I recently came across this question on Reddit…
“I have a client who is pretty chaotically disorganized in their workflow and communication.
It takes way longer to work with them than any other client, which is stressful and chaotic.
What’s a fair way to bill for all the time and energy required to support them?”
Let’s dig into some strategies and considerations for charging existing clients for support & project management time.
(I’ll also give you a copy-and-paste email template you can customize & use.)
Every freelancer is guaranteed to get a Pain in the Ass (PitA) client at some point.
My guess is, if you’re here, you’re working with one right now.
Here’s the thing about PitA clients though…
They’re not necessarily bad clients.
They’re just clients who need a bit more from you than your average client.
This is only really a problem if that extra time required from you is unpaid.
It’s especially exacerbated when these unpaid-support-time clients come from a project that was super short to begin with.
“I love spending 10 hours on non-billable client support for a 5-hour project!”
— No one, ever
But if you knew you were getting paid – promptly and happily – for all this support time you’re spending on this PitA client, would you enjoy supporting them?
If so, today’s email template may be just what you need to transform your working relationship with them.
(If you’d still hate supporting them even if the time were billable, it may be a sign you’d benefit from firing them as a client.)
The challenges we need to overcome to start billing for support time
There are 2 main challenges at play here:
- The client feeling surprised getting slapped with a bill out of nowhere
- Changing the status quo of an existing relationship
Challenge 1. The client feeling surprised getting slapped with a bill out of nowhere
If a client were to hire me for a website that was a big-ish flat rate project – say $10,000 – they’d probably expect to be able to email me without getting charged extra.
(Assuming we didn’t have a conversation in advance where I said otherwise.)
So maybe they email me some questions about website updates, SEO, whether or not they should use a certain plugin, etc.
And then one day they get a $1,000 bill in their inbox for the time I spent answering their questions.
They’d probably be like, “uhhhhhh…. wtf Zach.”
The solution: communicate & set expectations in advance.
Uber-emphasis on “in advance.”
If you tell a client on your initial sales call when submitting your bid that the project includes 3 hours of email support & project management, they won’t be shocked when they get a bill down the line because you’ve already explained this to them.
(And if they are shocked, you can remind them of the initial convo and show them the contract, or better yet, tell them immediately when their 3 hrs is up that you’re shifting to billable to further reduce the “surprise factor.”)
“But Zach, I already have this PitA client, so it’s too late for me to have told them in advance!”
Don’t worry, we’ll cover that in Challenge 2 in a sec.
For now, the thing we’re focused on is thinking about how to minimize the surprise factor, which is addressed by…
- Probably not charging them for support time you’ve spent so far
- Setting the expectation that you WILL be charging them going forward
These two points will allow you to craft a situation where both you and the client are happy, without you slapping them with some unexpected bill that could burn a relationship.
Challenge 2. Changing the status quo of an existing relationship
If this client high-maintenance-ness has been going on long enough that you’re feeling like something’s gotta change, chances are it’s a well-solidified habit for the client to lean on you a lot at this point.
…And part of that habit is the expectation that you’ll support them for free as a part of your existing agreement.
Whether or not that’s reasonable, only you and the client can ultimately say.
Let’s do a quick exercise to help you get into the client’s shoes, so you can anticipate how they might be feeling about things.
Exercise: Role Reversal
Step into the client’s shoes and think about how they might see the project they hired you for.
Could you see them thinking a certain amount of support would be included?
(Hint: if you charge a flat project rate, it’s easier for them to see support as included than if you bill hourly.)
An example that comes to mind…
Imagine your car broke down and you took it to the mechanic to fix.
You get it back and drive it around a bit and it breaks again in the same way.
Turns out, they did a actually did shoddy job fixing it the first time, and that’s why the same thing broke again.
Would you expect them to fix it for free?
But what if the same thing broke because it’s a symptom of a deeper problem that they told you you should fix but you didn’t want to pay for?
Is it really on them to fix this thing for free?
This is where the situation gets a little bit more muddy.
In the customer’s eyes, it’s clearly the mechanic’s responsibility, and in the mechanic’s eyes it’s clearly the customer’s responsibility.
This muddiness can be found in website projects as well.
(Arguably website projects are even more muddy than auto mechanical issues.)
Or let’s say you bought a new $5,000 treadmill and you had a problem with it after a few weeks.
Would you expect to be able to reach out to customer support to get your issue resolved?
So with these examples in mind…
In thinking about the way you positioned your services on your initial sales call, do you think your client is likely to see the service they paid for as a package that includes support?
If so, it’s important to navigate this transition into paid support with tact if you don’t want to breach your trust with them.
Just like it would suck if you paid $5,000 for a treadmill and learned that you’d need to pay another $1,000 to fix it a few weeks after you got it…
…Your client might also think it sucks to pay you for a website and have to pay more to get questions answered that they see as a part of the core package.
So with all of this in mind, as you repurpose today’s script here in a minute, I encourage you to continually step into the client’s shoes and imagine what it would feel like to read your email as them, and be sure to edit it with that in mind.
Ask yourself: If you were hiring someone for this project, how much support would you think is reasonable to expect, what type of support, and for how long would you expect to receive it?
You’d perhaps expect a free treadmill replacement within a few weeks of the sale, but what about 1 year? 3 years? 5 years?
What’s a reasonable amount of support for a client to expect from you as a part of their project?
And when thinking about the types of support they might expect… Sure, you’d expect the treadmill company to replace a broken part in your treadmill after a few weeks, but you probably wouldn’t expect them to send out a technician to lubricate your treadmill belt every month for free as part of your purchase.
Where do you draw that line with your client for your own services?
Where does the client draw that line?
