Making a commitment; the pros and cons of providing long-term support

During my training as a systems architect, one point was dinned into me repeatedly; draw a fence around the boundaries of the contract and once it's complete, walk away.

Don't under any circumstances allow yourself to be inveigled into providing extra support beyond the term of the contract; no-one succeeds in business by giving away free samples.

My lecturer, a successful freelance systems designer himself during vacations and sabbatical leave, was adamant that the first responsibility of the contractor was to maintain the one-for-one relationship of contract to project and to ensure that at the end of the job no tie to the client remained that could be used to demand additional work not covered in the original quote and fee.

Times and clients have changed in the intervening (cough) few years. The marketplace previously buoyant with new build projects for organisations taking on information systems for the first time now represents a more balanced mixture of new implementations and projects to customise or update existing systems. While the basic principle – don't allow yourself to get caught for free work – still holds good, the freedom of the contractor to simply cut all ties to a site at the conclusion of their work is lessened as personal connections to clients become an ever more crucial component contracting asset.

Given that repeat business is gaining importance to contractors, is there mileage in offering ongoing support as a separate service? Among the pros of such an approach would be that it helps to maintain a contractor's visibility with their clients and puts them in pole position to be the first to hear about new developments, as well as providing an opportunity to remain up-to-date with the change and growth of the client's business.

While it may not be practical to actually forward book such sessions (more about this when we consider IR35, below), a contractor - once they have experience of the uptake of support services - should be able to forecast a likely income from this source, providing some welcome stability for projected budgets.

On the cons side, the principal consideration is of course IR35, and ensuring that you don't sacrifice your status as an independent contractor by cosying up too familiarly with a single client. Among deciding factors that may place a contractor inside IR35 are that there's an ongoing commitment to offer and accept work over a period of time.

Careful attention to the way in which ongoing support is marketed, booked, provided and billed can ensure there's no 'grey area' over your relationship or level of privilege with the client – consult your IR35 advisor before bringing ongoing support to market. Additionally, be aware that your schedule may become 'packed' with support jobs, leaving you in a position where (in the worst case) more significant contracts have to be rejected through inability to give them 100% attention.

A more perilous undertaking is to go the route of providing some apparently 'free' effort, writing it off against the increase in client goodwill and improved prospects of repeat business.

I say 'perilous' because it demands the most painstaking management to prevent it becoming cultural and expected; as many retail businesses (for example) have discovered, once an expectation of preferential terms or pricing is established, the only way to maintain customer interest is a more-or-less constant state of discounts and special offers. Be very sure that you're able to quantify the benefit that accrues from 'freebies' before offering them, and at the first sign that they're not providing a measurable return, ensure you're in a position to phase them out. In short, be alive to the possibilities that your existing clients can offer; return visits and ongoing support, carefully handled, can be a contracting success in every sense of the term.

Doug Brett-Matthewson

Tuesday 7th Feb 2006