Two and a half cheers for longer term contracts

I've just started work on a major new project and, as always at these times, find myself quite extraordinarily busy.

Not just because of all that needs to be done to get a new project off the ground: the finalising of contracts and schedules, research, the gathering and trial of ideas that may or may not work. But also because of the urgent need to make proper room for the new project by bringing existing projects to their conclusion, and trying to ensure that the background hum of day-to-day work for other clients doesn't become ungovernable.

A major difficulty for me, for many other designers, and indeed self-employed professionals in any trade, is - so to speak - attaining the right number of clients. That sounds odd: don't you want as many as possible? No. You can have too many.

Critical mass

There comes a point in business where, if you are fortunate, you win the ongoing custom of a wide range of good, loyal clients, who provide a steady stream of work. I am certainly very grateful to the clients for whom I've worked for quite a few years now. But it's difficult to translate that client base into longer term 'retainer' contracts that secure a steady revenue. Clients prefer to pay for services on an ad-hoc job-by-job basis rather than pay a retainer for a certain number of hours per week or month. Which means that freelancers need to keep looking for and taking on new projects on regular basis. And that means it's very hard to provide a high quality service to all clients when engaged in a demanding new project.

I try to keep aside at least a day each week to provide support to long standing customers, even when a new project is reaching its busiest phase. But it isn't easy. And I'm ever more acutely aware of how much smoother things would run if it were possible to secure even a couple of longer term contracts. It's clearly possible. I well remember attending a talk given a year or so ago by a well known marketing professional who said he only had seven clients, and had no plans to take on any more because he had secured retainers with six of those.

Three things to consider

I write this well aware of the financial constraints within which many companies and organisations purchasing web design services are working. And I certainly realise that many of my clients simply don't have the resources to consider ongoing contracts. But I have had a few over the years who might have benefitted from hiring me - indeed any designer - on a longer term basis. Here are three important reasons why:

  • Buying a few hours of a designer's time every week, or even every month, ensures clients get help when they need it, not just when the designer can fit it in. I'm fortunate that my clients are very patient when I just can't get round to helping immediately, or even not so immediately. But I know they really want things done the next day, if at all possible. Quick turnarounds like that do indeed become possible when fixed hours are involved, and the designer is able to schedule and provide help at a specified time and date.
  • A contract makes it easier for a designer to provide strategic assistance with the future development of a website, rather than responding reactively to client requests. The web is a complex place, internet technology moves at a bewildering pace etc, etc, platitude, platitude… but when contracted for a certain time each month a designer is able to set their work for a client in a longer term context. Rather than just doing a specified bit of work for a client then having to leave it, perhaps forever, the designer has the freedom to advise on what web trends the client needs to anticipate and take advantage of. Clients don't really have the time to keep up with the latest web geekery, and are unaware of just how much a new technology could help them. A designer can identify those opportunities.
  • Booking a designer's ongoing support allows them to help out with routine site maintenance tasks that clients often don't have the time to get round to. I and other designers provide training in the use of content management systems, but I appreciate that the task of keeping a website up-to-date with good copy and high quality imagery is tough, especially for clients who have very limited time to spend on website maintenance. A contracted web pro can jump in as required and make sure that a site is kept fresh with well written copy and professionally edited and sourced images.

There's always a but. But the but has a but…

On the negative side there's the undeniable fact that some months will be less busy than others, so the contractor's fee won't always yield the same return. Clients need to trust their designer to seek to make the best possible use of each month's allotted hours. Sometimes the return on work carried out during quiet periods won't be apparent until later.

I know those reservations can be legitimate, and, as I've said, that contracts are not financially possible for smaller businesses and organisations. But if resources are available, and a client is serious about investing in the full potential of their website they need to consider working closely with a web professional, as a full-time or part-time member of staff, or as a contractor.