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I do some work for a client for a set price and get paid. Later the client will email me about something, usually requesting a small task or my asking my expertise on some minor issue.

I provide it because it doesn't take much time or effort, I want to stay on good terms with them and provide good customer service, and I hope it will lead to bigger (paying) jobs in the future.

What ends up happening is the client comes to expect these free services, and over time it starts to add up (especially with multiple clients doing this). They tend to become reluctant to start paying for something they were getting for free, and they are less likely to hire me for actual work.

  • How do I make it clear that I expect to be paid for work?
  • At what point should I have that conversation?
  • How much should I give away for free, if any?
  • Do I charge them a full hour for a 10 minute task?
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    Are you aware of Freelancing.stackexchange.com? This question might get some great answers there (or might have been asked and answered there already :). – Kent A. Jun 10 '16 at 4:17
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    If you decide to do some part of the job for free, it should be listed on the invoice (with zero charge) so they recognize they got service. – Brandin Jun 10 '16 at 6:50
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    @TechnikEmpire I do that sometimes, part of the invoice will have time spent and zero cost with a note that cost is written off. It serves a purpose. I do it for customer relations, so that they see they got something for nothing. When the tsunami hit here a few years back some of my customers had nothing to pay for 3 to 6 months until I judged them back on their feet. I still invoiced everything, just wrote off the costs. So they can still see the work that was done. It was a big loss for me, but I have incredibly loyal customers these days. – Kilisi Jun 10 '16 at 7:28
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    Begin billing them. How else would you make it clear that your time is money? – user15729 Jun 10 '16 at 14:55
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    Put in your contract 5 hours of Miscellaneous courtesy time. Then random requests come out of this 5 hours. Update the client after each request on this number. – Martin York Jun 10 '16 at 19:33

16 Answers 16

206

As an independent developer, I feel your pain. Here's a couple of things I've learned.

Time is money.

There's no such thing as "too small to bill". If I were to add up all the time I wasted doing small favors like this, I would lament for days about the amount of money I lost. It adds up, and the more you give the more they will take.

This is human nature. If every day you ask someone for $10 and they happily hand it to you and assure you that it's no problem, you're going to at least be tempted to ask tomorrow. Now since it's not actual money being requested, you're going to feel even more inclined to ask for it because after all, it's just time right?

Maybe you don't always bill for a full hour, but bill something. You must.

Also remember that, especially when you're a skilled laborer, nothing takes "only 10 minutes." It took you years and, if private education was involved, probably thousands of dollars to be able to do that thing in 10 minutes. By forgetting this, you devalue yourself and your craft.

It's going to ruin your relationship with your client, not help.

Eventually you're going to begrudge your client. This is understandable, because an unnatural relationship has developed. You've allowed what should have been a symbiotic relationship to turn into a parasitic one. Nobody likes ticks.

Plus, eventually you're going to say "enough" and you're going to start doing what you should have done in the first place, respond to every inquiry with a quote and an estimated time of delivery. Your client, who now views themselves as some sort of buddy of yours is probably not going to take this well. They've been allowed to believe for some time that you don't have a business relationship (because it hasn't been one), but that you have some warped version of friendship where you do nice things for them because you're their buddy.

Imagine turning to your best mate one Friday night when he asks to hitch a ride to the club and handing him an quote for the drive and your time as a response. That's crazy and bass ackwards to imagine, because that's what it would be. You're suddenly imposing the rules of a completely different kind of relationship, one that you don't have together.

If you need to do freebies to get or keep a client, that's the kind of client you don't want at all.

Often in small business, we have this inclination that if we just do favours for a client, we'll do well. This leads to under-quoting jobs, completely throwing away your time (which remember is the same as throwing money out of your pocket) and such. Doing business this way, you will fail in the end and these clients will live on. If you feel like billing fair market value for something might make your client leave you, do it anyway and use their parting payment to buy a bottle of champagne and celebrate because you've just been saved from operating at a loss.

I can tell you that every single client I've done more than one freebie for no longer does business with me. Every single one. The clients I maintain and have an amazing business relationship with are the ones that understand that when they ask me do something, they'll also be asking how much money to send me.

Freebies aren't always bad.

