This question was asked on the ACA LinkedIn Group recently:
“Hi! So I’m looking at signing my first services agreement with a client. There will be a big kick-off project and then a monthly retainer. Do I charge the client half up front for the kick off and then have them pay the rest once I deliver? For the monthly retainer, do I have them pay me at the end of the month once my work is done or the beginning before I start? I’m trying getting burned as much as possible. Thanks!”
Here’s my advice:
Upfront, upfront, upfront!
It’s important to remember that you’re in the administrative support business, not the credit and loan business.
As a service provider, you’re not obligated to extend anyone credit.
Which is what it would boil down to by you doing all work upfront and billing later.
The problems with billing after the fact include:
- You deprive yourself of cashflow, which is the lifeblood of every business.
- Clients will take you and the work less seriously and abuse your time more frequently. It’s too easy to blow things off and rack up debt on that which they haven’t paid for yet. When they have made an actual financial investment (skin in the game, as they say), they are more compelled to focus their attention to it.
- You’ll have more late/non-payers.
- Having to chase after and deal with those late/non-payers adds to your administrative burdens, creates stress, zaps energy, reduces your morale and spirits, and deprives good clients of your full, positive attention.
- It doesn’t do anyone any good (including clients) to go into debt to you. The more they owe, the harder it will be for them to get caught up while you’re the one who suffers and pays the price for that.
- You’re in a far worse position if a client doesn’t pay after you’ve expended your time and business resources helping them than if you were to mitigate possible losses by getting at least some money upfront.
So here’s what I recommend…
Retainers, by their very nature, are always upfront. That’s the whole point of them. They are typically due on or before the 1st of each month.
In my practice, instead of having retainers due on the 1st, they are due (and processed) on the 25th of the preceding month. For example, April’s retainers are due on March 25.
This is because I don’t want my billing and being paid (along with all that beginning of the month work and bills we have to contend with in our own businesses) competing with the 1st of the month work I do for clients.
I also process my payments automatically… and I never pay myself late.
To do this, I have clients sign a Credit Card Authorization Agreement (AGR-30) at the start of the relationship. By signing this agreement, clients give their consent for you to keep their credit card information on file (because you can’t do that without a consent agreement in place), and for you to automatically process their regular monthly charges.
Once I process the payment every month, I put a courtesy PDF copy of their paid monthly invoice up in a shared Dropbox folder for their business records.
Retainers are the holy grail in this business because it’s where the bigger, more consistent money is. To learn how to make retainers profitable and build a business where you can earn a great living working fewer hours with fewer clients (and get off the nickel and dime project hamster wheel where you always have to chase down your next meal), I highly encourage you to get my Value-Based Pricing & Packaging Guide (GDE-39).
A project is different from ongoing support in that it is self-contained and ends upon completion of the work.
Designing a website is an example of project work because it’s not ongoing. Once the site design is complete, that’s the end of the project.
With project work, clients should definitely be paying at least something upfront, and 100% is entirely acceptable business practice.
With projects, there are a number of ways they can be charged. Getting a minimum or deposit upfront works like earnest money and helps clients respect your time and take the work more seriously.
Requiring payment upfront also helps weed out those who are not serious prospects.
I hate to say it but it’s nonetheless true: there are dine-and-dash clients that new people in business often fall prey to who engage them to do a bunch of work, and then disappear when the bill shows up. You want to avoid that.
The rule of thumb in my business is that if it’s $1,000 or less, I charge 100% upfront.
If it’s a larger project, we break it up into logical phases and they pay for each phase upfront. If you do it that way, you get paid for work you were engaged to perform and complete, and work only continues beyond that once the next phase’s payment is met.
While you’re at it, if you want to learn all my secret policies and procedures that allow me to run my business 3 days a week while earning a full-time income working with just a handful of clients, be sure to get my Power Productivity and Business Management Guide (GDE-41).
Is this information helpful or eye-opening to you? Let me know in the comments.