A few years ago, my agency took on a client from a software startup in Toronto. The founder was a guy I will call James. I was doing all the communication with James and when we first discussed supporting his startup, I saw a few red flags in our conversation that revolved around pricing. However, when I presented him with our rates he still wanted to hire us.
I hate doing calls. I find them to be emotionally and mentally draining. Because of this, I require calls to be scheduled in advance. This helps me to divert people to email for quick questions and prepare myself emotionally for when it is important to get on the phone. Over the course of the two months we worked with James’ company, he regularly called me out of the blue to waste my time discussing something that I had already explained in an email very clearly. I knew it was clear, because he would reiterate what I had told him, sometimes two or three times, but then would go off on tangents. On top of this, he would regularly use the time to complain about our rates. Every time the phone rang my heart would jump with a surge of anger. I wasted a tremendous amount of time and mental energy trying to manage the relationship.
After two weeks, I knew that we needed to get rid of him. I formed a simple plan: I was going to charge him for every time he called and interrupted my workday. I could do this, because when we first discussed our working together I explained that we billed for everything. Our billing policy is simple: we bill for every task your project requires that prevents us from working on another client’s project.
This did not go as planned. We did bill him for the time and he did pay for it. In addition, I spent another crappy hour on the phone reiterating our policies and defending our pricing. And yet, he still wanted to work with us even though I repeatedly told him that if he didn’t like our rates he should work with someone else. In the end, I had to fire him.
Was I being a jerk or unfair for charging for those calls?
I don’t believe so because that is how I structured our relationship. Client work is all about relationships and good relationships work off of clear boundaries and expectations. Setting those boundaries and communicating them is up to you as the service provider. Whether or not you should bill for calls is not a matter of fairness then, but a matter of practicality.
You should know how your services are organized and work best. For example, if you’re working with high-end clients and you only maintain a few of them at a time, I wouldn’t charge for calls. In those situations, the pricing should be set up very simply with a high profit margin and the service structured in such a way to build and maintain good relationships. You don’t want to nickel and dime high-end clients or waste their time with extra paperwork. Conversely, if you’re constantly playing helpdesk for a portfolio of clients, it makes a lot of sense to bill for each and every call.
Most of the time, we don’t actually bill for calls. It depends on the client and situation. However, I have no scruples about using our billing policy to “train” clients like James or pressure them to work with someone else as I laid out in the above story.
Whether or not you charge for calls, at the beginning of any client relationship it’s critical that you are crystal clear in what you bill for and how you bill. If I had not started the relationship with James with explaining our billing policy, I would have little room to negotiate it after the fact. This is part of setting client expectations and establishing the boundaries of your relationship.
If you’re in a situation with a client now where you’d like to bill for calls in the future, that’s fine, just communicate to them that you are changing your policies and that this is what the new policy is for any future projects. Then, remind them again when you are pricing the next project.
In any event, it’s worth thinking through your strategy: what sort of clients you work with, what is optimal to bill for, and how to communicate this to them.