Client communication is an essential part of every service-based business; and yet it’s one of the least visible. Few of us track the time we spend answering client emails and taking phone calls; fewer still consider it to be billable. But client communication quickly adds up, and failing to recognize it as valid project work only serves to undersell the value of your own time. Here’s why you should always charge for client communication – and how to go about it.
Emails, video calls, meetings, phone calls – thousands of consultants and agencies give away tons of free hours to their clients each month by not recognizing client communication as a billable service. And we mean tons – research suggests we spend around 33% of our billable time reading and answering emails, and 15% on meetings as organizations. And that doesn’t even account for the 23 minutes it takes to recover from unscheduled communications which interrupt our flow. Granted, some of that communication will be internal, but you can’t quantify or manage the cost of billable and non-billable communication without actually acknowledging it as a valid business activity first. Many professionals learn this the hard way, unknowingly entering into hour-long discussions with clients without feeling able to charge for that time. But if you’re providing value during this contact time, it’s part of your billable service.
Consulting discussions boards often weirdly wrap up client communication with perceptions of honor and grace, with some even labelling charged communication as “unethical”. Understand: communication isn’t a favour you do for your client; it’s another way you provide value. You don’t respond to questions, give advice and direction, run demonstrations, clarify and develop processes with your clients out of pure courtesy. All these tasks form part of your project work. Apply the binary “done for me” vs. “done for the client” method to help establish which communication tasks are billable. Many professionals choose not to charge for communication involved in winning clients and reporting monthly, since they are done for personal gain and interest. It’s going to remain a very personal choice: some people find status calls to be non-billable, since they don’t actively move projects forward or require client input. Similarly, scheduling communications and “chaser” emails seem to fall into internal admin time, rather than billable project time.
Thankfully, finding out exactly how long you spend on email, in meetings, taking video calls and on phone calls doesn’t have to involve a ton of extra work. Try an automatic time tracker like Timely – it captures everything in the background for you, even auto-importing your scheduled calendar events for you and breaking down all the emails you worked on in any given day. It can also track you work GPS location, so you can capture travel time incurred for client meetings. Once you’ve quantified exactly how much you spend on client communication each month, you can then represent it in your charges. If you bill by the hour, it’s easy – just include your tracked billable communication in your monthly timesheet. If you charge a fixed project rate, work out how much communication is involved on average for different tasks, looking at past projects to produce an accurate final figure to cover these additional costs. Always be as transparent as possible with your clients. Consider sending reports which break down exactly where that extra communication time came from. Timely can again help here – intelligent tags and a simple chart builder make itemized reporting pretty painless.
All that’s left is to make your clients understand the value of your communication as part of your entire service. Keep it as natural and two-way as possible, explaining honestly how communication invisibility impacts you and how it’s an integral part of every project. Ultimately, your communication time is just as valuable as any other time-based service you provide – if your client can’t recognize that value, seriously reconsider working with them.