Do they even know enough about the technical implications of what you’re doing for them to draw the line at all?
Final consideration: are you okay with burning a bridge?
Something important to keep in mind is that every client is worth much more than the value of their project alone.
The direct value of their project + the value of any future projects they might send your way= A given client’s value
If you decide to charge a client for email support time and they feel deep down that it’s unfair, it’s possible that they’ll pay you but lose trust in you and find someone new to work with going forward.
Depending on your situation, this can be tricky to navigate, and can have you feeling like your only option is to either keep indulging them for free or burn the bridge.
So it’s worth noting that sometimes relationships are ultimately unsalvageable, as salvaging them would require too much of a compromise on your part.
After all, when I think back to my early clients who paid me $300 for a website and expected unlimited email support, can I really expect the immediate referrals they’d send to be top-tier referrals that would pay high-ticket prices?
Probably not, as they’d likely tell their friends something like, “He was great; the website only cost $300!” and have them primed with similar expectations.
And their friends’ businesses would likely be at similar stages to theirs, where they’re not really in a position to be spending much on a website.
There would have been no realistic way for me to charge a client $300 and expect a referral of theirs to happily pay $7,000.
If this is the case here for you — if you realize you’ve been wayyyyyyy too lenient with this client and that moving to billable support time is going to be a huge change that they’re not likely to be open to, it’s important to ask yourself in advance if you’re willing to accept that you may lose them as a client, and lose out on their future referrals.
If you word your message to them correctly – as an invitation to discuss an alternative vs. an edict you’re passing down from the heavens – you’ll hopefully be able to find a resolution that you’re both happy with, but still…
It’s good to keep the risk in mind and understand that even minimized risk is still risk.
Final thoughts before the script…
Relationships of all kinds are all about compromise. When done right, you can shift a client into a new paradigm where you’re both still happy.
Just remember to step into the client’s shoes and propose something that feels fair to both parties, and remember that rocking the boat always carries some risk of capsizing it. 🙂
The Customizable Script
How to use the script:
- Customize it to make sense for your voice, profession, etc.
- Keep in mind that the idea behind the script is to focus on the benefits you provide to the client, and a part of that is highlighting the benefits of switching to paying you for your support time vs. getting it for free.
- Remember to keep stepping into the client’s shoes and imagine what it would feel like for them to read, and be sure to edit it with that in mind.
- Remember that this is not some ultimatum; it’s meant to open the conversation up for discussion. (Or maybe it is actually an ultimatum in this specific client’s case; that’s ultimately up to you!)
SUBJ: Tweaking my billing style moving forward
Hey <% CLIENT NAME %>,
It’s been great helping you with your website these past few months; it’s been nice to see feedback about people digging the new design. < REMINDING THEM OF SPECIFIC VALUE YOU DELIVERED FOR THEM >
In reviewing my total hours worked last month, I noticed that I’ve been spending far more time managing your project and responding to emails than I would have expected.
Typically when I bid out a project like yours, I plan on it including about 3 hours of support, project management, calls, etc. and I have that baked into the price.
Whereas with <% XYZ CLIENT BIZ NAME %> I’d estimate that I’m at about 15 hours total over these last few months on email & phone support alone. < SPECIFICITY IS IMPORTANT SO THAT THEY CAN COMPARE WHERE THEY’RE AT VS WHAT YOU’D NORMALLY EXPECT >
I’m honored that I’m a key resource for your website questions, and I’d love to keep supporting you, but I wanted to reach out to check with you that you’re okay with email support time & project management time being billable at my regular rate of $XYZ/hr moving forward. < REASSURANCE + REQUEST >
Again, I love supporting your business, and am totally happy to continue supporting you in the same way I have been; I just need to make sure I’m doing it in a way that’s sustainable for the long term from a business perspective. < MOAR REASSURANCE + REASON >
Thanks, let me know how this sounds to you.
(If it doesn’t feel fair to you, please be honest about that — I really value you as a client and my goal here is to open the discussion and find something we’re both happy with.) < LET THEM KNOW YOU’RE LOOKING OUT FOR THEIR INTERESTS AND THAT THIS IS AN INVITATION FOR DISCUSSION, NOT AN EDICT)
What to do for future clients moving forward
If it wasn’t clear already, the best way to avoid getting into the situation you’re in now is to set the right expectations in advance.
So in other words, when you’re on your initial sales call telling them what they get and for how much.
I personally bill by the hour, and the way I structure my contracts is that for projects over 40 hours, I include 3 hours of support, strategy, and project management time for free, and everything beyond that is billable.
The reason I only do that for projects over 40 hours is that if I were to do it on a 10-hour project, I’d literally be reducing my effective hourly rate by 30%!
Pro tip for keeping track of all this: if you track your time with Toggl, you can create a tag for “Administrative / Support” to track all of the miscellaneous time you spend on a project, and can run reports just for that tag to see where you’re at with time spent.
If you charge by the project and plan to include some support time, it would also be worth discussing (and noting in the contract) when you consider the project to be “complete,” and when the cutoff would be for support as “falling within the project.” For website design + build projects, I usually define the project’s cut-off period as 30 days after the website’s go-live date.
The next step for you is to customize the template to make sense for your business and client (while considering everything in the “How to use the script” section) and fire away!
They’ll likely either respond with “sure, sounds good,” or they’ll raise some concerns with the new approach and you guys can reach a resolution that feels fair to both parties.
It’s uncomfortable having these little “micro-confrontations,” but as you build your confidence and experience as a freelancer, setting fair, healthy boundaries with your clients will get easier and more natural.
Best of luck! Let me know how it goes, what thoughts you have, etc.
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