There are cases when doing a freebie can be a pure positive. Showing appreciation to a loyal customer, helping someone in need, etc. I'm not necessarily saying that all freebies are bad, but rather my answer is given in the context of the question: a business relationship turned sour by undeserved or unsolicited freebies.

My answer is addressing the very poor business practice of giving away things for free arbitrarily for the sake of gaining or maintaining new clients. The resulting situation, as described in the question usually isn't the clients fault, but is self induced by the person who suffers: the person giving away their goods or services.

For those who want to know how to fix the current bad relationships

Look, so far I've written this long answer and I was happy to do that, but I've got a lot of other priorities I have to take care of and I can't keep doing this for free. I've got to eat. My hourly rate is...

That doesn't go over very well does it? Once you've established a certain type of relationship with another person it's nearly impossible to try to suddenly switch it to a completely different type of relationship or interaction. I've had "the talk" in every way possible and while it might go over smoothly in certain ways, inevitably that client disappears from the "recent calls" list on your phone.

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    I love this answer so much +1 for symbiotic/parasitic, dynamics of business/friendship relationship, time == money, my gosh – Dennis Jun 10 '16 at 13:10
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    This is a great answer, but I think you should add what is the standard solution to this in every industry I can think of - a support contract or retainer or otherwise selling a pool of time for your client to use when they have a question or problem or otherwise need minor assistance. – HopelessN00b Jun 10 '16 at 14:27
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    I'd add that adding a freebie is not bad as long as you are explicit about it, else it could lead to uncomfortable situations that could develop into the relationships you don't want. Ideally, before finishing the task send a quote for the amount you'd bill and then a discount for loyalty or whatever. That way it's always clear that your work has a value. – Vinko Vrsalovic Jun 10 '16 at 15:28
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    I want to add: for small tasks (<15 minutes), you should be taking into account that many such small tasks have a ramping-up time cost. E.g. if you're working on a graph for a report, then switch over to printing and mailing a document, then switch back, it takes more than just the 5 minutes to print and mail the document - it also takes the time to switch modes/tasks. This is not a big deal if you only have a few switches in a day of work, but if you're doing 20+ small 5-minute tasks, it adds up. Include the switching cost in your bill, or it becomes unbilled time. – Martin Carney Jun 10 '16 at 17:45
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    Also in my experience: Client's don't value the "freebies". Ever! For them it's not "this guy was so nice and did that for free". It's always "I paid for the project and that X didn't work and I called him to fix it/tell me how to do it". You don't get any goodwill for doing freebies. If you do anything free, it will be expected in the future! If you make it clear from the beginning that you won't work for free, almost all clients will respect that and most will respect you for that. – Josef Jun 13 '16 at 8:40
55

Create a billable unit (some places use 6 minutes, some 10, some 15) - make sure that these clients are aware that a phone conversation or small task will be charged at the billable rate. Keep a record of each task/conversation and add up the units and hand over a monthly invoice.

Yes, this means that three two minute tasks for three different customers will mean you're charging 18 minutes (for 6 minutes of actual work) - but this is pretty normal.

The important thing is to do this from the outset - that way, you're not disappointing anyone by suddenly charging them. Also, it reduces the time you spend on, shall we say, simpler queries.

Minor revision to clarify:

If, at the end of the month you only have a couple of units work against a client, you should probably waive it. If you get several hours (that's only two or three 15 minute sessions a week), then you want to charge them those several hours.

Of course, if they're paying you for a bigger project (or just paid for one) you might choose to waive a few extra hours.

Overall, though, if you are up front about it, then choose to waive it, then you're going to get brownie points. If you charge, you get your time reimbursed. Win, win.

