Surprises are Perilous.

Today I received a surprise bill for $157 from a vendor. I hate surprises.

“No Surprises” is one of my biz’s core tenets. (see on

In fact, surprises like these make me question the entire relationship I have with this vendor. Fwiw, I’ve put up a lot with this particular vendor – turnover at key positions, poor core services in some respects, higher price point than my previous vendor, poor communication on policy changes – always because I thought they shared my core belief about creating a “No Surprises” environment.

When their service offering failed, I told my colleagues, “You can trust that they’ll make up for it on the customer service end.” And usually they did. But to auto-bill my credit card for a surprise charge is…maybe the thing that ruins a relationship. When I spoke with their sales team on the phone yesterday, they seemed to indicate I was getting a good deal and should be grateful for being with them (another red flag of agitated companies) – I let that slide, too, because I trusted they wouldn’t surprise me where it counts. They also promised to “look into it”, even when I showed them the pdf sales agreement that I signed outlining the fact that I shouldn’t be charged this surprise bill. After getting off the phone with them yesterday, issue unresolved & them promising to “look into it”, I get charged today – seems like a stab in the eye.

This is how I aim for NO SURPRISES in my biz (for comparison’s sake):

  • I’ve never sent a surprise bill – NEVER! That’s not to say I haven’t had to have money conversations with customers – just that it’s a conversation and not a surprise bill. Just recently, for example, a customer got behind on payments and wasn’t responding to emails and phone calls from me – my response was not to shut down their website but to simply cut off their admin access to their WP site. It got their attention right away, their customers were none the wiser, and we resolved the issue quickly (simply had to update their credit card in our system). Maybe they were, technically, surprised, but compared to how other companies might have treated the situation (e.g. by completely disabling or deleting their website), it seems like I did them a solid.
  • Every now and then we have to charge a customer for something we hadn’t planned for – but it’s never a surprise in the “surprise” sense. For example, just yesterday, a customer needed to upgrade their WordPress theme to a new version at a cost of $49 (payable to the theme developer, not us). I explained the issue to them on the phone, layed out a couple of potential paths forward (including not upgrading the theme), they agreed to buy the theme, I paid for it myself, then sent them an invoice for the purchase amount (So I actually lost a couple bucks on the transaction due to credit card fees).
  • Another time, we had a customer that was paying for our Unlimited support service, and they were using A LOT of support. We went on like this for a couple of months before I called to have a conversation with them that went something like this:
    Me: “If we continue like this, I’m going to be out of business. We’re not going to cut off service today, but we need to figure out something different soon.”
    Them: “Okay, what do we need to pay to make this sustainable?”

    We ended up settling on an agreeable amount for us both.
  • One time I had a customer challenge me on this concept of “Unlimited WordPress Support” – it was similar to the conversation above, except they replied, “Well that’s not ‘unlimited’ at all, is it?” I understand their perspective, but I disagreed, because to date, we had been providing unlimited support and would continue to do so until a new agreement was reached. They were not 100% happy with the solution and maybe felt a bit miffed, but I don’t know how else I could have offered it. At the end of the day, a lot of my colleagues offer something like “2 Hours of WordPress Support per Month @ $X/mo”. I don’t like this, because it is even more confusing to customers – they have no freaking idea what “2 dev hours” means (e.g. Does it mean I can get this slideshow plugin fixed? Does it mean you can add these 100 blog posts? etc.). In our “Unlimited” plans we either just fix the thing if it’s a small/medium-sized project, or we have a conversation with them if it’s a big project. So we sell “Unlimited” without surprise billing – that’s the best solution I’ve thought of, and ya know what: some months we lose big, some months we win big; some customers end up getting a great deal. I suppose you could argue that this scenario is similar to the surprise bill I received from my vendor, but I disagree – taking money from someone’s bank account is very different from having a conversation about how to make a business relationship more sustainable (even if the conversation ends in them having to pay a bit more down the road).

Calm Companies

As you know, I try to always work with Calm Companies, and literally the first bullet point in my definition of a Calm Company is, “Calm companies are companies that are free of anxiety-inducing surprises.”

This is a screengrab from my definition of Calm Company found at

I always try to work with Calm Companies in order to avoid surprises – things like high turnover and surprise charges. It’s clear that this particular vendor is no longer a Calm Company. And I say “no longer”, because I do believe they used to be Calm. When I started with them, there was always a conversation about changes, there were relationships, I felt valued even when the tech service I was paying for didn’t meet expectations – I felt heard. No longer.

There’s this thing that Agitated Companies do where they are trying desperately to seem calm: they’ll set up phone calls and meetings and send emails – none of which address the core concern of feeling heard.

I held a position once at a fast-growing startup that was clearly an agitated company, and I was brought in to make it more calm. The wall I kept running into, though, was that the culture of a company is a cruise ship, not a speed boat – and if you have an Agitated CEO at the helm of the ship, there’s no turning it from choppy waters.

I don’t know that the company referenced initially in this article and their $157 surprise bill is in irreconcilable waters, but it’s definitely pointed to the storm at the moment – a storm I’m trying desperately to avoid.

Toby Cryns

Toby Cryns is a freelance CTO and WordPress Guru. He also writes for