How to Support Clients without Getting Overwhelmed
The first four years I was in business, I had a reccurring problem where I would go through cycles of being overwhelmed. I would be trucking along, knocking out projects, and a previous client would reach out to me with an urgent need for help. I would pause whatever I was working on, get them taken care of, and get back to work. Periodically though, several urgent client requests would arrive back-to-back when I didn't have a spare moment to look at them. My bandwidth would quickly get maxed out and I'd end up working weekends trying to stay on top of everything.
This caused a number of problems.
- It gummed up the gears. I was a developer and developers need focus in order to move quickly. Having to multitask slowed work down and made it harder to meet deadlines.
- It worsened my decisions, estimates, and work. Research shows that people who experience scarcity lose "fluid intelligence" causing them to make worse decisions and function at a lower cognitive level than when they have enough. This was definitely true for me. My lack of time would cause problems to spiral from days to weeks because I would make poor decisions that I would later look back on and wonder what I was thinking? For example, bidding future projects too optimistically or failing to communicate the cost of changes.
- It created resentment. Your relationship with clients should be one of respect and appreciation. However, when you feel like you're being bombarded with support requests that sabotage your work it's tough to feel that.
Fortunately, I was able to the figure out a solution to this problem: I added support retainers to my service offerings.
We'll look at exactly how that worked, but first I want to touch on a key mindset change that I had to make.
Seeing Things Clearly
I had an attitude that because my clients had paid me thousands of dollars to build them Joomla solutions, that they were, well.... sort of entitled to reach out to me whenever and get quick help.
In reality, I was paid for what I had agreed to build in that scope and in that timeframe. Though I did appreciate the work, I had delivered on my end just as I said I would and didn't owe my past clients anything beyond that. The fact that we had worked together was not a good rationale for enabling them to disrupt my current commitments to active clients.
It was tough to make that mindset shift. It was all there to be pieced together, but like any good freelancer I wanted to protect all my clients and it took me awhile to see what problems it was causing.
Protecting Your Clients
What was actually happening was that I was doing a disservice to my active clients by splintering my focus and a disservice to my previous clients by not supporting them or providing the information they needed to make informed decisions.
Worse, though I wanted to help everyone, I was actually putting past clients in danger by not having any plan to handle maintenance. This isn't something I realized initially, but something I learned over time as I saw the rise in attacks on Joomla. People were getting hacked left and right and the best defense was staying up-to-date – something I was pretty sure my clients were not doing.
The Support Retainer
What I eventually did was created a three-hour monthly support retainer. It:
- It had a slightly discounted fee of $100/hour.
- The minimum hours retained were 3.
- It was due at the beginning of the month to retain availability for that month.
- The hours balance could float positive or negative, but would cap at 9 hours (three months.) At nine hours, clients could choose to use that time to schedule a small pro if they desired.
On my end, I provided:
- 24 hour response to questions and problems (response, not necessarily resolution depending upon the issue.)
- Core and extension updates to stay secure.
- Managed backups.
- Security scans and site hardening.
I scheduled an hour every morning for managing support.
Then I emailed all my previous clients and explained to them that I was changing my policy for getting help in order to better support them. I laid out the retainer and explained that for clients who didn't reserve time in my schedule, help would be available as soon as I was available. This could mean a wait for up to a week or more. Additionally, it would be their responsibility to make sure their site stayed up-to-date and secure.
I didn't think that anyone would actually opt-in to the retainer. I thought that most people would shy away from the ongoing monthly cost and wouldn't see the value.
Though no one signed up right away, I had several clients on board in the next year. In part, this was because they would reach out with problems and I would reiterate the support retainer policy and why they wouldn't get help immediately. It was also because I made sure that that support retainer was on every proposal I submitted. This helped to set expectations for new clients and reinforce expectations for previous clients.
These changes eliminated those weekend grinds, gave me peace of mind, and a smoother schedule. On top of that, I developed a new monthly stream of revenue. I was also able to improve the satisfaction of my clients because they received better service and had someone actively looking out for their site and preventing disaster. Even for clients who had not opted in the retainer, they were more aware of the importance to stay up-to-date and the need to maintain their own security.
Now, several years later, I've grown Blue Bridge (my company) from a freelancer to a small development company. The support retainer still exists as a legacy service for the first clients to sign up for it, but these days we actually provide support and maintenance as a service and not a retainer. It costs more and we do more. What hasn't changed is that it's still an indispensable part of our strategy to support our clients and to manage incoming requests for help. It works for us and it will work for you and your clients.