A few months ago I wrote an article titled Hey WordPress Developers, Your Clients Should Own Their Plugin Licenses. I wrote it from my experience at a large agency for a year and then as a freelancer for a few of years.
When I was with the agency, the client was always a large organization (e.g. McDonald’s). We developed the project, tested it, and maybe helped launch it, but the project would always be handed off to the client’s technical team.
Similarly, when I was a freelancer my client was almost always an agency or a designer. I rarely dealt directly with the person or organization the site was for. And so again it was usually a handoff.
I had the luxury (or so I thought, turns out I was also missing out on an opportunity) of handing off projects and not having to concern myself with maintenance. In these situations it’s unthinkable to me that the client wouldn’t own their plugin licenses. But as people pointed out in the comments of that previous article, it may not make sense in other situations.
Forcing a client to purchase their own plugin licenses when they aren’t equipped to maintain their own site is probably not a good idea. As Donna McMaster put it:
[…] most of my clients are challenged even to renew their domain names on time each year. Using developer licenses saves me a lot of overhead vs keeping track of licenses for each site. […] So I just fold the plugin cost into their maintenance plans. If clients need premium plugins that I don’t have licenses for, I encourage them to purchase the plugins themselves but most prefer for me to do it and then bill them.
This makes total sense. I would probably do the same if I had these clients. In fact, I would say it’s my professional duty as their consultant to help them understand the importance of maintaining their site, what’s involved, what’s at stake, and to convince them of the value of maintenance. Obviously some clients are not going to be convinced, but at least I would do my job presenting all the risks of opting out.
Why Sell Maintenance?
Maybe you’re all about building sites. Maintenance is boring and you hate it. I get that.
You could certainly just point your clients to WP Site Care or another maintainance provider and wish them luck. But in my mind, recurring revenue is a very good reason to offer your clients maintenance service.
One of the things that sucks about the business of agencies and freelancers is that revenue can be up and down, feast or famine as they say. Selling customers on maintenance services that they renew annually (or even monthly) can help stabilize your revenue.
If your ambition is to build a product business, maybe someday you could even stop taking on client projects altogether and just maintain sites. Essentially you would build a productized service out of your existing agency/freelance business.
Bake It In
My contracts usually include a year of maintenance during which I handle all updates and license renewals by way of my developer licenses — as long as they renew their maintenance/support agreement I continue using my licenses.
[…] the clients are provided with a list of premium dependencies and associated costs and can replace my license with their own at any time. So, if the maintenance relationship ends I don’t feel any additional responsibility to protect them from themselves. This has worked so far without any stress or loss of sleep.
I love the idea of baking a year of maintenance and software licenses right into the initial proposal/contract, not even giving the client a hint that there’s an option to opt-out. Obviously if the client communicates that they’ll be handling maintenance, you can replace the clauses with what they’ve opted-out of and what they are responsible for.
I don’t think I’d call it a “plan” in the contract as it sounds like something optional and a little too much like an upsell. It reminds me of a car dealership hard selling me on a bogus maintenance plan.
What to Include
If I was setting up maintenance service I would probably include the following:
- Software Updates
Every month their site is cloned to a staging site, plugins are updated, and the site is tested for any issues caused by the updates. WordPress itself would be set up to run updates automatically as they are released but the site would still be tested for each update. Any issues would be fixed promptly up to a maximum of 1 hour of work per month.
- Software License Management
I would acquire and manage software licenses for WordPress plugins, fonts, cloud apps, etc.
Backups of their database and site files. Frequency would depend on the site and I might exclude this if they’re on a host that offers offsite backups.
I get notified when their site is down and fix the issue if possible. Only during business hours though. I don’t think I’d even entertain the idea of responding to downtime 24/7. If the fix is going to take a while or the problem is out of my hands (e.g. web host having an outage), I let them know.
- Web Hosting
I’d probably manage my own server and host their site on it since I have experience setting up and managing servers. Another option would be to get a hosting account that allows lots of sites per account.
- Domain Name Management
I would register their domains and manage renewals.
You might also include security monitoring, but I probably wouldn’t. In my experience if you keep your site’s software up-to-date this isn’t really necessary. I’ve only seen sites get hacked because their software was outdated.
Of course there will be clients who push back on a maintenance clause in your proposal. They might want to know how the cost would be affected by removing it. And you should definitely be prepared to answer that (i.e. know your costs). But this is also your opportunity to educate them on the value. They may be thinking they have no problem running Windows update, so they can totally handle this.
You can teach them that their WordPress website is a collection of software from different vendors that all miraculously works well together. Sometimes updating one piece of software can break their site and you may not be available right away to help fix it. When you run the updates and test the site, you can fix the issues then and there. And by running the updates on a staging site first we reduce the risk of bringing down the live site to nearly zero.
You should also tell them what happens to those who opt out of maintenance and just choose to not update their software. Their site gets hacked, infected with malware, and not only is it down, but it has to be painstakingly cleaned of malware before it can be brought back online.
Report on Your Efforts
If you want clients to renew their maintenance service, you need to start showing them they’re getting value from it in the very first month. When you update their software and test their site, send them a detailed report of what you did and show them the value they’re receiving from your maintenance service.
When their anniversary date approaches, send a personal email asking if they felt they received good value from their year of maintenance and if they’d like to renew for another year (or go month-to-month). Attach an annual report with all the activity throughout the year. Estimate the hours you’ve saved them from having to do it themselves. Remind them of the headache and cost of hiring a developer to fix the issues that come up. Remind them why keeping their software up-to-date is important.
It’s important to put a process in place for when a client decides not to renew their maintenance service. For example, if you will no longer be managing their software licenses, you should give them a list of all the plugin licenses they’ll need to purchase and let them know that they’ll need to have them in place by their anniversary date. Similarly if you’re hosting their site or managing their domains you’ll need to give them instructions that they need to find another host and migrate their site and transfer their domain name.
You have to be careful here because although you want to end the relationship with the client on good terms, you don’t want to get into the business of educating them on how to do all the things you’ve been doing for them.
If you don’t nail down a solid process here, you could end up with a lot of back and forth with clients on the way out and leave them with a bad taste in their mouth.
If I had to maintain a bunch of client sites there’s no doubt I’d be trying ManageWP. Not only does it centralize the management of software updates, but it handles backups and monitoring as well. It even has a report feature that will automatically generate a beautiful PDF report and email it to the client with all the maintenance activity.
Do you offer a maintenance package to your clients? Is it usually included in the proposal? How hard do you try get your clients to renew their maintenance service? Let us know in the comments below.