Should you charge your client for your learning time?

Have you ever had a client ask you to do something outside of your realm of expertise?

Maybe they want some extensive customization to their WordPress theme. Or a fillable PDF form that calculates based on user input. Or some major Photoshopping on a particular image.

Whatever it is, you know you’re going to have to improve your skill set to complete the project. And that’s going to take more than just an extra hour of time.

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But you’re feeling bold and courageous, so while you’re a little nervous about it, you’re determined to learn how to do it and nail it in the process.

Great! That’s your biggest hurdle – having the self-confidence to try something new and learn on the fly.

Now, who’s paying for it?

Are you going to eat the extra time it will take you to educate yourself (and, let’s face it, make a complete mockery of the first, and probably second, go at the finished project)?

Or are you going to pass some or all of those costs onto your client?

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Use these three criteria to determine whether or not you should charge your client for your learning time.

Is it something unique?

Projects that require learning something unique or client-specific should be covered by your client. Since you won’t be able to apply your newly-acquired skills to anything but their project(s), they should bear the cost of your education.

These might be:

  • Learning a proprietary software or web CMS
  • Understanding their business data in order to make graphs, reports, or infographics
  • Designing a newsletter template in software they have (and you don’t) so they can update it weekly

Conversely, if you’re learning a common skill, the extra learning time should be on you. Some common skills include:

  • HTML and CSS
  • Preparing a document for printing on printing presses
  • Creating a PowerPoint (or other presentation software) template

Will you be able to apply this skill to other projects or clients?

What about those more advanced skills that fall in the grey areas, you say?

Maybe you need to learn Joomla, how to create a drag and drop image sorter using jQuery, or how to perfect bind (with creep) a booklet in InDesign.

These are the types of projects that you should be salivating for – projects that teach you something for potential use with other clients. (“Why yes, I do have some experience with Actionscript 3.0.”)

In these situations, consider splitting the costs with your client depending on how in-depth your education needs to be and how useful the skill might be to you in the future.

Do you need formal or paid training?

By all means, if you need to take a formal class or have a specific certification, your client should be paying for it, even if you answered yes to the above question.

However, you can’t be taking your basic Illustrator class and expect to get away with charging your client. Classes need to be highly specialized and directly related to completing the project, such as:

  • Database security/integrity for sensitive information
  • Webinars for software, marketing techniques, or web templates they’ve purchased/bought into

This is fairly standard in most industries – for example, printers charge their clients to purchase custom die-cut dies. The second client to want that cut, however, doesn’t pay extra for the die.

How to convince your client to pay for your learning time

Now that you’ve determined that your client should pay for your learning time, you’ve got to convince them into it, too.

Before you talk to your client, prepare your quote. (Not sure how? Read here.) Rehearse your argument to yourself (or your dog or significant other) first, and if you get flustered easily, write an outline or notes to remind you of your talking points.

Expect your client to want to negotiate. Decide where your hard line is and how you can compromise BEFORE your client conversation.

Now for the hard part. This is a time when you’ve got to bite the bullet, pick up the phone, and have a real live conversation.*

Don’t forget these tips:

  • Schedule your conversation at the right time.
  • Be honest – tell your client you aren’t familiar with this type of project.
  • Be confident – assure your client that you can and will do it to their satisfaction.
  • Keep your composure – most clients are probably going to at the very least question you a bit. Stay professional and calm. (Rehearsing helps!)

*Note: I’ve found it’s best to do this over the phone rather than in person to avoid awkwardness and provide a quick, clean exit if tension runs high and emotions get rattled. And never, NEVER, cop-out and try to pass it off in an email. Your client deserves the respect of a real-time conversation.

Have you ever charged your client for your learning time?

How did you convince your client to pay for your learning time? Share your tips and stories in the comments on this post!

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  1. This situation happened to me not too long ago! I decided to charge less for the learning time since it would benefit my business for the future. If it was a learning curve for something very specific or something I wouldn’t have much use for in the future, I would have charged the client.

  2. I normally eat the cost, but THANKS to your article, knowing that if a skill is SPECIFIC to that client only makes sense. That was a great money-making tip!

  3. Learning a skill that extends your capability can be useful. New skills in your area is a good use of time and you can even get the client to pay for that time.If the skill is completely out of you zone of expertise, you should hire an expert to move the project forward quickly. You don’t need to be a jack of all trades. You can make more as a boss than you can as an employee.

    1. Rich,

      Well put. If you’re not interested in offering photography, for example, there’s no point in spending 20 hours learning photography for one client. Just hire a professional photographer and finish the job.

      Thanks for sharing!

  4. Great article, congrats April.

    I think that most of the time you must not charge your client for your learning time. This is because “that” learning thing will give you more skill, so I think that you can’t charge your client for that, even if you have to think about the project and the learning for it before start.

    Besides this, if its a project that you have to learn a specific thing only for that client (maybe if you start working with a new client and the give you all data of their website, logically this takes time to know how the project was done) you have to charge it.

    This is what I do usually, but each person manage his time, I only can say that be careful with these things, it can bring a lot of more hours than you can imagine.

  5. As I am currently a beginner to Javascript and CSS, I wouldn’t charge the client for my learning of it. But once I know the skill better, yes, then I will add it to my future projects and charge extra for it.

    1. The problem lies in using Flash. Apple has specifically chosen not to support Flash on its’ iOS (and other mobile devices also don’t support Flash), so you’ll need to use a JavaScript-based slideshow (there are TONS of free ones out there) to have it visible to the majority of the mobile spectrum.

  6. I’m in totally agreement with what you’ve outlined in this post. If it’s a skill that I don’t have but could certainly use in future work I typically charge a lower than standard rate and account for additional turnaround time and revisions. I like to turn it into a win-win situation by letting a client know that it’s new territory for me, assuring them that I’m confident I can do what they need and also letting them know that they’re getting a ‘bargain’ because it’s something I’m interested in doing. I get the hands-on experience that their project presents and they get a a good deal.

    1. Thanks, Paula! Honesty – with confidence – is the best policy in this situation, and it sounds like you’ve nailed it!

  7. If it’s learning something proprietary that I’ll likely never use for another project, then I’ll definitely bill for my time. On the other hand, anything that’s going to be useful for other clients in the future, and isn’t project-specific, I usually will not bill for it. I take it as an opportunity to expand my skillset.

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