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    In my experience (of software development), billing for 18 minutes would definitely not be normal. It would seem petty and adversarial. I think, in many fields, it is better to do a certain amount out of good will, and not charge for truly trivial tasks. – user45590 Jun 10 '16 at 7:31
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    @dan1111 - I've known IT companies that bill in 15 minute increments. Certain types of tasks might be free but even a quick billable task was, well, billable. – BSMP Jun 10 '16 at 7:52
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    In our company (not freelacing), we include X hours of "support time" in the contract just for those tasks. Whatever time is left can be used for whatever service the client wants. This means we essentially use time as a currency, but it's easier on the client and it means we get the cash upfront. – André Paramés Jun 10 '16 at 8:49
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    @dan1111: you wouldn't issue an invoice for 18 minutes, but you can still itemise it in the next invoice without particularly raising eyebrows. Although as André says it still might not be its own line item, it might get rolled into a larger "general support" item with a time total against it. So for example if a client is making daily requests for 18 minute "truly trivial" tasks then they really shouldn't complain about paying a 6 hour a month support contract, although naturally some will try it on. – Steve Jessop Jun 10 '16 at 10:50
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    @dan1111,@horuskol isn't talking about billing 18 minutes to one client, but rather completing 18 billable minutes in 6, across three clients (3 clients, one two-minute task per client). One wouldn't send a bill for 6 minutes, but include it as part of the regular monthly invoice. As for the size of a billing unit, my wife (who's not in software development) actually does log her time in 6-minute units and her employer tracks very carefully how many she logs. – alroc Jun 10 '16 at 12:39
51

I am a techy but my father was a salesman and he would say once you give away product or services for free you have established your price.

Establish a support contract. Bill in increments and round up.

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    Great quote :) Also like the support contract idea. – Thorst Jun 13 '16 at 7:50
  • I love the one liner ability of salesmen. – UmNyobe Jun 14 '16 at 12:15
38

"Look, I hate to say this, but I'm running a business, and I can't afford to spend an unlimited number of hours doing free customer support. A certain amount of that was budgeted into the contract, but we've already gone past that. I'd be glad to continue answering these small questions for you, but it will have to be at my usual hourly rate, or we'll need to work out some kind of contract for that service. Of course if you find a genuine bug covered by warranty, that's a different matter... but be prepared to pay if it turns out to be user error/education/configuration work. I like you guys, but I need to work on my other customers' projects, and I need to eat."

Heck, the Free Software Manifesto said quite clearly that even when software is free, support should be paid for. You need to pay the piper on one end or the other, or learn to play for yourself.

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    Obsolete comments removed after the last edit. Also, just a reminder to everyone of our Be Nice policy. – Jane S Jun 10 '16 at 21:32
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    I like the sentiment here, but the delivery seems sub-optimal. When telling someone they don't want to hear, being positive about it is critical. "can't afford" "hate to say" "be prepared to pay" all seem like they might anger clients. Still, I think with some word smithing the message here could be spun properly to get the point across without ruffling feathers. – corsiKa Jun 13 '16 at 22:52
21

I feel differently from the other answers.

Not charging for trivial tasks builds up good will with the customer. It communicates that you are reasonable, flexible, and willing to work with them. All of this helps you build a positive relationship.

This doesn't necessarily mean "doing it for free". The question states you are doing fixed price quotes. Your fixed price quote should take into account the reality that you will be doing occasional small follow-up tasks for the typical project--just pad the price according to your expectations of follow-up work.

You do, however, need to know when to draw a line under something and say "this is new, chargeable work". Ultimately, this is a judgement call. Some principles that can help:

  • If there are expected ongoing tasks, like support, your initial quote should address these explicitly to clarify the limits. e.g. "Support will be provided free of charge for one year following completion of the project." And perhaps more detail about what kind or amount of support you will provide, if you are worried that they might need a lot of your time.
  • If you are creating something new, rather than answering a question, etc., you really should charge for it.
  • Volume is a legitimate reason to object. There's nothing wrong with telling a client "I'm happy to answer an occasional question for free, but over the last couple of months I've spent quite a bit of time on these queries, so I really need to start charging for this work if you need this level of input from me".

In short, Doing small tasks without charging is good for your relationship with the customer, but build it into your business model, and stay in control of the situation by setting boundaries.

