WordPress Careers Masterclass: Selling a Service (Client Work)

Have you thought about making money with WordPress by selling a service? In other words, working with clients to provide them with a service such as a consultancy, or a more tangible outcome like a website?

Welcome to the third post in this series on how to build a successful career with WordPress. In the first post in this series, we explored your strengths and career goals, and in the second post we looked at selling themes and plugins.

In this part of the series, we’ll move onto another popular way to make money with WordPress – by selling a service. There are plenty of ways you can provide WordPress services to clients, and it isn’t all about building websites. Options include:

  • Providing general advice and consultancy in online marketing.
  • Search Engine Optimisation advice or direct work on your client’s website and the rest of their online presence such as social media.
  • Conversion Optimisation, which takes things a step further than SEO and focuses on turning visitors into buyers.
  • Content creation, including writing marketing content, product descriptions and blog posts, or managing a site’s content on a day to day basis.
  • Social media advice and put, including linking your client’s social media presence to their WordPress site.
  • Designing and developing websites for clients. This can include what’s often described as implementation (using third party themes, frameworks, and plugins to create sites) or development (developing themes and plugins for client sites yourself).
  • Hosting and site management.
  • Advice and support on security, performance and other site management issues.
  • A combination of one or more of the above.

Missed a tutorial in our WordPress Careers Masterclass series? You can catch up on all six posts here:

There are plenty of ways in which you can specialize, and lots of markets out there. There’s a good chance you’ll offer your clients more than one service, especially if you’re working with small businesses or non-profits that don’t have the budget for multiple specialists.

For example, I’ve designed and built sites for nearly all my clients. For some clients, I’ve been hired to make improvements to an existing site or to help with content management and creation. Some sites I manage, writing all the content or uploading content they send to me. And for other clients I’ve provided advice on social media or on conversion optimization. I sometimes give basic SEO advice but I’m not an SEO expert so encourage clients to find a specialist.

In this post, I’m not going to look at each of these specialisms in detail: you’ll probably know more about your specialism than I do. Instead, I’m going to help you get to grips with some of the practicalities of client work and help you plan how you’ll set up your business and provide your services so you’ve got the best possible chance of making it a success.

I’ll look at some key practical aspects of working with clients:

  • setting up your business
  • deciding what to charge
  • marketing
  • contracts
  • hiring staff and/or subcontractors
  • accounting and finances.

But first, let’s just clear up what the similarities and differences are between client work, freelancing, and monetizing WordPress.

There are many businesses our there that focus on providing WordPress-specific services to clients.
There are many businesses out there that specialize in providing WordPress-specific services to clients.

Client Work vs Freelancing vs Monetizing WordPress: What’s the Difference?

In the previous part of this series, we looked at selling your time, either as an employee or a freelancer. In the next part of this series, we’ll focus on selling a product, or monetizing WordPress. As a freelancer, you’re selling a service as well as your time, and any product you sell could include a service. So what’s the difference?

First, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s an overlap between all these ways of making money with WordPress, so you shouldn’t worry about it too much. You may find there are bits of each of these parts of the course that are relevant to you.

But for the purposes of this post I’ll define selling a service as one of two things:

  1. Work you do for a client where you charge for an outcome such as a website build or SEO improvements. The client pays the same regardless of how long it takes you, so they’re not paying by the hour. Each client gets something different: so it isn’t a product.
  2. Hourly billed work where you provide advice, consultancy, and support to business clients, as against hourly work where you’re writing code or adding to an agency’s capacity. For example, I’ve charged clients by the hour for social media training sessions: I saw this as selling them my advisory service, not just my time.

If you’re selling a service you’ll be working direct for clients, and not subcontracting to agencies.

Business Set Up: Individual or Agency?

An early decision you’ll need to make is how you’ll set your business up, or at least how you want it to look to potential clients.

You have a few options available to you, some of which will depend on the business and tax rules where you’re based. The first choice is around branding:

  • Creating a business brand and marketing yourself as an agency. You don’t have to employ staff to do this. When I started any agency Compass Design, I was working alone. In the first six months, I operated as a sole trader. But I didn’t have any name recognition and knew I wanted to build my business in the longer term,
  • Branding yourself as an individual. You can do this whether or not you’ll be working alone, for example I could have called my agency Rachel McCollin Associates or Rachel McCollin Web Design. This is a good idea if you already have a reputation in your friend and people will recognize your name. If the service you provide is very personal it can also be an advantage.
Compass Design website
When I launched my agency I decided to use a business name rather than my own name

The next choice is around your legal setup:

  • Operate as a sole trader. This means you don’t need to set up a company or corporation but will be taxed as an individual. In some countries you can do this whatever option you choose for your branding: check the rules where you live. Many people start out this way (like me) and then incorporate a company once their business is up and running.
  • Incorporate or register a company. This has the advantage of limiting your liability for any debts and can have tax advantages. You don’t earn money directly from clients: instead, your company pays you a salary. You’ll have to complete more paperwork but it makes you look more professional and can save money.

