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When working through the day, I may work on many different projects. Web development is one of the freelancing jobs that I'm sure many people bounce around project to project, or maybe that is just me.

I charge many of my clients per hour, in quarter-hour segments. What are the standards for tracking your time for clients when you have multiple projects going in one day?

Let's say you are working the core of your day for Client 1 and you get an email from Client 2 that requires no work but just a simple response. Do you charge Client 2 for that quarter hour of reading your email or just kind of let it go? Then how do you manage if they start sending you a bunch of quick emails?

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    Although I too don't follow the principle very strictly myself sometimes, I would really recomment you check out the following article on The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time. Skipping from task to task is a huge time-waster due to the time needed to regain focus every time you switch tasks. – Dzhuneyt Jun 11 '13 at 13:53
  • I agree with WPD; moreover give your clients separate email address (check out plus addressing) so that sorting your email is easy. – virtualxtc Feb 8 '14 at 3:47

15 Answers 15

23

I approach things somewhat differently. I answer customers via email, guaranteed responses free of charge that take less than 15 min free of charge. My reasoning here is that this gives me a chance to give them some ideas, whether I can do more for a charge, and then if I need to, I can throw more sales work at it (unbilled) to flesh out what is involved and make a bid. Often little requests for help/tech support can be cases where a trained eye can see larger problems lurking and it is good for both sides to be on the same page here. I do try to batch these up however so that there are few interruptions and the fact is that customers usually don't like to call me for these things anyway so it works out well for everyone.

This being said, and this is a total conflict of interest because I am the most active developer on the project but I use LedgerSMB for my business management and accounting, and I use the timecard functionality there (to track time allocated per project, each project attached to a customer). I can then use the program to generate sales orders and invoices from the timecards. This also allows me to run an income statement of a project to see what my profit margin is etc.

Time tracking is almost never exact, but I usually don't have more than three projects I work on any given day, so I do timecards once a day. If I were working on many more I would probably do timecards both at end of day and just before lunch.

26

I, too, have a 15 minute minimum charge, and I stick to it 85% of the time because nothing ever takes "just a minute", and interruptions come with attendant friction.

I built a timekeeping/workflow system for my consulting work. Each client has one or many projects; each project one or many tasks. I record time at the task level; the form has a javascript-powered timer that fires off every 15 minutes to increment the "time ellapsed". So when I start a task, I pull it up and let the browser track the time in the background, do my work, then I return to that browser and enter my note, hit save, and everything is tracked--and later billed--correctly.

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    slightly off topic, is this closed source? I'd rather not reinvent the wheel. – MDMoore313 May 22 '13 at 11:52
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    I keep the source on Github (github.com/jhfrench/Workstream). It's written in CFML with a PostgreSQL backend. I run it with Railo on an EC2 instance, you could pretty easily do the same. In fact...I could create an AMI with the whole thing ready to "go". Would be a fun exercise for me. – Jeromy French May 22 '13 at 14:33
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    Despite being over a decade old, the blog post at joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000022.html is more fuel for the "nothing ever takes just a minute" fire. – Jeromy French Sep 16 '13 at 20:01
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Alternatively you could completely fire your hourly rate. It's a pain and I pretty much refuse to do it anymore unless the client is on retainer or specifically asks for it. Plus there's a good chance you're scaring business away if you bill a steep hourly rate.

  • I agree with Drew, I usually agree with clients on an initial price based on their brief, as well as a price for modifications (for example if halfway through they decide they want to add animations to the website, this will cost more) – JustSomeDude May 21 '13 at 22:12
  • ...provided that (1) you are working alone on your tasks; (2) each task has a fully-defined list of deliverables. For many developers, it almost inevitably leads to the lowest-level (and lowest-budget) clients, with no way to grow up to larger projects. Not that I argue, it may be fine for many of us. But your answer certainly requires some warning. – bytebuster May 22 '13 at 4:43
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    Not sure I understand what you mean? I'm not sure how billing fixed price (assuming you have a very defined scope) drives developers to work on smaller projects. I bid on very big projects and still flat-fee just fine. Often times involving several other freelancers on the development or design. Granted you do need to have a baseline to build from, so keep an hourly in mind just dont advertise it. – Drew Poland May 23 '13 at 4:44
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    I don't think it implies ready-made at all. You essentially bill a guesstimated amount of hours it will take you to do all those things. It's very much personal choice though. Hourly is a pain and I tend to make more money billing fixed. – Drew Poland May 23 '13 at 21:33
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    This is similar to what I do, but I mainly work on smaller projects, so I can get a good idea of what is required. "3 days work" so I'll charge X. You can also tweak it according to how busy you are and your experience with the client :-) – winwaed Jun 5 '13 at 13:39
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Most of the answers I've seen thus far address the time tracking question, so I'll address the email part of the question:

