Why Great Support Can Lead to Lucrative Web Design Profits
When I first started building websites, I loved starting new projects. New clients, a new industry, new problems to solve: sweet!
I would invest a huge amount of creative energy into an eight to twelve week sprint. I also had zero terms in my proposals or contracts about what would happen when the project was over, or, more importantly, what would happen when it was all over.
What ended up happening was I almost went out of business. The more projects I built, the more project debt I built. Basically, I had more and more projects out there in the world that had small bugs or issues that clients mistook for being a part of my original scope of work. A client could come back three or four months after a project was live and say, "Hey! This page doesn't work anymore. I didn't do anything to it, I promise! You need to fix it now!"
And so it would go.
Until one day I hated supporting my clients. It drained my energy and my small team's resources.
Like in most things in life, once enough pain builds up, you have to change things. In my case, all of my time was going to support non-billable work. This work didn't seem billable because I didn't know how to set good expectations with my clients. I also didn't know what was industry standard because, back then, websites were still a pretty new endeavor for most involved.
So I started to experiment.
My first experiment was to make the "launch" the line in the sand.
The result was that clients didn't want to take their sites live. Now, I know that sounds ridiculous because even a mostly finished website is better than what a client has online...but the client feared that I would abandon them following the launch.
My second experiment was to offer the client an immediate support plan and/or retainer. I said, "Hey! Once the website is live, don't worry, we'll still be here, it will just be a new billing relationship." But that didn't have the right effect either. Clients still lagged on launch because it meant that they would start getting billed again.
Any event that pushes out your launch date has other bad consequences. Not only do you not get to move on, but you probably aren't getting paid that final fee.
I hoped the third experiment would be the charm.
My third experiment was to offer a "warranty period." Essentially pulling from the car industry. Except I wasn't ready to offer a five-year warranty. So we offered a ninety-day post-launch warranty. And after that, the client was going to be in a new support agreement relationship.
Bingo! (Well, kinda). Customers loved it. But the problem was that after launch, clients took their sweet time getting post-launch feedback and revisions back to us. And we also didn't have a looming deadline so we would take our time resolving the issues.
To solve this, we reduced our warranty period down to a single month, thirty days. The result was that clients weren't scared to launch their websites. They were happy to push them out the door before they were absolutely perfect. We got paid. And then once a bunch of eyeballs hit the site, we got a nice, organized flow of changes and revisions that we happily supported, no charge, during the warranty period.
The Maintenance Beyond
Once our warranty was in place, free support went out the window. It was time to monetize this puppy. Over the years, we experimented with a lot of different formats. Just retainers. All-you-can-eat subscriptions. And pay-as-you-go.
Here is what I settled on as probably the best approach to offering premium maintenance and support: offer a menu.
Everyone automatically gets this plan. It's your hourly rate billed at quarter hour increments. Any interaction over five minutes classifies as a quarter hour interaction billed at your hourly rate. So if your hourly is $125 and a request takes ten minutes, that equals $31.25 in billable work. Use a program like Freshbooks to track your billings. Be diligent. Even if you decide to "comp" a charge later, make sure it's on the invoice so the client knows they got something for free.
- Pre-pay retainer
If a client is willing to pre-buy a basket of hours up front, I give them a discount. Create a half dozen bundles and price points for baskets of hours. At five hours, the client gets thirty minutes free. At ten hours, they get one and a half. At twenty-five hours, they get an extra five hours. The whole goal here is to get payment up front and a commitment from the client to use you, and pay you, for future work. In return, they get additional hours.
- Monthly subscription
Similar to the pre-pay retainer, you have to offer an incentive to get your client excited about paying you every month. Give them a better deal on a basket of labor, but also include monthly tasks that you don't offer in your regular products. Namely, create a monthly recommendations list, performance report, or consulting call as features they can mix and match. Depending on your offering, these subscriptions can get into the thousands of dollars if you have solid clients who want dedicated support.
- All-you-can-eat subscription
A really popular product we had was an unlimited phone helpdesk product for $100 per seat. This allowed our clients to call us and get unlimited "helpdesk" support to help them with their website system. Any time you do an all-you-can-eat plan, you need to have some kind of constraint. Ours was that it did not include any development or design work. Basically, we're happy to help you do something with the tools, but we aren't going to do production for you. This was a very popular plan, especially for the first several months post-launch.
You'll have to figure out what works best for your business, but if you don't have the above setup, you are missing out on fantastic revenue.
If you've gotten this far and you are thinking, "But Brent, I really love helping my clients, I don't want to bill them for me just helping them out!"
The next section is just for you.
Profit Drives Service
If you can't make money doing something, you won't do it very long. I am all for a little free here and there to build a relationship and ease tensions if we messed something up. What I am not for is building a business around not being compensated for the value I'm giving.
When I started charging healthily for support and maintenance, guess what happened?
I took that part of my business seriously. I hired a full-time support expert whose dedicated job was to field customer support inquiries and do projects that were less than four hours. Not only did our clients love the system that we'd set up, but we profited nicely. We would often meet as a team and tweak systems, implement new ticket engines and rating systems, and developed some nice tactics for how we took inquiries and scheduled work.
We tracked the time to respond to a customer, the average support billing, and our happiness meter.
The alternative is that you don't set up a profitable system and, eventually, you'll build up enough debt, like I did, and go out of business. That is the ultimate failure in supporting your clients. If your clients have to go find another company to help them with their website, they will lose. And, well, you will have lost too.
So take this as a call to arms. If you haven't thought about your post-launch business in a while, carve out four hours next week and create a blueprint. Start implementing it on your next pitch so you can set expectations early in the project. Set aside time to meet with all of your existing customers to tell them how support is going to work moving forward.
And when it becomes a super-profitable part of your business that increases your customer retention, then you can buy me lunch.
I like meatball sandwiches.
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