The other day I had a friend refer someone to me who was having a fan error on his laptop. Pretty typical break/fix, easy enough. His friend lived and worked in the next county. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, so I took the job, called the customer, and set-up an appointment to pick up his system.
On the day of service I put his address into my GPS and the device reports back to me that the trip is going to take 45 minutes.
I gasped at the time, but I had already made the appointment so I decided to bite the bullet and go with it.
In my head, I though I knew how far away this customer is. If you draw a straight line from where I am to where he is it’s about 20 miles. The problem is the best way to get there takes you quite a distance out of the way, there’s no straight way to get there.
For a hardware break/fix of this type, I don’t charge a whole lot. I charge about 2 hours labor and whatever the part costs. For this particular job I was also spending an hour and a half on the road, not to mention the cost of gas. I specify on my website that I will charge a trip fee for any travel done outside of my home county, but I didn’t think this job was going to be too far out of my way so I didn’t enforce that rule.
I obviously made a mistake here. It’s clear that I should have charged this person a trip fee of some sort to compensate me for the distance traveled to see him. The problem is, I didn’t realize just how far out of my area he was until it was too late. I had already quoted my price to him on the phone and I would feel sleezey calling him back on the day of the appointment to tack on a trip fee. I figure I’ll take this hit and use it as an opportunity to learn and adapt.
With that I’d like to offer some tips for techs who do in-home or pick-up service on how you can better handle repairs that are out of your service area.
Define a Service Area
The first thing you need to do is define your home service area. This is the area that you are willing to travel for repair without adding additional trip fees.
Some businesses charge a trip fee equal to the amount of miles they drive, no matter how far away the customer is. Some people have a set radius of, say, 15 miles that they will service before adding on extra charges. Some folks use their city, county, or some other pre-defined region as their service area. I personally chose my home county as my service area. It’s a large county, but most of it is easily accessible from one major highway that runs through it, so it’s not a huge issue for me.
Define How You Want To Handle Service Outside That Area
Once you have your service area defined, you’ll need to come up with a way to handle work outside that area. Will you simply not do it? Will you only do distance work for high profile customers? Maybe you can offer to do remote support for people outside your area, or ask them to ship the laptop for you.
It may be worth it to service customers immediately outside your home area, especially if you’re just starting out or the population density is very small in your area. Then you have to decide what to do about those folks that you do service outside your area. You charge a flat trip fee not matter where they live, or charge per-mile outside your home area. Another idea is to offer free consultations to customers in your service area, something you may not be able to offer to folks outside your area.
Michael Hurst at @mousematemike on twitter told me that he uses a “service band” approach. This means that customers within a geographic circle around his shop are charged a flat fee, then each “band”, where band is a pre-defined distance like a mile or 5 miles, that the customer is outside his circle is charged an extra £5.
Whatever you decide is up to your unique business needs, but however you set it up, make sure you enforce it consistently. It may be a good idea to display the travel policy somewhere on your website so customers wont be surprised when you charge them some extra money for a trip fee.
Know Where Your Customer Is From The Start
My biggest mistake in the example above was that I didn’t figure out exactly how far away my customer was when I spoke with him. Before you get off the phone with your customer, or before you quote them a price, make sure you understand if they are in or out of your pre-defined geographic service area. A quick plug of their address into google maps will tell you if you are unsure. Then make sure you tell your customer upfront of any extra fees that may be associated with their service as a result of their distance from you.
Make The Trip Worth Your Time
If you live in a rural area or somewhere that requires you to be on the road a lot to meet your customers, make sure you get the most out of the trip.
You can spend your time on the road listening to one of the helpful Computer Business Podcasts that I outlined in one of my previous posts. This way you’ll be learning tips and tricks to improve your business while you drive. This is what I do when I drive to meet customer and I feel it’s a great way to pass the time and I usually get home with some new ideas to try for my business.
Also make sure to look into the tax reimbursement laws that pertain to business travel in your area. For me, as long as I keep an accurate log of distance traveled for work purposes, that can be deducted come tax time. And every little bit helps during tax time!
Plan Your Routes
Try to group your customers for the next few days into geographical regions. When you get a new call, if it’s possible, schedule them on the same day that you have another customer in that area. This will cut down on your driving time and allow you to fit more customer visits into one day.
In a previous life, I worked for Sears in their Routing Center where they scheduled and dispatched technicians to do in-home repair on Sears products. They has one staff person for each region whose sole responsibility was to plan the routes for the next day. This is because they understood the importance of proper route planning as a time and money saver.
Of course, as a large corporation, they often put the route planning ahead of the customer’s needs, and we’d get a lot of angry calls as a result. So don’t be too inflexible about it. Find the right balance between smart route planning and accommodating your customers.
How About You?
Many of these tips may seem pretty self explanatory, but as you can see from my story, sometimes we need an extra nudge to implement the things we know we should be doing. So I’d love to hear from some seasoned techs about how you handle your own customer travel. How did you define your service area? How do you handle travel outside of that service area?