Which of these you choose will depend on your own preference, the image you want to project, your experience and the expectations of your clients. You can always change your legal status: I registered Compass Design as a limited company in the UK after my first year of trading. And you can change your branding: when I decided I also needed to operate in my own name for my writing, I registered another company in my name. Although I’d be wary of changing your branding without careful thought.

Finding and Keeping Clients

The next big step is to find work. You’ll need to identify two things before you can go out and look for clients: the services you’ll provide and what you’ll charge for them. Both of these will change over time: your services will evolve with changing trends and requirements and your rates should increase as you develop a reputation.

I’ll deal with rates in the next section but first, let’s look at finding and keeping clients.

Developing a Marketing Strategy

Without some form of marketing strategy, at least in the early days, you can’t hope to find work. You need to identify what your market is, find out where potential clients are and how best to make contact with them, and develop materials you can use to sell your services to them.

  • Start by researching the market. Who else is providing the same service as you? What do they charge? Who hires them? How do you differ from them? Without a USP you’re unlikely to succeed.
  • Review your service in light of your research and make any tweaks you need to ensure you’re meeting the needs of your market. Beware copying what your competitors do, especially if those competitors are large and well established.
  • Prepare marketing materials. This will include a website, a social media presence and maybe physical materials like brochures and flyers. What’s appropriate will depend on your market and what it expects. Get some business cards printed. You never know when they’ll come in handy; this morning I gave mine to the guy delivering my online grocery shop, who’s thinking of setting up his own e-commerce business!
  • Keep working on your website and social media: it’s an ongoing job.
  • Make sure your website has great SEO and conversion optimization. If you’re not an expert in these, hire someone. It will pay for itself.
  • Find out where your potential clients are and go to them. Find networking opportunities, go to conferences and events, join LinkedIn groups, engage with your market on Facebook and twitter. Avoid being pushy: share information and expertise, gain peoples’ trust, and they will be more likely to hire you.
  • Make sure everyone you know (personally and professionally) knows about your business. Incentivise referrals if you think it’ll work. If you worked with people in the past who might hire you now, make contact with them. My first business was as an IT trainer, and my first client was a company I’d hired as a supplier in my previous job.
WordCamps can be great places to meet potential clients.
WordCamps can be great places to meet potential clients.

So that’s marketing. It’s not always fun and you might wish you could spend more time actually doing the thing you went into business to do. Without it, you’ll get no work and you’ll go bust. But if you do well, the work will roll in by word of mouth once you’re established and you’ll never have to do it again.

Sales Skills

Marketing makes clients aware of you: sales gets them to sign on the dotted line.

  • Follow up every lead you get. Go back to them repeatedly (but leave a gap: don’t annoy them) and ask if there’s any way you can help them or any information they need from you.
  • Use a sales system to track your leads and keep on top of things. There’s nothing worse than forgetting about a great lead.
  • Develop a ‘pitch’ that describes what you do in terms that resonate with the client. This should be about what they’ll get from your service, not about what interests you.
  • Be flexible and approachable. Make potential clients feel you care about their business and how you can help them be more successful.
  • When you do close a deal, get it in writing.

Once you’ve made the sale, you’ll need a contract before you start any work. And I mean any work. I’ll cover this in more detail shortly.

Referrals and Repeat Business

It’s worth looking at referrals and repeat business separately as your goal should be for these to become the lifeblood of your business. I do no marketing: all my work is for existing clients, for people who find me through my writing or are referred to me. It means I can devote almost all of my working time to chargeable work, which in turn gives me better work-life balance.

