The Heating Company Analogy

Published by Chris Coyier

What helps a design business stay healthy and successful over time is having regular clients with regular monthly billable work. The one-off jobs might be more glamorous and more fun, but in the long run it's probably your regulars that keep the lights on.

With print work, projects are absolute. Once ink hits paper, you bill, and that's that. But with the web, projects remain malleable indefinitely. This is an opportunity for you as a web design business to offer the valuable service of monthly maintenance. This is a mutually beneficial scenario for both you and your client. The client gets a website that is always up-to-date, and you get steady monthly billable work.

Here are some things you could provide / offer a web client, beyond just initial design:

  • Hosting / Monitoring
  • Keeping content up to date
  • Adding / Developing new content
  • Long term SEO

But how do you bill for this?

My boss at Chatman Design uses what I think is a clever sales pitch he calls the heating company analogy.

Here is a quote on the billing system from a real oil delivery company:

SmartPay is designed to smooth out your monthly budget. By anticipating your annual heating fuel costs and service plans we can spread the payments over a longer period of time. There are no additional fees for this service. This eliminates more big bills during the holiday season when energy costs are high and other expenses are heavy. With a SmartPay Plan, you pay the same amount each month at the same time.

Nearly this exact model can be adapted to billing your clients for monthly web maintenance. Chances are, each month isn't going to be exactly the same in terms of what needs to get done on the web for that client. Some months you'll have new content galore, and changes abound. Other months things will be quiet. This is where the analogy kicks in.

You can explain to your client that rather than have each months bill be a surprise, you'll anticipate their average monthly needs and bill at a steady rate each month. This way they can count on spending X dollars a month and you can count on billing X dollars a month and everybody is happy.

Reasonable Expectations

When this relationship is forged, you can also be clear to your client about reasonable expectations. If they have an enormous new addition to the website, you may need to bill separately for that as it falls outside the scope of "maintenance". Medium-sized projects that exceed the standard hourly may be fine (that's the whole point of the plan), as long as it's not every single month.

At the end of some predetermined length of time, the bill can be evaluated by both sides and adjusted as appropriate.