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    I agree that it builds up good will, but it also shows that they get get your time for free. Often people take things free for granted and eventually stop feeling they are favours and come to expect them. – Terry Jun 10 '16 at 8:20
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    +1 Include it in the price. I can't imagine many customers repeating with in-app-purchase-style customer support. This is different from doing tasks which are outside of the original scope for free. – user47913 Jun 10 '16 at 9:52
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    @Terry, there is always a risk that by being "nice" you get taken for granted, but still being generous is a key to great customer service. I think the important part to avoid being exploited is to take control of the situation: you actively decide to do some kinds of things without billing, but have a clear cut-off beyond which you will bill. – user45590 Jun 10 '16 at 9:53
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    +1 for "Volume is a legitimate reason to object." Doing a bit of maintenance is covering flaws in your own work as much as indulging the client, as long as you set an upper limit. – deworde Jun 10 '16 at 10:06
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    @SteveJessop - if it's the kind of hotel that would offer complimentary, then yeah, I'd be unhappy. OTOH, if I'd booked one night at a no-frills place, I wouldn't expect more than what was on offer. Either one though, I wouldn't expect one night free just because I might book a whole week later in the year. – HorusKol Jun 10 '16 at 13:37
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Billing the customer for small increments, as in the top answer, seems fair from the point of view of the developer. And it is even possible that in principle, the customer would agree that it is fair to bill for stuff which adds up to a sizeable chunk over the month.

But in reality, billing for tiny tasks really reduces the value of your service to the client. Right now, your client might get stuck in a rut in a small task which is outside his usual expertise. Stressed and frustrated, he asks another human being for help, gets it, and the stress goes away.

If you would bill for 5 minutes of work, this already stressed client has to make the decision to spend money before he calls you. The sum may be tiny, but this doesn't matter (see Arieli's research in that area), it still adds to his stress instead of subtracting, and also does not get the whole nice halo of "help" which makes us so happy, as it is now perceived as a financial transaction. So, billing for every 5 (or 15) minutes is the wrong way here.

What you can do instead is to offer a quota of free service minutes per month, let's say up to a sum of 3 hours. Of course, this means that the clients are paying for it through your hour rate. And they are smart enough to realize that. But it doesn't matter. It is a constellation which allows him to be carefree when it comes to small annoyances which stop his workflow, and people are happy to pay a monthly bill to be carefree. What they hate is to be stuck with a stupid little problem and having to pay to make it go away.

The quota should look reasonable, not "you get 15 free minutes a month". But note that your client is probably not realizing how quickly his requests are adding up. If you give him a quota of 3 hours per month and he starts hitting it regularly, you are in the position to say, "OK, would you like to purchase 5 more hours of monthly 'minisupport', the rate is $XXX". This subtly drives the point home that this is a service he has been using, that he obviously needs it, that it is not so tiny as he thought (hitting the quota proves it), provides him the option to continue using it (as opposed to a "sorry, I'm gonna stop giving you minisupport even though you had it earlier"), and gives him the control over whether they get more of it or not (and people like having control). Also, it can be an advantage you use when selling your to a prospective client: "With me, a quota of 3 hours of free minisupport is included in the contract". (You'd need to define "minisupport" here so you don't get into squabbles if a request was for minisupport or for a standard billing rate. Maybe count everything solved in under 30 min as minisupport and track this minisupport time in 1-minute increments).

This will still make some clients angry. They signed the contract with the expectation of it implicitly including full carefree support to whatever degree they need it. Clients with unreasonable expectations are a fact of life. But if you try to meet their expectations as to not lose their goodwill, you will go bankrupt. Stick with those who are willing to pay for work done.

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    I'd say that this allocation of service-time can still appear on statements sent to the client, even if it's part of the package they are already paying for. This will serve as as signpost to them that you expect to do some support, but there are also some limits to what's "included" in that baseline. – SeldomNeedy Jun 13 '16 at 16:10
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    Sounds good, but don't use the word "minisupport." It's just support, period. – Wildcard Jun 13 '16 at 20:05
8

If you're doing work for a fixed price, you need to establish up front what that fixed price covers.

I have fond memories of the time a small company I worked for signed a contract for software development that included a clause saying we would make "any changes the customer requests at no additional cost". I said to the salesman, if the customer comes back and says they want us to "add a screen" that does something totally unrelated to the present functions of the program, if they say they want it to now do word processing or payroll or add an AI that invents a foolproof plan for peace in the Middle East, we are committed to doing that, for free. His reply was, "But I made a $10,000 sale!" "Yes," I said, "but if it costs us $20,000 to do the work, we've lost money." He could not comprehend that objection. He repeated that he had made a $10,000 sale.

My point being, if you're giving a fixed price, you need to say exactly what that fixed price covers. Does it include installation and configuration? Does it include support after delivery? How much? Etc.

