April 30th, 2016

Pro-tip: Solving the Problem of Schrodinger’s Estimate

If you’ve worked in web development for any period of time, you’ve probably encountered the following problem:

A client asks you for an estimate on a new deliverable. The deliverable is complicated or just nuanced and so some discovery work is required to provide an accurate estimate. In some cases, it takes fours hours of discovery work to tell the client that the problem can be solved in fifteen minutes. Obviously the discovery process is billable work, but by the time you present the client with an estimate, the opportunity to decline the work has passed. The job is either practically done, or already started.

This puts everyone in an awkward spot. A good client will understand why the discovery process is billable work, but neither of you want the client to be disincentivized from asking for new work. The client wants to be able to ask, and you want them to ask so that you can continue doing new business together.

You can’t just write off hours of your time every time the client is curious, but the client is afraid to ask for work if it means getting a bill for a project that they decide to decline. So what is to be done?

The solution is actually quite simple, and it’s just a shift in terminology. Make sure that your client understands when a request will involve a discovery process and give them the option of asking for a formal estimate (which incurs discovery costs) or just a “ballpark figure” of the range of time and costs potentially involved. The key is to make sure that they understand that the ballpark figure is just you shooting from the hip. Don’t put any time into it – think for a moment or two and throw out a rough idea of what the range might be based on your professional experience.

With this method, your client gets an idea right away as to what order of magnitude their request falls in, and if they are going to decline, they’ll usually know with that information. You aren’t out your time. They aren’t out their money.

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