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Advocate VI

How would you handle this billing dilemma?

A client implemented a feature on Google Adwords that required adding some specific code in a couple of places on his site (which is a WordPress site). The code basically changes the phone number displayed on his site to a dynamically generated Google number if someone clicks through from an ad. So it tracks conversions where someone actually called after seeing the ad. 

His Google account manager sent him an email with explicit instructions (add this code in this place, add this other code in this other place), which he forwarded to me. I did exactly what he specified, it took just a few minutes.

It did not work (in that the phone number did not display). I put in a fair amount of time testing, debugging, looking at the source code, trying to see where I could have possibly made a mistake with his explicit instructions. Several emails and calls with the client, who was very pissed off at me because he thought I ought to be able to do such a simple task. Much time beating my head against the wall...

2 calls to Google tech support on Friday, neither of which was able to resolve it. 3 calls today (2 with account manager, 1 with tech support). Finally was told by the tech guy that I had been given incorrect instructions, and that there was a missing line of code. I added it per his instructions, and voila! Everything is working.

Now my dilemma is... I want to bill my client for the time I WASTED on trying to debug something that was not my fault and I could never fix without Google telling me the correct answer. And perhaps I'm being petty because he was impatient with me and was badgering me about it not being done correctly. If he were a Frequent Flyer who gave me LOTS of billable work, I'd be more forgiving, but he is not. He is also an attorney who tries to nickel-and-dime me for everything, saying I should not bill him for such-and-such because it was only 5 minutes, blah blah blah. You know he bills clients for every phone call and email...

And it's not just the time, it's that it derailed me from other tasks that were promised to clients today and now I will have to work late to catch up.

I thought about suggesting that he ask Google to apply a credit to his Adwords account, enough to cover paying me for at least part of the time. After all, it was their mistake.

Any thoughts or other suggestions? Other than stopping work for the day and going off in search of an Adult Beverage. 

It's this kind of thing that gets me one step closer to considering retirement...

I feel better already, just posting this here and knowing that at least some readers will understand and sympathize!

Super User 2020 Super User 2020
Super User 2020

For something like that I would have given the client a time estimate and notify them if I saw that I was going over the estimate. Afterwards I would just send a bill for my time. Is that your usual method? If your plan was to bill after I would just bill after. If I had spend 10 hours on what I estimated at 2 hours I probably would just charge for 5 hours and eat the other 5 hours.

What I would do is invoice Service and Support (Google AdWords) 10 hours then somewhere discount it 50% on the Discount line or something. I just think that it is always important to document actual time and that way he can see the deal he has gotten. He seems like the type of client to try to talk down a price? If he sees the price already discounted 50% I can't imagine that he'd ask for more?

...turns out that my two cents is worth less or more depending on the current exchange rate.

roy darling *my posts seem a lot shorter in my head

My normal process for ongoing clients is to track time through the month and invoice on the first for work done during the previous month. This client typically is on the order of 2-3 hours/month, sometimes more or less. And most of the time, they are small items taking 10-15 minutes each, so they just get tallied up. He does not ask for advance estimates on stuff like this. If he asked for something that would be more than the usual type of task, I'd say so and confirm before any work was done.

In this case, to actually install the Google code (as it was given to me) was 10 minutes. The issue is that due to their mistake, I spent 2 hours debugging, dealing with tech support, listening to him say it was my fault it was not working, and so on. 

It's not a huge amount of billable time, it's the PRINCIPLE -- that is, I'm doing work that is required to satisfy the client's request, but the client did not ask for that much time, and doesn't feel he should have to pay for it. I get it. And I doubt Google thinks they should have to pay for it. It's pennies to them, but it's lost time for me, plus the stress of dealing with a client who is unhappy because he thinks I am not doing my job.

The fault in this case is (apparently) one of two places: 

1. The Google account rep was GIVEN the wrong info, so he's just the messenger. In that case, someone in their documentation group (or similar) is the root cause.

2. The Google account rep made a mistake in what he gave me. Then it's his responsibility. I doubt Google would take it out of his salary, and it could have been an honest mistake. 

Again, the issue comes down to the fact that it was not MY responsibility to do 2 hours of free work, but who is going to pay for it?