I'd establish up front what you charge for customer support.

If you've been giving free support, you can't suddenly start charging without warning. i.e. if you've been giving free support for the past six months, you can't just suddenly send a bill for this month. At the very least that would be bad PR. I wouldn't be surprised if you could be sued for fraud, misleading the customer into thinking something was free and then billing them for it.

Yes, there's a trap here that I suspect many consultants have fallen into. You get a contract for a bunch of work for a bunch of money. Then the client calls and asks for something that's not covered by the contract, but you help them out to keep up good relations. Maybe it's a borderline thing, like is this service covered under the warranty or is this free advice? But you do it once, and then they call again with something else and again expect no additional charge. And then again and again. I think the only solution is to somehow remind them that they are getting free service. Like send them a bill that says "telephone consultation - $100; write off for customer relations - $100; amount due $0."

At some point when they call you have to say, "Okay, I'm happy to help you with that problem. Our rates are $75 per hour. If you would like to proceed, I will need a credit card number, or if you prefer we can bill you monthly." That may sound harsh, but it's better than sending them a bill for something they thought was free, or you doing unlimited work for free.

  • That clause sounds like it couldn't possibly have legal validity. Of course if it ever ended up in court it would indicate a total failure of customer relations, anyway. – Wildcard Jun 13 '16 at 20:07
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    ... , that they would have grounds for a lawsuit. It certainly sounds like deceptive marketing to me. Especially when it's something like breakfast or customer service where you've already "consumed" it in some sense by the time you get the bill, no way to say "never mind then" and give it back. Maybe a lawyer would have a different take. Regardless of the legal issue, it would certainly be bad public relations. – Jay Jun 13 '16 at 21:20
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    I meant the clause, "we will make any changes the customer requests at no additional cost" wouldn't have any legal validity as it's impossibly broad. :) I agree with your points. If you suddenly charged them, you'd have trouble, but if you refused to make changes to e.g. your office building ("ANY changes"), they wouldn't be able to force you to do so. – Wildcard Jun 13 '16 at 21:47
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    @Wildcard Ah. Yeah, I have no idea what a court would have said if that had come to a lawsuit. As it was, the client didn't take any big advantage of it, they asked for a few minor changes and we made them. The potential scared me though. – Jay Jun 13 '16 at 22:07
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    That's also the recommended way to handle infinite support requests from friends and family - send a bill with a 100% rebate if they are good friends and family. (Alternative: If they ask a Windows question you are a Mac man, and if they ask a Mac question then you are a Windows man. ) – gnasher729 Nov 7 '16 at 17:04
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The real issue here is your bill rate. I bet right now it's quite close to what you want to make an hour. It should be triple that. If you look for estimates of overhead, you'll see they typically run about 50% of salary. That's taxes, rent, computers, phone bills, insurance, and so on. That means you need to bill $1500 in order to have $1000 to pay yourself.

However, you will want to pay yourself about 2 hours for every hour you bill. This is because you want vacation (2 weeks a year? 4?), public holidays (in Canada there are 10 a year or 2 more weeks), sick days (at least 5 so another week), training, going to conferences, learning new tech on side projects no-one pays for, and gaps between contracts, making 10 weeks or more a year (quite a lot more in a fast paced technology where you have to find your own learning.) 10 weeks out of 50 is 20% of your billable time gone. If you manage to bill 6 hours in an 8-hour day (on average) that's another 25% of what's left, or 10 more weeks. (The other two hours a day goes to interruptions, sales, taking longer than what you agreed to bill, paperwork like paying your taxes and bills, fiddling with your own tech such as installing new software, etc etc etc.)

20% or more gone in big week chunks, and 20% gone an hour here and hour there, overall it's close enough to say you can only bill 1000 hours a year of the 2000 you spend working. Of course lawyers bill more - they have people for their paperwork, lunch getting, sales calls and so on, plus they bill 30 minutes even if it took 5, and they work more than 8 hours a day, too. Assuming you're not a lawyer, this is your math. Roughly speaking, after overhead you need $2n per hour to pay yourself half that - $n per hour. And that means you needed $3n gross. Triple your salary rate.