In the early days, you won’t be able to rely on referrals or repeat business, but there are ways you can increase them over time:

  • Make an effort to get along with your clients and show an interest in them. Clients who enjoy working with you will hire you again or recommend you.
  • Consider incentivizing referrals. You could offer a client who recommends you a discount on the next piece of work you do for them, provided that referral leads to a sale.
  • Keep in frequent contact with your clients. Drop them an email, pick up the phone, or buy them a coffee. I send all my clients a monthly update on their site’s performance and sometimes this contact  reminds them that they have some work they need me to do.
  • Identify ways you can upsell. For example, you might have a client running a physical store who would benefit from an e-commerce site. A client whose site you built a few years ago might befit from an update. And a client who’s hired you for one service may not know about another that you offer.
  • Consider offering bulk discounts: for example a package for new clients or startups that include a few of your services at a slightly lower cost than if they paid for them all separately.
  • If someone recommends you, thank them. And thank them again. They’ve just saved you a ton of marketing.

Get this right and you’ll be able to avoid sales and marketing. And if you’re anything like me, that’ll be a very good thing.

Deciding What to Charge

So you know what your service is, you’ve identified your market and you’ve got a marketing plan. But what are you going to charge?

In the early days, you won’t be able to charge as much as you will when you’re established. But you’ll probably be able to charge more than you might expect.

  1. Consider what you need to earn to have a comfortable lifestyle and pay your bills. Then add your business expenses. Add in some contingency just in case. Finally, add taxes, insurance, and pension. When you’ve added all these, you’ll have the figure you need to earn each month.
  2. Next, work out how many hours you’ll have for paid work (this will be less than you expect: scrub out at least a day a week for marketing, development, and admin). Divide what you need to earn by that figure to get a target hourly rate.
  3. Now, as you won’t be charging by the hour, you need to work out how much time it takes you to deliver your services. Err on the side of caution, assuming that each job will take more time than you expect. Multiply that by your hourly rate and you’ve got a price.

How does that price look? Does it compare to your competitors? Don’t be tempted to compete solely on price: it never works. If you’re too cheap, you’ll be perceived as poor quality. But if you’re too expensive then you could price yourself out of the market.

In some industries, it’s impossible to find out what your competitors charge, so the best option is to start charging based on your calculations and then see how clients react to your quotes. If they all accept your price, it’s too cheap. Aim for 10% rejecting you on the basis of price and you’ve probably got it about right. You’ll earn more by charging the other 90% more, and you won’t have to work so hard.

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Contracts

Once you’ve landed those clients, you’ll need a contract. I’m going to stay this once, very clearly:

Do no work without a contract.

This applies whether the client is someone you already know, whether they’re big or small, or if they’re the loveliest person you ever met. Don’t do it. I learned this the hard way when an early client’s business folded and they were unable to pay me. I’ve never done it again.

The other thing to remember:

A verbal contract is not a contract.

Got it? Good.

So, how do you go about writing contracts and getting clients to sign them? The second part of this shouldn’t be a problem. The vast majority of legitimate clients will be more than happy to sign a contract.

Depending on where you’re based, there may be legal requirements for your contracts. But it should include details of:

  • Who you and the client are.
  • The service(s) you’re providing (and not providing).
  • The rate of pay.
  • What happens if things change, in particular if the client wants to add more work. I have a clause in my contracts saving that extra work will be quoted for separately and completed at the end of the project. If it’s urgent then it will impact on deadlines and add to the cost, in which case a new quote and contract will be needed. Project creep is common so be prepared for it.
  • Who does what: what your client is responsible for (providing a brief, materials, sign off etc.) and what you will do.
  • Payment terms: when you’ll take payment and how that’s affected if the project is set back. I always charge a 40% deposit up front.
  • What happens if either of you cancels the contract before its completion.

Before you do any work, get your client to sign the contract and get that deposit. If you start work without the contract and the client cancels the project, you won’t get paid for your work.

Hiring Staff and Subcontractors

If you’re fortunate you’ll take on more work than you can do yourself. This means you either need to turn work away (which is an option if you want less stress) or hire people to work with you.

Recruitment

The people you hire could either be staff who you employ, or subcontractors, who you take on for specific projects. Taking on staff is a bigger responsibility but has the advantage of letting you build a team of people who are part of your business, are committed to it for the long term and who get to know your clients. Hiring subcontractors, on the other hand, is less risky and if you do it well can give you access to extra skills. It also gives you more flexibility to meet short-term needs. But it will cost more per hour.

Whether you’re hiring staff or subcontractors, it helps to go through a rigorous recruitment process. Identify exactly what you need: the skills and attributes for the person to be effective in their work. Avoid being overambitious or making assumptions about the kind of person who could do this work (not all reception staff are women; not all PHP developers are men). If you’re hiring staff, familiarize yourself with employment legislation to make sure you’re hiring fairly and legally. It’s good practice to do this when hiring contractors too.

