As makers of websites, you've probably realized the conundrum you're faced with as a creator of a digital product. It never becomes "unchangeable." It never becomes locked in time. It doesn't "go to press." It's malleable forever. The only time you are truly free of a website project is once it's been redone by some other agency or individual.

As makers of websites, you've probably realized the conundrum you're faced with as a creator of a digital product. A website is ever "changeable." It never becomes locked in time. It doesn't "go to press." It's malleable forever. The only time you are truly free of a website project is once it's been redone by some other agency or individual.

As a company that prides itself on "client service"—since, after all, we are in the business of client services (we make things for clients)—this has presented a very challenging dilemma and opportunity for Fastspot. On one hand, we all want reoccurring business, business we don't have to go out and pitch and win every time. And clients coming back for changes or updates to their websites can be a great source of reoccurring revenue.

On the other hand, it seems without fail that on the day the one client calls or emails with an urgent request, they ALL do.

And suddenly, no matter how much you want to, you simply can't offer that great customer service to everyone. You have to start making decisions based on things that feel cold or callous, but are necessary to run a successful business. You have to choose the clients who have the larger requests, or who are prone to accepting the estimate you spent time putting together for them (versus complaining that it "shouldn't" take that long or asking tons of questions about the price), and you have to let some clients fall to the wayside.

I know some shops who simply don't even offer any kind of ongoing services or relationship. The site launches, and good luck to you! Happy trails! On one hand, this is a glorious scenario, and it keeps your team happy moving from client to client, never going longer than, say, 18 months having to listen to "whiny voiced so-and-so" on another conference call. The freshness and constant influx of new clients is exciting and offers growth and different challenges at every contract signing. However, to offer no long term relationship leaves a lot of potential money on the table.

The key is ensuring the money you line up is worth the long term relationship, and with the right kind of client.

As we have been going through this challenge, we've realized that you have to prioritize the clients who make the best sense for your business to continue a relationship with—not necessarily the ones you like the best, or know need your help the most. You have to put emotions in check and start separating out the good clients from the bad ones—and by bad ones, I mean ones that consistently take more time than they should, turn down more estimates than they accept, are disrespectful and rude, and in general cause anxiety and bad feelings for those who have to work with them. And you have to have a system for managing the ones that will stay on, so that you can manage the inevitable waterfall of requests that will pour in on the same day, with the same urgency level.

Purging your business of clients you've outgrown, or are toxic, or that simply are no longer a good match for your capabilities, can be challenging. But it's a critical step if you're ever going to get a system of support integrated into your business.

Here's how we are taking some steps to better manage ongoing client relationships, expectations, and providing excellent customer service.

  1. We had to define a bottom line or a "minimum billable amount" to serve as the cut-off line for who we will create an estimate for or continue to have an ongoing relationship with. Of course, a few exceptions sneak through because, as much as I try, I can't turn off my emotional side. However, having a bottom line is extremely helpful. We've identified that offering service retainers only makes sense at the 40 hour mark—and that's buying a block of 40 hours of Fastspot time at a 5% reduced hourly rate, which we manage and help the client use if their usage isn't on target for the year, or begins to wane. We just need to know that the client is willing to budget this in for our time, our responsiveness, our attention, and our skill set. If they aren't able to or willing to, we have identified a few local freelancers we try to direct them to, so we don't leave them out in the cold. We also try to explain why we are setting limits in the first place, and some understand. Some never will, and it's okay to lose those clients.

  2. We had to identify toxic clients. Clients who are always rude, pushy, don't understand why it takes time to go in and track down a bug on a site we built 8 years get the idea. These clients will never turn into good clients. They aren't the future of Fastspot clients. They aren't good references, and aren't sending additional business our way. These are the ones who we are happy to see go "bye bye."

  3. We had to adjust our internal terminology and how we phrase things to be oriented around a services retainer versus a support contract. Keep this in mind: Once someone has a contract for 6 hours of your time, or 600 hours, they feel the same sense of entitlement to call you, email you, complain, fret, yell, ask questions, request meetings, etc. You have to get that number to a place where all that entitlement is being paid for, and is worth it to you and your staff. By thinking of these things as "services" and "retainers" we get everyone away from feeling like a monkey waiting to do someone's bidding, and we begin to foster the idea of a partnership—not a support staff.

  4. We have to track the heck out of it—and we don't promise turn around times. If a client wants to put some ink on a contract for some serious cash over the course of a year, I'd write in a guarantee turn around time—otherwise, no way, Jose. The retainer contract gets our clients in the queue immediately, but that is dependent on what was sitting there before their request came in. And once we start working on something, it's tracked against that retainer diligently. We've found Zendesk is an excellent ticketing system for clients to log things like little bugs or small change requests, and Harvest tracks our time logged against contracts. Phone calls, project management time, research, etc. Our hours are our inventory, so we have to be responsible for them.

  5. We build in value. Not only do our services retainers have discounted rates built in, we build in that partnership mentality. Once a quarter, our team will conduct strategic reviews of clients' projects who have these retainers with us. We will alert them if their traffic is increasingly moving to mobile, but their site isn't responsive; if we see a new trend they are well-aligned to take advantage of; if we think their features and stories are beginning to drift off message. We act as partners, not as fixers or task masters. We continue to add value from our relationship and creative insights, not just our ability to look at code and make sense of it.

We are still figuring it out, and adjusting things as we go—hopefully to a successful end process. As every year passes, more sites are launched and more clients come back to us for help. Most of them realize websites and CMS solutions don't come with lifetime warranties, and that the internet is a fragile and buggy place.

I remind clients all the time that, "Hey, even Bank of America gets hacked now and then. Even Amazon goes down."

And technology is constantly changing and evolving faster and faster, so sites and solutions have shorter and shorter shelf lives. We try to keep clients focused on content, because good content will always have a longer shelf life than a browser specification or a screen size. And we make sure that we, and our clients, value our time for what it's worth. In reality, we are very expensive HTML code editors, but with us, it gets done right and well. Most clients recognize that they get what they pay for, and that bigger clients have to come first, as this is the way of Darwin and business—we have to survive in order to be here to help anyone, ever.

We have outgrown some clients, and have grown tired of dealing with others. We've been spoiled by great clients, and we do whatever we can to keep those clients coming back to us, and telling their colleagues about us, as well. There's no simple solution—at least not that I've found—in how to deal with all these clients piling up over the years. If you've dealt with this and have set something up that's working well, please share. If you have some support horror stories that come to mind, also please share. And just remember: You're not alone!

Share on Twitter or Facebook Published September 24th 2013