Running a freelance web design business means becoming an expert in not only building great websites, but also in offering exceptional customer support after the site goes live.
Ongoing support should be a key part of your recurring income strategy. In this post, we will look at the big picture of exceptional support, how to charge for it, and how to manage it going forward.
6 Don’ts for Offering Client Support
1. Don’t forget the Golden Rule.
We’ve all had bad technical support experiences that were caused by lots of different factors. Avoid being one of those experiences for your client by treating them the way that you want to be treated.
2. Don’t procrastinate. Communicate quickly.
Clients want to know that you know they have a problem and when to expect a solution. Even if you can’t work on the issue right away, sending a (non-canned) response lets them know what to expect.
3. Don’t descend into tech speak unless it’s called for.
Most of the time, clients don’t need to know the details. They just want the problem solved. No matter how proud you are of your work to diagnose a complicated problem or create an elegant solution, save the tech speak for your peers who will appreciate it more anyway.
4. Don’t overreach. You don’t have to support everything.
There’s nothing more frustrating than feeling compelled to solve an issue that is outside your competency. Clients often look to web developers to solve IT issues or email issues that are outside our expertise. Be clear on what you support and offer resources for things you don’t.
5. Don’t overpromise; overdeliver.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of underestimating the complexity of a solution and the time it will take to implement. Get into the habit of overestimating the amount of time and cost involved. When the work is done sooner and cheaper than you explained, your clients will love you for it.
6. Don’t just focus on a solution; build the relationship.
Take the support issue as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with the client. Be pleasant to work with, genuinely listen to their frustrations and find the right answer. These days, exceptional customer support is rare. Stand out from the crowd, and your clients will refer you to others.
Charging for Support
How to charge for support is one of the most common challenges that most freelance web designers face. Particularly if you’re good-natured, it’s easy to find yourself giving your time away for “quick fixes.” After a while, those quick fixes add up to hours and hours of unbillable time.
Here are the three options for support to offer your clients:
1. Hourly Rate
- Customer support is based on my published hourly rate.
- I charge a set amount that is billed in 15 minute increments.
- The customer’s card is on file in my Stripe account and is billed immediately following the completion of the request.
2. Prepaid Time Block
- Customers can pre-purchase a block of 5 hours of time at a discount.
- The time it takes to complete support requests is debited from this block.
- Clients are promised a 3-business day turn-around on support requests.
- Time debits and credits are tracked in a simple spreadsheet with a tab for each client who has purchased a block.
- When the block of time reaches 1 hour or less, I contact the client to suggest the purchase of an additional block.
- Bonus: If you need to raise capital for something quickly (like a vacation or a major purchase), you can offer a discount on 5 or 10 hours of prepaid time.
3. Retainer Agreement
- A retainer is good for customers who need regular work, desire a higher priority turn-around on support requests, or want ongoing access for questions and strategy.
- A retainer is based on a best-guess of the time that will be involved.
- Retainers should be regularly evaluated. It’s natural that some months will require more work than others, but over time an average amount should become apparent.
Helpful Tools for Great Client Support
Jing is a free and handy tool to create annotated screen shots and quick how-to videos to answer client questions. Jing exports images easily as PNG files. Videos are exported in the SWF format and don’t play well with most viewers or video editors. Videos can be exported to Screencast.com which has a free plan that should be sufficient for many.
2. Screenflow and Camtasia
It’s often easier to make a quick screencast of a solution rather than to type an explanation in language that is not easily misunderstood.
3. Vimeo Everywhere
If you create Vimeo albums for each of your clients with their own solutions, Vimeo Everywhere makes it easy to show them in the WordPress admin area for quick reference. Note: this plugin has not been updated for some time, but it works well.
Providing Support Beyond Email
Let’s be honest, for most of us, client support is mainly handled via email. And for many of us, support requests are easily manageable this way. However, as you begin to grow, keeping track of support requests needs a bit more structure.
How to Set Up A Protected Support Form For Clients On Your WordPress Site
Creating a customer login and support form on your website is the first step to a solid foundation for your growing support needs.
1. Use Gravity Forms to add a new form to your site. For your support form, you probably want to include the following basic fields:
- Please describe your issue (paragraph text)
2. Add this form to a page (you might name this page “Support.”)
Next, you’ll probably want to add some access controls to this form so that only logged in users can complete this form.
3. Create a “Client” role for users with the Members plugin. When you activate this plugin, you can add new roles with custom role capabilities (such as just “read.”) Once you’ve created this role, update the client’s user from the WP > Users page to “Client.”
4. Use the Theme My Login plugin to set up a log in page that redirects customers to a support area. Theme My Login includes some great modules, including the ability to enable custom passwords and enable custom redirects for the login page. Click to Enable Custom Redirects.
From the TML > Redirections menu, input the /support URL for the Client role to redirect after login.
5. To restricting the support form to clients only, use the Eyes Only: User Access Shortcode plugin.
Protect your gravity form by wrapping the gravity form with the Eyes Only shortcode.
Adding Trello for Support
Trello offers an excellent foundation for tracking client support requests. It’s also easy to customize and makes collaborating with others a snap.
Suggested Structure (Simple)
- To Do (default list)
- For Client Review
- Done (archive cards on this list periodically)
- Awaiting Client Feedback
- On Hold
Tip: Set up labels for issue priority (Normal, Important & Critical)
Create Trello Cards by Email
With Trello, you can also create cards via email. Speed up your workflow by sending your form notification emails directly to Trello.
Next, update your form notifications for your Gravity form to include the Trello board email address.
Note: It may take up to 15 minutes for an emailed card to appear in Trello
Using WP Support Plus Responsive Ticket System
This WP Support Plus plugin adds to WordPress the features of a complete ticket system with 100% responsive and 100% Ajax functionality. This allows users to submit tickets to report problems or get support on whatever you want. Users can set the status, priority and category of each ticket. The pro version is available for $19 (one-time payment).
Using HelpScout for Support
HelpScout is an excellent tool for tracking support requests. By setting up forwarding, you can respond via email to the ticket if you wish. A plugin for Gravity Forms is available for those with a business/developer license.
- Free plan allows 3 users, and 1 mailbox
- Basic plan is $15/user/month and includes unlimited mailboxes, integrations, reports, ratings, etc.
Using Zendesk for Support
Zendesk is another great tool for handling customer support issues. It has a more robust feature set but is a bit more complicated to use and set up.
- No free plan, but a 30 day free trial is available
- $1/user/month for basic plan if paid annually
- This price includes email ticketing and the ability to create a knowledgebase
- Also includes 140+ apps and integrations
- Here’s the Zendesk WordPress plugin for taking support requests on your site:
- Here’s a Zendesk WordPress plugin for each client site
What Have You Learned? Questions?
What have you learned in offering your clients support? Feel free to share your advice or questions in the comments below.
Want to Learn More? Check out iThemes Training
This post is based on the recent Being Supportive: Offering Support on Your WordPress Site webinar from iThemes Training. In this webinar, we walk through in more detail all the steps to offering client support using the options in this post.
Nathan is the Host at iThemes Training where he teaches WordPress and business development topics via live webinar. He is a growth coach for WordPress business owners, helping them become more successful in their businesses individually and in groups. Nathan is also the creator of MonsterContracts, a service that provides contracts for WordPress client work. He has been working with clients to build websites since 1995.