When you establish this bill rate two things will happen, both pleasant. First, you will be able to cheerfully give 5 minutes here and half an hour there to clients who ask for them. In a sense, they've already paid for them. You won't need to track the time (though I do) or bill for it, or chase the bill. (Phoning three times to get $25 paid is not a good use of your time.) Your happier clients may refer you to others, or bring other projects to you. Sometimes, those "quick questions" are actually sales opportunities, too. Second, some clients will not hire you. These are the ones with the lowest budgets and the ones most likely to nickel and dime you to death. The more people pay for you, the more they value your time and the less likely they are to expect significant effort for free.

Perhaps you're afraid to turn down work even if it's below your bill rate. I know that feeling. But work hard towards the "right" bill rate - once you get there, things get so much smoother.

3

I think too many consultants and freelancers offer too many free services in the early stages of a project. Having an initial discussion is fine, but when clients want extensive proposals, you have to start charging for that.

Larger companies can afford to do this because they have the cash flow to do a little work for free an know the larger "pay day" will make up for it. Many freelancers and independents tend to charge less because they don't have the overhead and want to be competitive. Make sure your clients understand you're able to afford to do this, but you have to charge for all of your time.

You should build minimum blocks of time or fees into your agreements. Offer to add a block of hours to a project to allow for follow up. When a client is frustrated and needs your help, they're not going to be happy if you have to mention charging them a fee for your time. They'll be emotional and think you're "nickle and diming" them.

Avoid this by being professional and upfront about charging for your time. Get it out in the open. You could lose some clients, but I'll bet you have a few clients you wish you never met.

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    +1, solid advice. I do this with some quotes, where I tell them straight up that part of the flat rate price covers X type of support for N number of days after they get the deliverable. – user41761 Jun 10 '16 at 13:22
3

You are facing a very common problem in the freelance world!

I think there are two key things you need to do: manage your customer's expectations, and offer a service that meets their needs at a price that is fair to you and them.

How do I make it clear that I expect to be paid for work?

It's best to establish this early. Part of managing expectations is not changing things, so I have found that making your policies (whatever they are) clear in the initial contract, your conversations with clients, and on your website helps with that. Consistency is very important. You can change things later, but as you are discovering, it is more difficult.

At what point should I have that conversation?

For new clients, at the outset. Make it clear what "ongoing support" means and how much it costs. For existing clients, you can figure out your new policy, put it on your website, and then send and email to them explaining the change and the reasoning (just be careful not to blame the clients or alienate them - frame it like "business is booming and in order to provide the same level of quality service as before, I need to start charging for even small support tasks."

How much should I give away for free, if any?

That's up to you to decide. Some people think "none" makes sense, because you create a perception that your time is not valuable if you don't charge for it. I think that a little bit of free advice is good business practice, because it creates a sense that you are reliable and knowledgeable, and it establishes a good relationship with your clients. On the other hand, you can't give it all away, so you need to establish that boundary early and communicate it clearly. Personally, I do free initial consultations and answer quick questions for free. If it is related to a problem with something I have sold, then I usually have a "free support" clause in the contract that outlines how long I will fix things for free. After that they need to pay if work is required. You may want to charge for everything depending on how busy you are.

Do I charge them a full hour for a 10 minute task?

I would recommend billing in 15 minute increments to make the invoicing easier (0.25 hours vs. 0.166666... hours). Even if a question only takes a minute to answer, there is overhead to answering the call, getting distracted from whatever you were working on before, etc. So 15 min is the lowest I would go, and if you are in very high demand, you could bill in 0.5 and 1 hour increments.

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    "For new clients, at the outset." I have a straightforward policy about this. For the type of work I do it makes sense to give a fixed-price quote up front. Everything delivered to the client is clearly watermarked as a "draft version" for the client to approve, or request specific changes - which are "free" as part of the fixed price. When the client agrees that what they have is acceptable, they get the final, non-watermarked version, and (simultaneously) the invoice. If they want any more work after that point, it's a new task that will get a new price quote.... – alephzero Jun 10 '16 at 20:37
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    ... Of course if a client gets the habit of requesting endless changes, their next fixed price quote will reflect that behaviour! But since the client doesn't have anything they can actually use until they agree it is satisfactory, that tends to focus their minds somewhat. Until the client builds up some level of "reputation", I don't start a second job until they have agreed the first one is complete. I can't advise on how to get out of the hole you have dug for yourself with your existing clients, because I've never got into that situation. – alephzero Jun 10 '16 at 20:39
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    "business is booming and in order to provide the same level of quality service as before, I need to start charging for even small support tasks." +1 just for this. – Wildcard Jun 13 '16 at 20:09
3

At my former workplace we had an hour registration where we would bill the customers from. Because all of us were way too lazy to keep filling out that monster of a form for 1-5 minutes of work, we made a timer. This would add a default description of what we did, and all we had to do was assign the right customer.