If this were an isolated incident I would not care that much... but I am seeing this more often, when there are issues because the hosting company made a mistake (never GoDaddy, of course), or someone else who can't actually be billed for my time.

Your suggestion of billing 50% is spot on, and I have done that in some cases where the project was over budget (even if that was the client's responsibility because they changed the scope). It's presented as "let's SHARE the overage" and that usually is received well, because they are getting a good discount. In the end, that's probably what I will do here (again, it's the principle, not the dollar amount that is the issue, and I can certainly afford to give him the hour). 


it is a separate issue that in this particular case, the client is an attorney -- and in my past dealing with attorney clients, many of them really DO bill their own clients for every email and phone call. I don't do that, I only bill for actual work. So when they complain about paying for my time, yet they turn around and bill clients for time I would never bill for... it's somewhat of a double standard. 

Just one of the great unsolved paradoxes of this business.

Super User 2020 Super User 2020
Super User 2020

I'm actually shocked that you bill in increments? The way it works for me is 15 minutes is one hour because I only bill by the hour with a two hour minimum. For clients who are not on a monthly plan we might get four or five small jobs at once and that's fine. I'm just not going to do 15 minutes today, 10 minutes tomorrow and 35 minutes two weeks from today and call that an hour.

...turns out that my two cents is worth less or more depending on the current exchange rate.

roy darling *my posts seem a lot shorter in my head

@rd, you said "I'm just not going to do 15 minutes today, 10 minutes tomorrow and 35 minutes two weeks from today and call that an hour."

That is EXACTLY what I do! And it is similar to what attorneys do -- they track every small task and bill for the total time.


Only bill by the hour with a 2-hour minimum? What if someone wants a change that really takes 10 minutes? You bill them for an hour? 

I keep track of time (yes, even 5-minute tasks) but I only send invoices on the first, for whatever work was done during the previous month. I don't send an invoice until it's at least an hour. Some clients use me for many hours per month, but some only maybe 30 minutes per month. I just carry it forward until it's an hour before billing (or until the quarter end, and then I really might send an invoice for half an hour) -- it saves me doing paperwork for tiny amounts, but it still gets me paid.

If I insisted on charging for an hour, every time someone had a small update, they would never update their site (or more likely they would find someone else). 
I'm not kidding when I say that at least half of the tasks I am asked to do every day take 15 minutes or less. It would be grossly unfair to bill them for an hour for every one of these -- I could not do it.

Maybe it's that we have different types of clients, but this really is a lot of my work, these small items, for very small businesses.

As an example, here is my list of tasks from today (and this is a pretty typical day):

Updated a bio (10 minutes)

Removed an event that had occurred (5 minutes)

Updated a list of future speakers (10 minutes)

PDF'ed and posted the Meals on Wheels menu for April (10 minutes)

Removed a doctor from a practice site (her bio, various navigation items, testimonials, updated header on 4 forms posted on the site) (30 minutes)

Final edits, testing and launch of a new site (3.5 hours)

Reviewed a site in progress and sent client a detailed punch list of missing items (30 minutes)

Sent 2 remind-o-grams to clients that I am waiting for info (5 minutes)

Reviewed/approved final draft of an article someone else wrote (15 minutes)

Updated dates for an annual event (which is in Dec. but they just decided on the 2016 dates) (5 minutes)

Looked into current hosting for someone (who is not yet a client, but I am going to move them to Managed WP at GD because they are unhappy where they are) (15 minutes that I will not charge for now, because I'll include it in the time for the migration when I bill for that).


I also managed to attend Pilates class, call my mother, post something on Facebook, answer various emails, and run to Starbucks. I feel like it was a productive day, but most of the individual tasks were less than an hour -- actually, 30 minutes or less! Without those, I would not done have much work today other than new design. Some days are several hours of this kind of work.


I would love to hear what other people do when it comes to these small, fractional-hour tasks. Count them or not? Insist on a retainer in advance to cover them? Bill for one-hour minimum?



Super User 2020 Super User 2020
Super User 2020

@webdiva wrote:

rd, you said "I'm just not going to do 15 minutes today, 10 minutes tomorrow and 35 minutes two weeks from today and call that an hour."

