updates to all relevant people every time he did something remotely. Not, “You should be all better now,” or worse, an email with only the word “FIXED” in it, but, “I re-enabled your account as requested, disabled the automatic password expiration, and raised the number of allowed login attempts to six from three. Let me know if you have any other problems.”

Matèriel.

A few items I recommend having:

— It’s better if you have your own laptop to take with you. That’s suddenly raised the bar, hasn’t it? But you don’t have to have one to start. It just helps. Odds are you’re going to keep a stock of updaters and installers on there, and if the client’s computer is down, it’s nice to be able to connect to the Internet on your own to do research. One with a built-in CD-ROM burner is useful, too, so you can do on-the-fly burning when you’re about to wipe a drive, or when you’ve recovered files, or when you need to create a custom boot CD.

— A decent selection of boot and repair compact discs and floppy disks is absolutely necessary, whether or not you have a laptop. System install discs couldn’t hurt either, but it’s hard to know exactly what you’ll need (particularly since many clients not only don’t know what operating system they run, but can’t figure it out even if you tell them how to find out).

— A basic tool kit with strong screwdrivers. You don’t want to strip screw heads, so make sure the ridges are sharp. Tiny screwdrivers are also essential, as are hex or Torx wrenches.

— A mini-switch or mini-hub and at least two Ethernet cables. This allows you to split off of any Ethernet connection you can get ahold of without depriving the primary jack-user of service, and it allows for easy machine-to-machine data transfers when no faster option is available.

In closing I should point out that these articles have not addressed how to manage your taxes, whether you should incorporate, or how to deal with health and liability insurance. I do not have expertise in those areas. You should seek a professional tax and financial advisor, preferably one who specializes in freelancers, and who knows the struggles of young businesses. These are not issues which should be left to chance.

I also want to reiterate what should be clear by now: this is not a path strewn with roses. Yet, the price of entry is low, and in certain ways, you can feel like a rock star: everyone will want a piece of you, but they will also laud you. You can become known as the person who does a certain thing, and does it well.

Good luck.

Posted August 6, 2003

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