When I hire subcontractors I ask them to show me their work and to complete an exercise which won’t take them long if they have the skills I need. This makes it easier for me to compare multiple candidates. When I started out I sometimes hired people on the basis of nothing more than a recommendation: this rarely worked out. Make sure you see what the person can do and talk to them about it. It’s not just about whether you get along.

If you’re hiring employees, you’ll need to know that they can do the job (or at least have the potential to learn it), will be a committed member of your team and an ambassador for your business. Communication skills and being able to deal with clients may be as important as any technical skills, which are easier to learn.

Managing People

Once you’ve recruited your team, you’ll need to manage them. This applies even to subcontractors, who will be more committed and do better work if you show that you value them.

With employees, you’ll need to support their personal and professional development, which will, in turn, benefit your business. Make sure you communicate openly with your team and involve them in decisions where possible: this will make them more loyal and motivate them to work harder.

Contracts and Payment

The law around employment contracts and pay will vary depending on your country so I’m not going to advise you on that: you need to seek specialist advice locally.

But there are some contractual obligations you’ll need to consider if you’re hiring employees:

  • Hours of work and overtime: will you pay overtime? Provide flexible hours? Time off in lieu of overtime?
  • Sickness: find out what sick pay your employees are entitled to and pay it.
  • Holiday pay: again, make sure you follow the law. You might want to adopt flexible working which gives your employees more control over this.
  • Pensions: if you’re required to pay into a pension, you’ll need to set this up.
  • Tax: make sure you’re paying this correctly: you’ll need advice from an accountant.
  • Insurance: are employees entitled to health insurance? Does employing staff affect your business insurance? Do you want to offer this as a perk?
  • Maternity/paternity leave and pay: if your employees have children, you’ll need to follow the law.

This list is by no means exhaustive. I’m not an employment expert so please don’t take this as solid advice: you need to investigate the requirements in your country and get advice from an expert such as an accountant or HR professional.

If you’re hiring subcontractors you won’t have so much to think about but you will need to have contracts in place. It’s a good idea to have a long term contract with hourly rates and the nature of the work, and then a specific agreement for each project with more detail about what’s required and what you will pay. Treat your subcontractors well and they’ll be as loyal as employees.

Financial Management

Managing your accounts on a day to day basis makes things much simpler when it comes to submitting annual accounts and/or completing a tax return at year end.

  • Keep records of everything that comes into and goes out of your business, and receipts for things you buy or subscribe to.
  • Set aside some time each month to update your accounts using those receipts.
  • Use an electronic invoicing system which will keep records of all of your invoices and provide you with reports when you need them.
  • Set up a business bank account and use that for all business transactions. If you incorporate a company this money will belong to the company, not you – as will any debts.
  • Open a savings account and keep a ‘contingency’ fund in it equating to a month’s pay, or more if you can.
  • In that same savings account (or maybe a separate one), put a proportion of your income aside for taxes.
  • Set a budget for business purchases such as equipment, development materials and courses, books etc.

If you’ve incorporated a company or corporation, you’ll probably need to hire an accountant to submit your accounts to your tax office. A good accountant will help reduce your tax liability which will in most cases cover the cost of their fee, so it’s a good investment.

HMRC website
In the UK, the HMRC website is the place to get financial information

Make it Work and Your Business Will Develop

You’re probably feeling quite overwhelmed after all this talk of employment contracts and accounting. But if you get all this right, your business will grow and you’ll be able to take on the work you enjoy most and the clients you’re motivated to work with.

If you gain clients and do well, you can expect the amount of business coming in to grow over time. You might decide you don’t want to take on extra work, or you may choose to grow your business by taking on new staff. Either way, your business will develop as you gain more expertise. As this happens, you can start charging more and taking on bigger and more interesting projects.

It’s a good idea to have a long-term plan for your business and where you want it to be in a few years time. But be flexible: things change and you need to adapt. I have a very top level long term plan and then every year I formulate a detailed plan for the year ahead. This includes a review of my goals and priorities, an analysis of what is and isn’t working, a forecast of what work I aim/expect to take on in the next year and the income that will bring in, and finally a plan for how I’ll make it all work.

You’ll need to keep developing, adapting and growing. For me, this is the best bit of running a WordPress business. Good luck!

Rachel McCollin
Do you provide WordPress consultancy? How have you made it work? Let us know in the comments below.