That is EXACTLY what I do! And it is similar to what attorneys do -- they track every small task and bill for the total time.

It doesn't sound like we do exactly the same thing. It sounds like we do both track time but for a different purpose? If we have a drop in client we track time and we do charge a 2 hour minimum so that is 15 minutes or 110 minutes (the other 10 minutes is administrative time). To be clear my point was "I am not going to do 15 minutes today, 10 minutes tomorrow and 35 minutes two weeks from today and call that an hour." for a drop in client, I would bill that as 6 hours. I try to be flexible but for the most part but we also try not to have too many walk up clients.


@webdiva wrote:

Only bill by the hour with a 2-hour minimum? What if someone wants a change that really takes 10 minutes? You bill them for an hour?

I think that our method is different but I have come to the 2 hour minimum over some years in business. I have a payroll to meet so I don't really deal with the sporadic clients. Our minimum is to drive clients to our maintenance plans so that they may have a direct point of contact. Small companies can feel free to save up their updates and give us eight small tasks at a time but it isn't efficient for me to get a call/email, track time, update/change something and invoice even if it is monthly. Right now the person tasked with walk up business is me and that is the real problem because I am the weak link on my team by design. I am the only one in my company that does invoicing and for me monthly maintenance invoicing works best. We have a system where we input issues and track time and I run reports against that to insure that all of our clients are on the proper plan and advise accordingly. 


@webdiva wrote:

Maybe it's that we have different types of clients, but this really is a lot of my work, these small items, for very small businesses.

We have clients that range from one person all the way up to very large established companies. The thing that our clients have in common is they value our service and see it as beneficial. I'd be interested to know the average time charged to your clients monthly. As a side note I have a couple of clients that choose to save up their updates in bulk for the end of the month because their need falls short of our minimum maintenance plan.

It sounds like you are familiar with the websites to which you interact? Perhaps you created them and have been working on them from the very beginning. Currently we do not accept websites client who do not choose to be on a maintenance plan therefore every website on maintenance we created. With a walk up client we would not have created the website (we do have some clients that were in before this policy) but 10 minutes isn't 10 minutes for a website that is uncontrolled. We wouldn't know what the client touched, what the code did, how it was written... I'd probably do 20 minutes of peeking before I did a 10 minute change with every change. I'd have to understand what the change did and not all code is created equal. In some cases I would rather turn down business that touch the coding.

We do have a monthly meetup in our offices where we talk Managing Your Own Website, perhaps smaller clients should just come there and receive some assistance from our community? We have donuts and coffee!

...turns out that my two cents is worth less or more depending on the current exchange rate.

roy darling *my posts seem a lot shorter in my head

I see the disconnect now. I don't have any drop-in clients. I ONLY do ongoing maintenance for sites I designed, which means I know the site inside-out, I know the client and their business/organization well, I can jump in and easily make a change quickly. Some people have been clients for 15+ years. 

There was a time some years ago where I would take on maintenance or changes for sites I did not design, but I have not done that in AT LEAST 7 years, maybe more. Not worth the headache to learn whatever the previous person did. And it's impossible to know what assumptions they may have made. One wrong step and I could blow up the site. If they want me to redesign their site and build a new one, using tools I trust and am an expert on, great. If they want someone to make updates but have no interest in bringing their crappy site up to standards, etc. (and by that I mean MY standards), they can find someone else.

@rd, you are correct -- I have no interest in doing xx minutes of pre-work just to figure out what the previous person did (or didn't do), and net 10 minutes of billable work out of it. I just won't sign up for that.

The one exception is that I do sell a service where I will audit a site designed by someone else, and give them a long list of items that need fixing (sometimes these are people who are DIYers who just want a pro to give them advice). So I will dig into the code, and really examine every aspect of the site. But that's not about working on the site, that's about making a detailed list of what needs fixing, and possibly specific hints on how to fix it (and I charge a good fee for that).

Sometimes what happens is the client sees the list, says "Oh never mind, I would rather pay you to build me a new site that actually works, rather than pay you (or someone else) to fix what I'm dealing with." In that case, bring it on!


p.s. I am LOVING these stories from others, to see how we conduct business differently. So much to be learned!