I don't charge clients for email responses. I chalk that up to 'investment time'. As in, I'm investing this time in answering a customer/potential customer's email because it may lead to doing business with them in the future. Of course, there is a line that's drawn: I wouldn't teach them HTML via email, for example. If we wind up doing business, then it was time well-invested, and if not, they may refer me to someone who could lead to future business.

Now, if you're referring to an existing client for which you are currently doing work for that sends you an email while you're working for another client, this actually happens to me. I will handle it one of two ways:

  1. Answer the email while I'm on lunch. I don't like being distracted from what I'm doing, which is typically what an email does. If it's definitely not an emergency, and if it's asking for something that requires more research, then:

  2. After my time with my current client is finished for the day, I'll research whatever it is they're asking in the email and then get back to them.

The key trend is that emails are distracting, typically non-urgent, and can wait. There's no need to rob either client of their time. Give your current client what you're charging them for, and give the client sending the email quality time to put together an appropriate response.

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Precise time tracking is just not possible in the way most of us work. The better you can do is :

  • Track the time when you're focused on a project, and note down somewhere when you do little tasks on other projects
  • When you have done lots of little task, make an estimate of the time you actually used on these side tasks.
  • If you think it deserves a pay, then consider you have worked for this time + the core time

Alternatively you can use the day charging. Just make sure your clients are aware that you may or may not work on other projects and that what you are charging is not exactly your full day, and so you make an approximation from the time you use on different projects.

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Those things like email replies are called "Advising" in freelancing world. Before you charge your client, make sure he understand that you are charging advising as well.

You may charge him every reply, or accumulate minutes to 1 work hour and then charge him. I prefer to charge him full hours with explanation, like "advise on task 3 - 15 min, advise on task 33 - 10 min, etc.". So far none of my clients complained.

But the main thing is that you do not charge them for advising without letting them know. Many clients will rather search the net then ask you if they know they will be charged.

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As much as possible, I try to batch tasks rather than attend to tasks as they arrive. Ignoring emails apart from two or three times a day helps. If clients need to communicate with you urgently then they'll ring you.

I don't tend to worry if I am working on one task and quickly attend to an unscheduled urgent task for another client as this tends to even out over time. The alternative is to account for minutes rather than 15 minute blocks and the administration overhead becomes onerous. When I realise that I have dealt with several short tasks during the day for a particular client, then I might feel inclined to group these into a 15 minute block that is worth recording.

I don't tend to charge clients for simple advice that only takes me a minute or two to answer unless the accumulated total time for this type of request becomes disproportionate to billed hours for a particular client.

3

Even if you don't bill for the little interruptions, it's only fair to track your time. I've found that having the discipline to jot down your time throughout the day is paying back in several ways

  • Your invoices are accurate from Client's perspective
  • Your invoices are accurate from your perspective (you know how much each job has taken you)
  • You're not wasting time "recreating" what your day was like
  • You can track non-billable tasks (distractions), too
  • You can revisit such detailed "history" and improve a lot how you approach project types, clients, etc.

The definitive enabler is some form of time ledger. As simple as a spreadsheet or as powerful as a commercial accounting software with "time sheets", the condition is that it's always on your fingertips. I've been using a commercial product with time sheets that automatically track client/project/phase. This makes generation of invoices together with accompanying detailed report of tasks performed as easy as a few clicks.

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You can start using time managing techniques like "Pomodoro" that will help you organize your time better, and enhance focus and concentration, plus making you have a list of all the tasks that you do and the time that takes you to make each one of them.

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There are several time tracking tools that look at your actual activity on the computer (like Timing for Mac). These tools will normally let you sort activities into projects based on url, path or similar features depending on program.

