How to Structure and Optimise Support Retainers that Don’t Drive Your Agency Mad
Corny tech support joke:
After being on the phone forever with a client who had been having difficulties with their CMS, a junior developer turned in his report:
'PEBKAC - Problem exists between keyboard and chair.'
Such a common line that we’ve all heard before… funny, but sadly it can be so true!
Ask an average person what support in a web agency looks like. There’s a good chance that a one-on-one help scenario like this is what they think about.
But you and I know that support goes way deeper than simply answering (sometimes annoying) questions or fixing a minor glitch.
In this article, we’d like to dig deep into the three categories of support, and how to structure, systemise and process-ise (<—not a proper word) your support service retainers.
Why Should You Optimise Your Support Service Retainers Anyway?
It all comes down to the dirty ‘F’ word…
A support service ideally should help grow your agency (through profitable recurring income and/or opening up opportunities for more projects with a client).
But without a system or a process, your team can easily get spread thin. Time gets allocated in the wrong places and quickly goes up in smoke.
While the team should be knocking out projects on time every time, developers are often forced to shift between projects and support. Through constant task switching, they often fail to reach deep levels of focus and productivity.
Too much of this can feel like chaos.
Which is precisely why support retainers should be improved and optimised. Done properly, you reduce firefighting to a great degree.
Recently we talked about rollover hours in your ongoing support services. We claim that the key to creating hourly support retainers that work is to be in full control of your scheduling and clearly demonstrate your value.
Optimising your support helps your agency achieve these two goals. To us, it comes down to this structure…
3 Types of Support Services
Of course support is valuable to your clients.
But whether offering support creates value for your agency is a different question. The answer lies in how your team manages support.
In our experience, we’ve had the most success with support retainers by dividing and approaching support in three ways:
1. Maintenance - The Backbone of a Valuable Support Retainer
At some point during client interactions, you likely talk about how support and maintenance will be handled after a project is finished. But the way we see it, maintenance is not separate from support, it’s a piece of support.
Maintenance is the recurring tasks that are necessary to keep a website, app or piece of technology running smoothly. It is often the behind the scenes details such as updating plugins, backing up databases, and clearing logs.
A common analogy for web development is when you take your car in for regular tune ups to prevent a major breakdown on the motorway.
But our favourite analogy is that a website is like a garden (we talked about it in this article and on this podcast episode). Most gardens need to be constantly updated, worked on, cleaned, and added to. A garden is also a place that people regularly visit, enjoy, and interact with. People congregate in gardens, have conversations in gardens, and enjoy the fruits or yields that gardens produce.
Reread that last sentence but swap ‘garden’ for ‘website’.
Fits perfectly doesn’t it?
Doing maintenance on a website is like weeding a garden… all the odd jobs and busy work that keeps a site alive and thriving. This is absolutely necessary for every website that is valuable to the owner.
And here’s the trick…
Set up a proper, comprehensive maintenance system and you can greatly reduce the next type of support–the one that causes other projects to be delayed, eats up your team’s time, and makes you wonder where your margins went…
2. Reactive - What Clients Expect (Yet Damages Many Agencies)
Reactive - the classic idea of ‘support’. If there is a problem, you fix it.
Since reactive work typically includes answering client questions and tackling emergency problems, it seems like it can’t be avoided. This inability to schedule your time adds to your team’s frustration, task switching, and loss of profit / income for your agency.
On top of that, a client may not fully understand reactive support and the value you provide until they experience a true site emergency (which you’d rather avoid).
It’s not hard to see how too much reactive support can be a terrible thing for the health of your entire agency.
Here’s the thing:
Most reactive support doesn’t have to be reactive! It can be scheduled, or I should say ‘shifted’…
The key to scheduling reactive work is to minimise it the highest degree.
There are plenty of times where reactive emergencies are impossible to avoid, yes. Thinking of a garden, a major thunderstorm can wash away or knock down. It’s unavoidable and you can’t really predict the extent of the problem / damage ahead of time.
