Even a simple web design project has many moving parts. And most of them come at a price. The question of the day is: “What should clients pay for?”
If a client is already handing over a sizable fee to their web designer, might they assume these costs are included?
Sure, seems reasonable.
Couldn’t the web pro purchase items, turn around and invoice with a marked-up price? Yes, of course.
Do I want to do that? Rarely.
Which items should clients pay for?
Let’s start here, with 11 items I require clients to pay for:
- Domain registration
- Domain privacy
- Domain acquisition services such as backorders
- Managed services including Managed SSL
- Malware scanning/remediation services
- Plug-ins requiring per-site licensing
- Themes requiring per-site licensing
- Stock photos
Oh boy, that’s a long list of “extras” I’m asking clients to purchase. And you may have additional items for your own list.
Beyond the simple who-pays-for-what decision, let’s dig into the justification, the logistics, and the necessary communication.
When determining who should pay for each item, consider these factors:
Who should get custody of the item when the relationship ends?
Even when the relationship is over, someone has the right to keep using the item in question. Perhaps the most critical item is the domain name.
When should the web designer own the client’s domain name?
Trick question: the answer is never!
If you’re debating this situation with a client, long-term custody should be the convincing factor.
A client’s former web pro purchased her domain name. After the site launch, he disappeared and she lost access to the domain. Together it took us three months of negotiation with the registrar.
Despite the domain name being her unusual name, and her ability to provide proof it was her business, it was still excruciating. I’ve only done this once, but once was enough. Trust me, you don’t want this project on your bucket list.
Will the client save time, effort, or money?
Sometimes the web pro invests in a developer license, with permission to use the product on multiple sites. Should the client pay for a new license? Not always. For example, I have a developer license for a set of ~50 WordPress themes, which I can use on any and all sites, without paying an additional fee.
There’s no reason clients need to pay again for one of those themes. However, if the client wants a theme outside of this set, we must discuss payment.
Might the client purchase the wrong item?
It’s reasonable to assume your clients don’t know what they should buy. If there are multiple options or licensing configurations (such as for a theme, plugin, or hosting package), you want to ensure they don’t get confused and accidentally purchase the wrong item.
When concerned this might happen, I have two options:
- Client puts their card on file in the appropriate account, I jump in and make the purchase.
- I purchase on my own account and invoice them.
But in reality, I often only have one option. If it’s a single purchase, I’ll consider option 2. If it’s an item requiring annual or monthly renewal, I don’t want it on my card and option 1 is it. Period.
Who is responsible for supporting the item in the long term?
If buying an item with single-site licensing, the client must be able to access support post-launch, instead of relying on the designer. I never assume I’ll be supporting the site forever, even if I’m doing it now.
If the web pro owns a plugin license and something happens to them, or they choose not to renew, the client could be stuck with a nonfunctioning plugin. However, if the client owns the license they’ll always have access to updates and support.
Assuming the client will foot the bill, what are the payment scenarios?
Client purchases and provides the web pro with the item or file
This can work well with tech-savvy clients who are capable of securing needed items on their own. I routinely document explicit instructions to minimize the chance of mistakes.
Client sets up their own account and provides access to the web pro
For items used only on this client’s site (such as a domain or SSL), it’s reasonable to expect they should have their own account and pay with their credit card.
Depending on the type of account, they can choose to provide direct access to their web designer. This is potentially a security risk, so it’s my last resort option.
This could also apply to plug-ins, themes, or other specific tools requiring single-user authorization.
Web pro pays for the item and bills the client
For small, single-use items which may be discounted if purchased in bulk, it can work well for the web pro to purchase and then bill clients.
For example: I buy large credit packs at my favorite stock image libraries. If clients need images, it’s quick to download, use my credits, and invoice the client. I get a small discount by purchasing credits in large packages.
Suppose individually purchased credits are $10, but I can buy 25 credits for $200. I’ll still charge the client $10 for each credit used. It’s a tiny profit for me, but worth the much simpler process for them.
They don’t need to create an account and buy credits, especially if they don’t know how many they will need. In the end, they’re paying the same as if they had purchased individual credits.
Make advance decisions about which costs you’re willing to cover
Items I pay for include the following:
- Genesis themes – I’ve successfully focused on this theme set for many years. The variety is such that I’ve always been able to find a theme meeting the site’s needs. As a bonus, I’ve gained expertise on their particular implementation methods, so can quickly customize any theme. I paid for the set once, with unlimited usage, so there are no ongoing fees.
- Gravity Forms – my developer license makes it simple to add Gravity Forms to any site. If the client and I part ways, I may let them continue to use my license (as I have no upper limit). I don’t provide any support, and of course if they need to work with tech support directly, they can’t use my account. This does require annual renewal on my part. Some clients choose to acquire their own license post-launch.
- Stock images – as mentioned, this is a time-saver, simplifies the process for clients, and it’s easy to include in invoices for reimbursement.
When I’m covering a cost — and therefore saving clients money — I let them know they’re getting the freebie. It’s another gentle reminder they’ve chosen to work with someone willing to go the extra mile for clients.
While this seems like an issue falling under “we’ll deal with it when it happens,” I recommend having a well-defined, clearly communicated strategy in place.
Define policies for each item your clients may need to purchase.
Proactively discuss your policy with clients before any purchasing takes place. Avoid blindsiding them later with the news your fee doesn’t include everything.
Prepare your sales pitch. Before clients ask, know just how you’ll describe why your policy protects their best interests. Create awareness you’re not doing this to save yourself money, but instead to save them frustration and problems down the road.
Confirm purchases you make on clients’ behalf. If I am purchasing via a client’s account, I always confirm with them before spending any money. It can be a quick email saying “I’m going to purchase [item] for $xx. Just confirming before I charge it to your card.”
Add the appropriate verbiage to your contract. Here’s what my contract says:
“This fee covers all of my work, including setting up the new WordPress installation, designing, building, and launching the site. It does not include any extra costs to other service providers, such as hosting or domain registration fees, stock image purchases or special-case software or licensing that we need to buy for your specific features. If I purchase additional items on your behalf, that cost will be added to an invoice.”
Communicate in advance any policy around items you let clients use while they are your client. If you allow clients to use tools you own, have a policy for when the relationship ends. If it’s an amicable parting, I often allow them to use it for another 30 days, then remove license keys or other enabling factors.
With these tips in mind, you’re ready to put your purchasing policies in place, and know you’re setting the stage with everyone’s best long-term results in mind.