Because our billable unit was a multiple of 15 minutes, we counted up the x support tickets to this unit and rounded that down at the end of the month and sent the bill if it was outside of our support contract hours and terms.

For my company this saved roughly 10 hours a month on unbillable hours.

How much should I give away for free, if any?

I would say: "Don't over-milk the cow". For customers who just asked for a big project or had a lot of work done in the last three months, you can generally expect them to have questions when they start using this. These questions you can usually answer in a single call or email. Things that don't require a lot of work.

Weigh how much a customer is worth and if they are going to come back for more projects.

Also make sure you inform the customer if something is going to cost money and ask for confirmation. In my experience this has been much appreciated.

2

How do I make it clear that I expect to be paid for work?

Communicate.

At what point should I have that conversation?

As soon as it looks like things are going in a direction you don't like, or that they are likely to go in that direction.

How much should I give away for free, if any?

That's totally up to you. A whole lot, if you're doing flat rate work. Your market, billing strategy, etc., are details that vary between different companies.

Do I charge them a full hour for a 10 minute task?

Here are the rules I went by:

If this is a mistake on our part (me, or one of my team members), I don't charge.

If this is something that should have been done as part of service that is paid for separately, I don't charge them at my usual rate. (I might charge the project, which is billed separately.)

If I need to connect to their machine, I charge them.

If it takes less than 2-3 minutes, I might not charge them.

If it takes 4 minutes (maybe even 3), then I charge them.

If I know that I or a team member just spent 2-3 minutes twice earlier in the day, then I forego the grace, and I charge them. This is legitimate because anyone talking to tech support (which was my role) could be charged for any work/service.

This worked fairly well at a place I worked for, where we charged in 15 minute increments. However, whether you charge in 15 minute increments (published hourly rate divided by 4), 30 minutes, 6 minutes, or 60 minutes, is a business decision where multiple strategies can work very well, so I can't really tell you which approach will be right for you.

Educating the customer about how their systems work is a service that we treated as billable.

(Educating the customer about some other basic stuff wasn't something we billed for. However, we had other staff, our salespeople, do that. So people learned that when they talked with tech support, they got charged whenever asking for a service. I'm not saying you should do the same thing. How much freebee work is done by your sales folks, like project design/etc., is a decision that may vary between companies.)

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Work constructively with good customers

I am mostly in agreement with dan1111, that in many industries or situations it pays to be flexible with the customer within reason. Demanding payment for every small thing creates friction, and can make the customer scared to call you for some items which could have lead onto bigger projects; when you have a smaller pool of customers, you need that contact time to be able to discuss future projects.

Having said that, unlimited pieces of work are not ok.

Take a new look at how projects run, and expect to do some finishing up work

The solution I've seen used in small software businesses is to expect to do some additional bits and pieces. So a project looks more like this:

| Prep/Tender  |  Specification  |  Work  |  Integration | Loose ends |

If you are currently charging only for the Work portion, you will rapidly drown. It is not the vast majority of the work, nor is it often even the largest chunk. But for the project to succeed (delivering value to the customer and paying you adequately for the whole exercise) you need to be charging an amount that covers the whole lifecycle.

Be a company, not a resource

So I think the problem is one of approach; don't think of chargeable work as the Work segment, and often it is best to avoid a charge-per-hour basis because it suggests to the customer that your time is available to be used in that fashion, like a long distance call or a temping agency. In fact, you want to be able to schedule work in for the next few months/year and last minute changes are not just 'normal' charges. I think you also need to include some amount of additional work into your time budget for the project. If you always see small changes as a problem (whether you charge for them or not), then you will resent these items. But in fact your customer may highly value your ability to work with them constructively.

