Last week’s article pointed out how difficult it can be to sell a service, creative or otherwise. The service-based sales process quickly shifts to questions of trust over capabilities, and is almost always decided on trust.
Building trust in the sales process is just the beginning. Not only do you need to establish trust to close a project, but you also need to maintain it throughout the project and beyond, if you want to maintain a productive and healthy client relationship.
Sales and Service are Both Invisible
Just as evaluating a service is largely an invisible effort, so is maintaining it afterwards. Clients can’t always tell if they are getting solid service from you. During a project, they interact with you in and around discussions of goals and reviewing project milestones. Then you go off and engage in the creative process on their behalf. But they can’t see those efforts. They only see the final results, interacting with you for relatively brief moments during the process, compared to all the time you spend on the work itself.
And once the project is done, their interactions with you will slow down even more—limited to the occasional support request or questions about future projects.
Making the Most of Service Opportunities
Since there are limited occasions when clients get to interact with you, you need to make sure to provide great service each time they occur. You need to listen well, explain effectively, and even know how to push back politely when they need your expertise to keep them on target. As a creative professional service, the service part of your work is extremely important and valuable. So you need to be available, responsive, and effective in communication. It’s on you to deliver and to build upon trust—not erode it.
But Is Service A Profit Center or a Cost Center?
However, in delivering excellent service, alongside your creative work, do you get compensated for the service part of your professional services?
I’ve found that many creatives fail to account for just how much of their project time gets taken up with communications and customer service (upwards of 20% in most cases). Because they don’t measure and track this time, they fail to bill for it, or their project fees get gobbled up with meetings and communications time. What’s more, time spent providing service, beyond a billable project’s schedule, hardly ever gets compensated.
Billing for Your Service
Getting paid for client service is challenging for the creative entrepreneur. And it’s one of the reasons many practices struggle to achieve profitability. Solving this problem is essential.
There are two main things you need to do to plug holes in your profits due to uncompensated customer service. First of all, you need to track all your time working on your projects—creating separate subcategories for communications time in and around your project phases. You need to know clearly and exactly how much time goes into this part of your process. And then you need to build that time into your estimates and quotes.
Track Service Time, But Don’t Itemize It
Keep in mind, while you ought to distinguish between production and communication time in your time records, you do not need to itemize or report this distinction to clients in estimates, quotes, or invoices. Simply build this time into your estimates and then bill it as part of your creative production time.
Getting Paid for Service After the Project Ends
Things get trickier when it comes to follow-on services once a project is done. Larger agencies and public relations firms usually have basic agency fees, retainers, or minimum billing levels to cover this kind of ongoing service. Freelancers and smaller practices rarely enjoy that kind of model. Therefore you have to establish clear terms of service with your clients, and make sure that they review and confirm that they’ve understood and accepted them before beginning a project.
These terms should include broad descriptions for billable services, including communications, estimating, and answering questions. I also recommend that you state clearly that you bill for incremental measured services in no less than 15-minute blocks. If you spend 10 minutes writing an email explaining options to a client, you would then bill for 15 minutes at your measured hourly rate.
Billing for Customer Service
It’s important to consider your billing cycles when implementing such practices. You don’t want to follow up every 10-minute phone call or email exchange with an invoice for 15 minutes of time. One option might be to store up these small incremental charges and send them out in a quarterly bill.
Most of your clients will not be used to this billing model. I’ve had clients question it from time to time. But if you simply explain that other firms charge fees, minimum billings, or retainers—and perhaps offer them that option—they quickly begin to appreciate the economic benefits of just paying you for what they need, when they need it.
Great customer service is critical for keeping your creative practice on course, but if you don’t get compensated for it, excellent service can actually end up sinking your ship.