To Charge or Not to Charge? A Moral Dilemma Averted width=This week I barely escaped being forced to make one of those moral decisions that leave you feeling bad no matter which way you go.

It started with a call from a couple of elderly clients who have used my services several times over a period of years. They are not power users by any means. Their computer is primarily an email facility and occasional vehicle for surfing the Internet.

“Can you help me? Our computer went dark and will not do anything, so we bought a new laptop — well, actually my nephew ordered it for us from Dell. We tried to set it up, but it wants the Internet for the setup, and we cannot seem to access the Internet from the new computer. Also, the box has no lights.”

“Which box? Do you mean the DSL modem?”

“The one the phone company put in so that I can get on the Internet. It used to have lights, but now it doesn’t. The printer is acting funny also. It has a blue light where it never did before.”

So I prepared for a house call with three objectives: (1) determine what is wrong with the desktop (“went dark” is not very helpful), (2) investigate the issue with Internet access, and (3) configure the laptop and add a wireless router. We would see about the printer after considering the first three items. The fact that I had three objectives is important for avoiding the no-win moral dilemma.

Immediately upon entering the office area in their home, I asked the owners if the desktop had failed while they were using it. “No, we turned it off as usual, and we were away for a few days. When we got back, we turned it on and it made some noises, but the screen stayed black.”

It took a few seconds to find and press the power on button for the monitor. The screen lit up with a plaintiff message from the computer saying it was ready to go to work. Nothing else was wrong.

On to the Internet: an even quicker inspection determined that not only was there no power supply plugged into the back, there were no extra unused ones in the general mess. While rummaging around, I did note that the all-in-one printer combination was wireless and Bluetooth enabled. The Bluetooth light was on.

“Do you have any idea what might have happened to the modem power supply?” I asked.

“You mean the black thing? We took it and the box to the office because we thought it was not working right. They said it was okay.”

The best scenario I could come up with was that they had left the power supply sitting on a tech’s counter.

At this point, if they had not purchased a laptop and wanted me to set up it and a wireless router for them, I would have had to decide what to bill them for turning on a monitor and noting they were missing a power supply. These are repeat customers who have referred me to their friends with rave reviews. I did not want to rip them off, but I had made a house call and actually done something for them. If that were the end of the story, I would likely have joked a bit, suggested they purchase a new power supply, and walked out without charging them anything. But at the back of my mind would be the observation that they could spend an extra $800 on a laptop before thinking to call me, so a minimum service charge would not be a strain on their budget, and besides, I was entitled to something for driving out there. Like I said, it would have been a no-win choice. Such things are just part of the cost of doing business if you want to provide a service and keep your clients happy and coming back.

Fortunately they had the laptop. I took it, the router I bought for them, and their modem back to my office where I proceeded to sit it up the way I knew they would want, including piggy-backing the new router on my LAN so I could set up the security for them. After that was done, I swung by the AT&T office to get a new supply for their modem. (By the way, this visit followed the most unsatisfactory telephone experience I believe I have ever had. I called the local number to confirm the store had a power supply in stock and wasted twenty minutes working through the worst menu I have ever experienced. Even repeatedly punching zero only got me hung up. Finally I did get a human who was in the business office is some other city and said she would put me through to the right person. There was a click and eventual open line. I decided to just drive there and risk it. The irony is that this was the telephone service provider!)

Without much trouble, we got the new system going and then had to explain why they were able to look at the same email on either computer. That took a while.

The printer had problems. We all agreed on that. I suggested that I could work on it, but it would cost more than it was worth. They agreed and decided to get a new one and donate the old printer to whoever wanted it. Problem solved.

My invoice was written up to include my time, the parts, and two house calls. It was still less expensive than many alternatives they could have pursued. I felt good. They felt good. I even installed MSE on their desktop for them and did a scan, which luckily came up clean — one never knows in these cases.

I would have not charged them for powering on the monitor and noting a missing power supply, and I would have felt better about walking away than if I had charged them for a house call, but…