I’m going to tell you right now, the legal part of consulting isn’t fun. All of the good will you’ve built up with your prospective clients during the getting-to-know-you phase is going to be tested. It’s entirely possible your budding relationships won’t make it. Sometimes people get touchy about the details, and seeing them all on paper can make people uncomfortable. You’re essentially asking your fiancée for a pre-nup. It’s going to be tough, but trust me, it will be worth it.
Everything you figured out during your scope-definition process lays the groundwork for the terms of your contract: the activities you’ll be conducting, deliverables you’ll be producing, your intended schedule, costs. But there are some crucial elements you and your client still need to agree on: payment structure, payment schedule, overage policy, change request policy, and the dreaded termination agreement.
Hourly, Flat Rate, or Retainer Payment Structures
There are three main types of payment structures for a typical consulting agreement. I’ll talk about these separately from the payment schedule, because you can mix and match these, as appropriate. An hourly rate means you’ll be paid only for the hours you actually spend working on the project. A flat rate means you’ll be paid an exact, predetermined dollar amount, regardless of the time you spend working. And a retainer means you’ll be guaranteed either a certain number of hours or a certain dollar amount for a recurring period of time. I’ll explain each one in detail.
Working for an Hourly Rate
Ninety-nine percent of the time, with an hourly agreement, your client will expect you to estimate the total number of hours a project will take before the work even commences, so they can budget accordingly ahead of time. Few companies will commit to an hourly rate before understanding how much it’s going to add up to in the end. If your task is rote and you have a lot of experience doing it, estimating your future hours might be an easy thing to do. Also, if you take on multiple clients simultaneously, you may know exactly how many hours per week you intend to spend working for each one. Then you can multiply your weekly hours by the number of weeks in the project and voilà.
However you estimate the hours, you’re going to want to give yourself a buffer. The team you’re working with will make discoveries throughout the duration of the project that may grow or shrink its future undertakings, thus affecting your hourly commitment. You certainly don’t want to paint yourself into a corner by selling only the exact number of hours you think you’ll need to get the minimum amount of work done. Why assume the minimum?
Furthermore, you need to consider ahead of time what kinds of work you deserve to be paid for. There’s the obvious time for writing, drawing, and coding when you’re in the midst of creating your deliverables, but what about the reading time, learning time, and thinking time? If it’s required for the project, the client should be responsible for paying for it. Don’t make the mistake of estimating the smallest number of hours possible for achieving the task, then accruing far more work hours on your own dime. This is a business transaction, and neither party should be taken advantage of.
So, on the flip-side of that, be fair in presenting your estimate and indicate your margin of error. I would say that plus-or-minus 20% is fair, but this is something you’ll need to carefully negotiate with your client, and what is acceptable will largely depend on their internal budget. My point is that an hourly arrangement is by far the most risky, so be sure to put a safety net in place.
It can never be said too often: choose an hourly rate that is fair to you. Yes, geographic location does play a role in a client’s tolerance for a particular hourly wage. But don’t forget that you are a highly specialized practitioner who does great work and deserves to be paid amply for it. A common message in all of my words of advice is: don’t sell yourself short. Now’s the time to take that advice literally. And keep in mind that—for whatever strange reason—a higher hourly rate is a bigger turnoff to clients than a higher hourly estimate, so adjust your equation accordingly.
Working for a Flat Rate
Next, there is the flat-rate agreement. The number of hours you’ll need to commit to a project plays the largest role in determining your flat rate for the work—but with a lot more breathing room built into it. Personally, I prefer to charge for projects based on the amount of space they take up in my brain—as opposed to the amount of time they take up in my schedule. As a result, I very, very rarely agree to per-hour compensation. (Pretty much only when I’m completely in love with a project, and the client isn’t willing to do anything else.) As I say on my Web site, “I don’t measure the value of my work in the number of hours that I spend working; therefore, I don’t charge by the hour. If I take half as long as someone else to get things done, that doesn’t mean I’m half as good; on the flip side, if I take twice as long, you shouldn’t be penalized.”
As I described in detail in my recent column on scope, I prefer to work backward from a client’s budget. The project rate then helps determine: (1) the duration of the project; (2) the types of activities I’ll conduct; (3) the types of deliverables I’ll produce; and (4) how formal those deliverables must be. It’s the fourth point that really makes all the difference, so it’s necessary to clarify this with the client when determining the project cost. Two projects with the same duration, the same activities, and the same deliverables can cost two greatly different amounts based on the depth of information each deliverable contains—and, therefore, not only how much time you’ll need to spend on them, but more important, the amount of brain power it will require to complete them well. More brain power equals more money, right?
Working for a Retainer
Now, the last payment structure is the retainer. Working for a retainer is very common in some industries, but almost unheard of in others. Whether it’s a retainer based on hours or dollars, the concept is that your client is retaining your services for a guaranteed and predetermined amount of time or money. For example, 10 hours of work per week or $5,000 per month. Typically, your client would pay you up front for each period, and you’d do only as much work as the retainer allows. Of course, this never really happens. If you’re on an hourly retainer, you’re bound to exceed your hours—and your client likely won’t grant you more until the next period—so you can end up essentially working for free. With rate retainers, clients may expect you to do as much work as they want you to do, but for only the amount of money they’ve agreed to pay you. Of course, on the other hand, you might get away with doing considerably less during a given period than they’ve paid you for. Working on retainer is a gamble, but people who do it enjoy the steady income and the security of consistent work.