But often, reactive problems are completely avoidable. This is done by taking proper and extensive maintenance measures to reduce the chances of reactive problems from ever arising.
When winter is coming, you wouldn’t want to wait and see if the plants in your garden will freeze over, then react afterward (by shelling out money on new plants). Instead, you put a system into place–maybe a weather alert on your phone. Something as simple as a monitoring tool allows you to plan for a freeze and take measures to cover the plants or move potted plants inside. This is a basic way to turn the reactive into maintenance (in a garden).
The thing is, in the beginning of a support retainer service, you may not know what types of reactive support can be converted into maintenance. That’s alright. Each time you experience a new problem and take a moment to reflect on it, you learn and grow.
Some issues may be isolated to one client, or you may be able to extend your experience from one client to the next. This is precisely where internally tracking your time and actions becomes so valuable to your agency.
Over time, you can easily take measures and create processes to ensure that certain reactive problems rarely or never happen again.
3. Proactive - The Way to Woo Your Clients
Here’s where business differentiating levels of value and trust come in.
Proactive support is when you go above and beyond the basics we’ve already talked about. It can include keeping your client up to date on technology, relevant updates in your industry, or changes in the marketplace.
But possibly one of the higher value pieces of support you can provide as an agency is spotting opportunities for your client. Opportunities are often growth or optimisation focused, instances where your client can take action and improve their business.
Improvement could mean many things, from business growth and profits to saved time and reduced frustration. Clients see the most value in your agency when you bring up incredible ideas that they haven’t thought of yet.
As Jarrod Drysdale said about providing value, ‘The ongoing, long-term structure that a retainer provides is arguably more suited to being a problem solver than a one-off project could be. You can observe problems growing and changing over time and adapt your solutions.’
Do that and you win at proactive support.
Back to our garden, a proactive gardener may inform a client about a new, revolutionary type of fertiliser that is cheaper and more effective. She may offer advice on planting flowers, bushes and trees that complement each other aesthetically and biologically. Or she may identify an opportunity to bring in a hive of bees to improve pollination.
In a commercial garden, maybe the gardener notices how more people linger in the rose section and she identifies how the business could grow by expanding this section, selling roses or holding a yearly rose festival.
The great thing about proactive support is that it can be very simple. Just identifying opportunities (through your tech or creative expertise) and relaying how those opportunities are beneficial to your client can be extremely valuable.
On the flip side, identifying opportunities can also lead to new projects (provided that you have built a level of trust with your clients and they don’t feel like you’re just trying to find more billable work).
One of the best ways to do proactive web support is to get insight into your clients’ marketing plans and find ways to improve and add value.
For example, you can look at traffic spikes throughout the year. Imagine that you identified spikes around a yearly Christmas campaign. You may be able to point out opportunities where a client can create content, use new tools, or optimise their campaigns in some other way. The opportunities you identify may be carried out by your agency or they may not. Most important is that your expertise allowed the opportunity to come to light.
One of the greatest benefits of proactive support is that you are continually strengthening your agency / client relationship and trust.
Instead of all your client interaction coming from the reactive or mundane maintenance side of support, proactive support shows your clients that you are looking out for them and their growth.
Maintenance keeps your clients’ websites strong and healthy. It is essential to a great site.
Reactive support, while sometimes unavoidable, can be greatly reduced by shifting it into maintenance.
Proactive support is a great way to provide and demonstrate ongoing value to your clients.
Examples of Maintenance, Reactive and Proactive Support:
keeping the client up-to-date on technology or browsers
keeping the client up-to-date with marketing changes or marketplace changes
spotting opportunities to capitalise on, optimise, or grow
client questions / support
identifying traffic spikes
fixing broken links
webmaster tools alerts
finding and removing security holes like inactive content editors
How to Optimise Support Retainer Services
The big question…
How do you actually tackle the support retainer optimisation process?