The issue is you let it get away from you.  I say that like I've never done it.  Don't believe it.  I'm a bulldog and I'll worry at an issue till I pwn it.  But I've learned I can't bill for bulldog time unless I communicate to the client what I'm struggling with.  At the point where you followed instructions to the letter and the code didn't work, I would have taken screenshots, emailed the client with "Google's instructions were do this and do that, I did this, I did that.  It's not working.  I can follow up with Google but I'll have to bill you for the time."  That puts the ball in his court.  He can follow up with Google or he can give you the go-ahead.

I hate to see a client get stuck with a huge bill over something like this.  I like @rd's suggestion about invoicing for the full amount and then discounting 50%.  It softens the blow, shows you're sympathetic and a team player and still gets you something for your time.  The other side of that is that next time you're faced with the request, you have training and experience so it's not a total loss.

Behind our efforts, let there be found our efforts!

Keep on Coding!
Mark Cicchetti - There are 10 kinds of people... those who understand binary and those who don't.

Actually, I did communicate fairly early on that I had followed instructions and did not know why it was still not working. But then wound up putting in a call to tech support (which I thought would fix it). That call, the guy told me it was working (which it was not). Then client called his rep, and that resulted in several emails back and forth but no answer. Then I said I wanted to talk to him (the rep) to walk through it, it took several days for him to get back to me, then he referred me to another tech team, and so on... And my client did also spend time trying to talk to the account rep (who was quite cagey and hard to pin down).


So yes, I let it get away from me, but at every step, I thought we had an answer. 


And yes, in the end I will propose splitting the time (so half-price) and let it go. It's more of a principle issue, which is that the work was done because Google's documentation was wrong (or what was sent to me was wrong) and now they are not the ones taking ownership of my wasted time.


Having said that, I live 10 miles from Google HQ. Maybe I will drop in, the next time I'm driving by. Could stage a sit-in in the lobby or something...



I heard from the Google Adwords account rep today. He offered to give my client a $250 credit on his Adwords account. That will cover my time for dealing with it, so I can bill my client for it, I will get paid, he won't be out-of-pocket. Everyone is happy!

In the account rep's response, he agreed that they had given me old instructions, and not the newer (correct) ones.

I have to say, I was skeptical that Google would come through on this, but they did! I am so thrilled to report that they care enough about customer satisfaction to offer this solution. 

Then again, maybe it was my threat of staging a sit-in in their Corporate Lobby that did it...

Super User 2020 Super User 2020
Super User 2020

Nice! I'm glad it all worked out. That does sound a solution for everyone, you get paid for your time, your client gets a reimbursement of sorts from AdWords and Google is just Google so they always win. It must be true, the squeaky wheel does get the oil.

Something also of note is kudos to you @webdiva for documenting this all so well. I'm sure that your organization and knowledge was a huge part of coming to this result.

...turns out that my two cents is worth less or more depending on the current exchange rate.

roy darling *my posts seem a lot shorter in my head

Advocate II

If you have accurate documentation of the google rep saying "This was our mistake, there is a missing line of code"


Then by all means, bill away! Its proof that you knew what you were doing and you aren't trying to just bill some BS hours for an extra buck.

CEO of Antbuilt, LLC

Glad to hear you had a reasonable resolution.  I'm more concerned about your experiencing this type of frustration every time you work for this account.  You might consider watching this client closely. Sometimes the client and your business model aren't compatible. In which case, while it might hurt a little, you could retire the account and move on to bigger and better opportunities.  

Actually he is a great client. I know this situation frustrated him because it took much longer (calendar time) than it should have, and it took more billable time.

Also, in this case I can't easily retire the client. He is one of 3 brothers who are all clients (2 attorneys and a surgeon, their parents must be proud). And each brother has 2 sites. In this case, one English and one Spanish as it is a bilingual practice. So as a group they are good clients -- but dropping one would not really work unless I dropped all 3 (which I don't want to do).

But I do love all of the pragmatic advice and suggestions from the other pros here! Really helpful in evaluating situations.