Even though this has some limitations like: only tracking your time at the computer or may not be able to track some applications/pages depending on what information is available, it is a great tool to get general information on where your time has gone.

Hopefully you will spend more time producing than project managing and it's usually the project management/social aspects that are the hardest to track.

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Charging and tracking the "small" changes.

Early on when freelance web-hosting was a hobby for me I would gladly make any small tweaks with no charge for the few clients I had since most of them were friends and other acquaintances.

Eventually I did start to wonder how much time it was taking so after some research I realized that a few hosting services offer free license to scripts such as WHMCS (Web Host Manager Complete Solution) which is great billing and accounting software and more.

After setting it up, not only did it help keep a list of billable services but also sent overdue reminders to late accounts. That function actually pestered a neglectful client to finally sending in their payment with out my intervention.

After a month of keeping track of the small changes one particular client asked of me, I decided not to charge them but still sent an invoice of the work done including the time spent on researching and responding to inquiries. To my pleasant surprise their company sent a check for the services without me asking for compensation and still continue to use my consulting services often.

The real time saver is now that I have most of the common activities already listed in the WHMCS script, invoicing and job quotes take only minuets to conjure and send. The ROI for only two days of learning and setup of the system has turned out to be amazing.

Naturally each situation is different per client and developer and depending on their relationship what expenses are expected to be compensated for.

I just though I would share my experience with the WHMCS and how new webmasters may be sitting on a very useful benefit provided by their hosting service not realizing they had access to such a time saver.

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Anything below 5 minutes is not even worth thinking about, just answer the email and forget it. If you have a request that takes you long to investigate or test stuff, it is normal work and you charge it.

Do not interrupt current work for requests, best you can do is close the email program, logout or whatever. Then you work 2-3 straight on a task and when you start losing your flow you can take a break, eat something, check your mail and answer it.

If you try to answer all emails in real time you will lose a lot of effet with context switching.

Also make sure, people have a way to contact you if they really need something urgent, cell phone number would be optimal if they understand the term emergency, otherwise a secretary service, call centers offer that, is nice to use too.

  • I tend to forgo email and Skype and other methods of communicating in preferenece of IRC or Slack, but remember that if you are doing any group project, you will need to communicate heavily with an existing team. Just shutting off all communication is a little heavy-handed and can leave your client bewildered. – Amelia Aug 20 '14 at 13:12
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As other's have mentioned, batching helps immensely. And since my field of work (UI Design and front-end development) hardly requires immediate responses, I'll set aside a time each day for every client (e.g. every day from 1:30-2pm is dedicated to client B) and charge them for that time.

However, I charge per project 99% of the time and only time-track for internal reasons. This forces me to stick to a workflow where I have scheduled calls/Google Hangouts w/ my clients and have them updated via Basecamp/Trello. This really cuts down on a lot of the back-and-forth that email communication can cause. Another plus side is that clients don't get irritated that I charged them X hours this week just for reading their emails.

I like to think about it long-term. Without the client having the though that they're being charged per hour in the back of their head while they're emailing me about a project, they can really focus on their needs and what they're trying to achieve. As a result, I can deliver a much better project and have a much happier client. This also comes back 10-fold in terms of referrals and a much better portfolio.

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Looking at your worklfow, I think a time tracking app like Time Doctor would work well for you.

I understand why people would say you need to focus on one task/project at a time for maximum productivity. But, for freelancers who take projects left and right bouncing on different tasks for different clients is a common issue.

I use Time Doctor to monitor my work done for different tasks per project. So, even if that is just a 5 minute email response it is accurately recorded and added to the total time spent per client.

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bretterer, you don't really seem to be asking about time tracking tools but about how to deal with lots of small requests coming in by email. For me, this is more of a productivity question.

Here is my own process:

  1. Don't leave your email open. Instead, allocate set times during the day that you will spend on dealing with emails. This cuts out the countless small interruptions. It also trains your clients not to expect an immediate reply.

  2. Work through your emails in a steady stream. Emails that require a simple reply - just send it. For anything else that takes longer, don't solve it straight away. Instead, add it to your project to-do list for that client and then deal with it as you would any other client request. Send a short reply back to explain what you have done and what billing implications there will be (if any) - they may need to confirm back that they want to go ahead.

Both of these steps prevent emails interrupting your normal work and ensure that you get paid for larger tasks.

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