If you want your support retainers to be truly effective and create long-term ROI, you don’t want to simply think about how to do less support work. Instead you should ask yourself:
How do I move from reactive to maintenance?
Then, how do I use maintenance to feed proactive opportunities?
It all starts with reviewing what you are currently doing (with the goal of having more space for proactive support).
Step 1. Maximising Maintenance by Shifting Away from Reactive
The name of the game is prevention and early detection.
Ideally you want to look for ways to take preventive measures to eliminate problems or, at worst, detect problems before they get too big. This is how you greatly reduce firefighting support.
This can be done in multiple ways…
Always track and review support tasks that are arising!
With both repetitive and time consuming tasks, take the extra time to root out the cause.
Then ask how you can systemise or automate your process so that they don’t even occur. Often it’s when small, easy tasks are neglected that problems surface.
Each time a technical error arises, is it because you failed to do routine maintenance or take preventive measures?
Is it possible to catch problems in their earliest stages?
In handling a reactive tech task, do you simply fix it and move on, or do take the extra step of creating alerts and notifications within your monitoring tools?
Monitoring and analysis tools are your best friend when it comes to reducing reactive support and optimising maintenance. Automating tasks and using external services can also really help her as well (which we’ll cover below).
As far as systems, sometimes you absolutely need a senior developer to tackle a problem. But if the same problem repeatedly occurs, it makes sense to spend extra time documenting how to solve it. Eventually that document can be handed off to a junior developer, freeing up time for more important projects for your senior dev team.
You should also track and document your client questions, problems and inquiries. If you find that you are constantly answering the same questions, then create ways for the client to get the answer without your additional input.
This could be done by adding a frequently asked questions section on your site. Instead of answering the same thing over and over, you simply point clients directly to the answer.
Even better, if you are using support software such as SupportBee, Zendesk or Freshdesk, you may be able to create a knowledge base where questions can be asked and related answers are automatically fed to the client. This removes extra communication steps.
You can also use the information you collect to feed into design and development project cycles. For example, if you find that editing content causes a lot of problems for clients, you can change the way something is implemented in the CMS to make editing easier, thus requiring less support.
If it makes sense, you could create a video database on how to carry out a specific task that clients deal with or create a complete guide that they can always refer to (value add!). The same can be done with common questions that don’t require action but just need a straightforward answer.
At Endzone Software, we made a tool called uWhiteLabel that makes documentation distribution easy. This tool allows us to create a custom page within our favourite CMS (Umbraco) where we can link to the documentation that our clients need, making finding the answers to their questions as seamless as possible. For your WordPress sites, it’s worth checking out the White Label CMS plugin.
Aside from answering questions, sometimes the best approach is to spend some extra time to adjust a CMS for a client so that the their problem is solved permanently.
Setting up monitoring tools, creating processes, and creating a customer support database is time consuming, but the time saved for you and your clients in the long run comes back in spades.
On the positive side, quality clients will recognise and appreciate the effort you took to relieve their problems.
Step 2: Automate and Systematise Maintenance in Order to Free More Time for Proactive Support
We’ve already mentioned using monitoring tools, and there are loads of tasks that can be automated using the right tools as well.
The next step is automating whatever you can. For example, plugin updates can be shifted to your host and automatic site scans can be set up.
As with reactive support, you can examine repetitive and time consuming maintenance tasks to identify how they can be turned into a process or system that is repeatedly followed. Whenever possible, your senior developers and designers can create processes that junior developers can follow to carry out maintenance.
This is the process you should undertake to create reliable workflows and checklists.
Just like a pre-flight checklist saves a pilot from potential disaster, so can checklists improve your process. With tasks like updating a site, you can implement a go live checklist to ensure that you aren’t creating reactive work in the future.
By closely monitoring maintenance, you’ll often be able to identify larger tasks that require more work than a typical support retainer includes.
You’ll also likely be able to start identifying proactive support opportunities and (at the very least) you’ll have freed up substantial time to devote to proactive support.
