Thursday, November 01, 2007

Email can be tricky

Personally I think business would have be better off if email had never been invented but we're stuck with it now so it's important to learn how to use it properly. I consider myself reasonably accomplished in this area but today has been a day that tested my emailing skills and my restraint.

This email exchange came just after sending my monthly invoices to my tech support clients for October. I've been working on a network upgrade for the past few months for one of my clients and quite frankly it's been a nightmare. The reasons for this have been more bad luck than anyone in particular's fault and I've been trying hard to keep them happy through the process. I emailed them their monthly invoice this morning with some trepidation and waited to see what came back if anything.

Here is the reply I received shortly afterwards

Lachlan

As previously communicated I am concerned as to the length of time and now the budgeted cost overrun it is taking to complete the project. Also the fact that costs are being incurred in relation to <COMPANY NAME DELETED> are substantiallly as a result of the delay in the implementing the new server and network. I respectfully ask that you review your fees in relation to <COMPANY NAME DELETED>.

I also ask that you advise us of your anticipated completion. My expectation is that you allocate sufficent time to complete in 1 or 2 days and so as not to have such large lead times between visits.

Regards

Frank Jones

As I said this project has been a nightmare and I'm sympathetic to Frank's concerns (not his real name). I'd already discounted more than 50% of my charges from my previous few months' invoices due to these problems and that was without being asked to do so. I wasn't crazy about the idea of discounting this latest invoice even further. One of the reasons for the large lead times between visits that Frank speaks of is I was losing so much money doing Frank's work that I had to service other clients to ensure I didn't go broke.

What to do?

I had two options, either agree or refuse to further discount my latest invoice.

To refuse would probably result in the client going elsewhere and to be honest that would almost be a relief. I didn't like the idea of them walking with such a bad impression of me so I wanted to avoid that if possible.

That only left agreeing to discount my invoice even further and losing even more money. How much money though? Every amount I thought of was either too big for me to happily accept or too small to prevent Frank from being dissatisfied. There was obviously a sweet spot, a level that would keep Frank happy but not send me broke. I was struggling on how to find that sweet spot when I came up with a brain wave.

I would ask Frank.

Frank knows how much he wants to pay. He's a reasonable guy and I think I can trust him not to send me broke.

I eagerly sat back down at my desk and tapped out the following reply.

Hello Frank,

I am deeply concerned by the issues you have raised and express my sincere apologies for the delay in providing you with the services you have contracted me to provide.

I acknowledge that this project has been somewhat of a train wreck and true to form, continues to cause problems for me to this day. I have done my best to insulate <COMPANY NAME DELETED> from these problems by never leaving you with inoperative systems between visits and forgiving $2700 in labour charges over the past 3 months.

I have taken onboard your suggestions regarding my project scheduling and will endeavour to provide you with a completion schedule and date in the near future.

In an effort to aleve your budgetary concerns I invite you to adjust the total of my October invoice to an amount that you feel is more appropriate. Please advise me of the amount you feel is fair and I will supply you with a revised invoice reflecting that amount.

Regards,

Lachlan Gemmell

I perhaps laid it on a little thick but by and large the sentiment is genuine.

I sent that reply around midday and it's just gone 5pm. There's been no word back from Frank and I'm not surprised. I'm guessing he's never had a supplier say to him, "just pay me what you think it's worth". I don't think he knows quite how to respond.

I've no doubt that this offer will demonstrate to Frank that I'm serious about making sure he's happy with my service. What I'm hoping though is that he recognises that retaining someone with that sort of commitment is more important than saving a few extra dollars. If he doesn't and instead asks for some ridiculous discount, I'll honor my promise but he won't be receiving a November invoice from me.