There is a lot of balancing to be done here, and that is why this work is usually done in companies rather than as an individual; this whole thing takes management and ideally the fluidity of multiple employees to take on spikes in work. So you're having to do this by yourself, but that doesn't mean it can be ignored.

Flag up low quality customers early

As others have said, the kind of customer who wants a rock-bottom price and then tries to squeeze in a lot of last minute extras is not the customer you want. With the above approach, you at least get to find that out when you talk numbers and include the other parts of the project. Ultimately, this is not deception, it is reality; a well-managed and resourced project is far better for both parties, and the more the work can be done up-front the better you will both feel. Bad customers should be evident early if they question this.

Draw the line, quantitatively

Your time is valuable, so I don't think this is an endless pot. If you have set aside say 0.3x the 'work' period for loose ends, then once you reach a threshold (0.35x?) you need to inform the customer that you will be billing. But since you explained up front that you were including some time for necessary loose ends at the end, they will not get this bill out of the blue, which could happen otherwise. By drawing a line this way, you won't have to fret over a single additional item and whether to include it; you can't often tell when you've got to the last item, and can find yourself avoiding confrontation by just accepting a drip-feed of tasks unless the line is drawn before you start.

Master the art of project management, particularly specifying

Finally, be as clear as possible at the Specification stage what you are promising to deliver as part of the job, and what you are not promising. Use previous projects and requests for additional work to inform that specification and ask questions about things that often come up. By the Pareto principle it will most often be the same things that come up, so you really shouldn't be surprised by that. The clearer you can be about responsibilities at the Specification stage, the better you can handle this latter stage work; if it is something you specifically excluded, charge for it. If it is something you took responsibility for, suck it up. If it's neither, add it to your list of things to ask next time.

TLDR It is possible and often preferable to be flexible with customers and do extra tasks that need doing for the success of a project without it being a loss for you, by taking a wider view of what is part of the project and being clear about what you will consider additional work to be charged for.

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Not nearly as thorough as the questions already posted, but also didn't want to get pegged by the StackExchange overlords for posting an answer as a comment.

One thing I would definitely consider is including post-support as "add-ons" to a project. So for example, as part of your contract say, "We'll also include our Bronze Support package after completion, which includes 5 hours of technical assistance [.. other fancy terms here..] after the project wraps up." Then, every time they ask you for help, provide your assistance without question, but follow-up with a breakdown of their remaining balance of additional support. Once that bucket gets empty, swoop in with a "Hey, I'd love to help you out but this is going to take more than available time you have left in your support plan. Do you want to purchase another Bronze/Silver/Gold package for this and future support?"

So this basically will set the expectation upfront that while you're willing to help, it is being tracked. Every time. And once that well runs dry, the client should realize (through your updates) that they'll eventually have to start paying for your additional services. This allows you to retain the sure, I'd love to help relationship, while setting realistic and foreseeable end-points for when that help will also come with a bill attached.

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I think a simple solution would be to negotiate a miscellaneous time budget (let's say two or even 4 hrs/week) for such requests, which should include the tasks you describe. You would bill that time every pay period, regardless of whether they allocate actual work to it. If they don't, you can do something like refactoring or routine maintenance during that time to justify it, and perhaps annotate it as such. It would also save you the grueling aspect of itemizing that on your invoice as it would be absorbed in the miscellaneous time budget. Of course, your main work would be listed under their regular billing codes to distinguish it from the miscellaneous.

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I'm not sure just when but its probably since programming computers took off. When a user can see how little is needed(?) to make a change they are much more likely to ask for continuous improvements.

Painting and plumbing even though not professions they are trades and real jobs that are over when you're finished. Once the tools are put away no one would come back and ask for more. Now that everyone has a keyboard they cannot see the problem with those they hire continuing to type away to their ever increasing specifications.

The masons/Masons had it right. You don't give away the methods of doing the job and you don't start to work until the money and scope are agreed upon.

Myself, I've always had agreements worked out that would specify what would be complete in the current phase and leave the sloppy ideas for the next phase. If it is not part of the current phase "I'm sorry, I won't have the time".

It's up to you to set the boundaries. My buddy charges three times my hourly rate and he bills half time for driving over a certain distance to a client. I'm getting by alright. He lives in a house larger than mine that he paid off in eleven years. YMMV.

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