Step 3: Regularly Engaging in Proactive Work to Increase the Value of Your Retainers
Reducing reactive support and optimising maintenance could feel like a natural place to wrap up your support retainer work.
It’s great that you’ve improved your processes (and increased margins), but you certainly don’t want to stop there.
Here’s the thing:
Charging for support retainers can feel tricky.
On the one side, reactive and maintenance are highly valuable and necessary. A problem can arise when you do so well at reducing reactive and streamlining maintenance that the client perceives your service as unchanging or even easy (even though you put so much effort into it), resulting in lower perceived value.
Without firefighting, it could be hard to clearly demonstrate that your maintenance somehow prevented a problem from occurring (and doing that every single month is even more challenging!).
With proactive support, you have the chance to demonstrate ongoing value. Adding growth and improvement opportunities into a ‘CEO-Ready’ monthly report looks way better than checking off a few boring maintenance tasks. It also helps to reinforce the peace of mind feeling your clients feel from the maintenance and reactive portions of your support service.
But… proactive support alone is also difficult to sell as a single support service. At first it may seem a bit intangible or you don’t know if you can deliver on it every single month. That’s why some agencies may want to skip it altogether.
So instead of selling proactive work explicitly–X number of hours spent looking for new growth opportunities–it’s a great way to beef up your support retainer.
And as mentioned earlier, the added benefit of dedicating time to proactive support is that it can naturally lead to selling, upselling and cross selling on other projects or services.
Talking about retainers, Kyle Racki from Proposify explained things so perfectly: ‘If you go above and beyond every month (while still maintaining profitability, of course), work to deliver clients value, and show them how much peace of mind you bring, they’ll be more likely to renew their contract at the end of the term.’
Spending ample time on proactive support (without destroying profits) is a great way to bring loads of value, while still providing the peace of mind through your maintenance and reactive services.
You don’t want to stop at optimising maintenance just to save a few hours of time. Instead, you want to look for ways to maximise the time you can spend on proactive work–always increasing your agency’s perceived valued.
How Do You Decide How Much Time to Spend on Proactive Support?
Our suggestion is to spend as much time as possible!
But there is obviously a limit. You don’t want to spend so much time here that you start to greatly decrease your margins.
But you also don’t want to just ignore new opportunities to save an hour either.
So we’d suggest looking at the value of your retainer agreement compared to the time and resources spent to fulfill it.
For example, let’s say you find that it only takes 6 hours a month to fulfill on your support agreement. But due to your agreement and pricing, you can theoretically spend 8 hours a month without killing your profits. Instead of shifting that extra two hours to another project, it may be wise to spend that time proactively looking for new opportunities for your client.
We aren’t advocating hourly pricing. We believe value based pricing and “packaging” your support services is important, but internally you should track hours to see where your team’s time is most profitable and best spent.
But don’t stop at that 2 hours. We’d still advise that you do everything possible to reduce reactive work and systemise maintenance work to free up more time. All the extra free time can then be allocated toward proactive support as well.
But how do you know how many hours to allot to support to begin with?
In case you’ve never really offered support retainers before, it’s just a matter of looking at all your numbers.
Start with how much the retainer agreement is worth. Then think about all your expenses–your overhead, the tools you use, the team members who are fulfilling the support…
Identify a number where, after expenses, you can happily allocate a set number of hours–in terms of costs and manpower–to the support package (and of course this number stays private to your team).
As a super basic example, let’s say your retainer agreement is for 1K a month. Subtract overhead and your agency profit, and let’s say you have 600 a month to pay your developers for their work. The developer in charge of support costs you 100 per hour. So you can effectively allocate 6 full hours to support.
Now all you have to do is shift as much of those 6 hours as you can to proactive support. That would create the most optimised support retainers as possible.
That’s it. In a nutshell, that’s how we approach support retainer services in a way that keeps us from running around with our pants on fire.
How about your agency? How do you structure your support agreements to ensure maximum value and efficiency? Let us know with a comment below.