Should you charge ex-clients for old files? Create a file retention policy!

Should you charge ex-clients for old files? Create a file retention policy!
Written by: Karl Sakas

It’s great when past clients return for future work—but what about when they reappear demanding immediate access to deliverable files your agency already sent them years ago? That’s less fun.

It’s also an entirely predictable situation, which means you and your team shouldn’t reinvent the wheel each time. My solution? Save time—and reduce client and employee angst—by creating a client file retention & recovery policy.

In a Facebook group for agency leaders, an owner asked for advice about a former client who did the reappearing act:

“Let’s say a client comes back to you after a six-month hiatus from billable work and requests that you send all files (which you’ve already shared at the end of the project). Seeking and posting those files would be time consuming, and there is no suggestion of future work. How do you handle this?”

Short version of the advice I gave him: Pick your battles—give them the files (and find a long-term solution, because this situation isn’t a surprise). Below, I’ve outlined a sample file retention & recovery policy to help you make this a higher-value opportunity.

NOTE: In this article, I focus on client deliverables and working files. Keep in mind that you may need to retain accounting files and legal documents under different terms—ask your accountant and attorney for advice on your situation.

Pick your battles: Be helpful… and firm

As an agency PM earlier in my career, I jumped to bill clients for this. They’d be unhappy, and wouldn’t want to pay the $250 we’d quote for it. Years later, I now think it’s a “pick your battles” situation.

Call your client’s senior contact—this isn’t an “email about it” situation, because it requires nuance. Let them know you’re glad to share the files again, but that a future request would be billable; how can you help them keep the files handy when they need them?

The same is true if you keep getting requests for files from random people at a client company, or if your original client sponsor left the company and their replacement needs help.

Vendors nitpick, but partners… partner

If you were in their shoes, how would you feel? More to the point—if you want clients to treat you like a partner instead of a vendor, stop acting like a vendor.

Find a longer-term solution to the file retention and recovery problem. Let’s take a closer look at doing that.

Be prepared: This isn’t a surprise

Many agencies struggle with this, but it’s an entirely predictable problem—clients inevitably want copies of files at some point in the future.

The original agency owner’s question raises an important point about file management—why aren’t things in a “share a single link” location? That wastes your team’s time, too, and leads to situations where employees keep key files on devices that aren’t backed up properly.

Video production agencies run into this a lot—they have gigabytes of raw video files that they can’t afford to keep forever, even as storage prices continue to drop.

After creating my speaker demo video, my video agency gave me a few options—they can store the files on-site on a flash drive for $X, put them on an external hard drive (I ship them the drive, and they charge for shipping back), or they can delete them. I opted for both the flash drive and “load to an external hard drive” option, as a belt-and-suspenders solution.

Fixing this with a client file policy

To fix this at your agency, create a policy for file retention and recovery, including how things get billed—or not billed. File recovery and retention will never be a major revenue source—but by describing it as billable (even if you typically waive a recovery fee), you value-anchor that it’s not forever-free.

When an agency owner complains about old-file requests from a client, there’s usually a lot of baggage. Agencies don’t resent sending files to someone who was been a good client. But when someone was a difficult nitpicking cheapskate, it’s different.

That resentment seems short-sighted—sending files to a bad client means you don’t need to deal with them again. (Assuming you have a policy that limits how many free shares they get, of course.)

Reduce employee angst

Even if you opt to frequently waive the fee, creating a client file retention & recovery policy has another key benefit—it makes work easier for your agency’s employees.

How so? When clients make difficult requests, your team has to decide what to do—and where to fall on the Warmth vs. Competence spectrum.

This consumes mental overhead and contributes to decision fatigue. The “what should I do?” decision is easier when they have agency values to follow, but it’s hard when they feel like they need to make a decision in a vacuum. They ask their coworkers, ask their direct manager, and worry about what to do. Each person might be following a different process, which doesn’t make for a good client experience.

Having a policy is a kindness to your employees—you want them worrying about big problems, not whether to bill for a small request or wonder if they should “waste” time on recovering files. (You’ll benefit, too, since you won’t have to make as many one-off decisions.)

[SAMPLE POLICY] Client File Retention & Recovery Policy for Your Agency

Here’s an outline of a potential policy—feel free to “steal” this, but be sure to customize it to your situation (including whether you give clients access to the editable files):

1. During our work together, we’ll create a number of electronic files. Depending on the project, this could range from dozens to hundreds of files, potentially requiring gigabytes of storage space.

2. We’ll send you a link to a Dropbox archive of the files. We recommend you download this within 30 days, ideally to multiple locations so you have extra backups. We’ll retain the files for one year.

3. Our policy is to retain files for at least one year, barring technical difficulties. We may delete them after that, unless you’ve agreed to pay us for long-term storage.

4. If you need access to the files again, we’ll share once more, as a waived-fee courtesy. If you need access more often than that, we’re glad to help—but additional requests are billable at $250 per request.

5. At the end of the project, you have several options for what we do with the files.

  • Option A: We retain your files on a dedicated USB flash drive at our office for five years, for $500. If we haven’t heard from you before that period ends, we may dispose of the drive.
  • Option B: We put the files on an external hard drive, and send the drive to you. This is $100 plus shipping; we’ll supply a Mac- and PC-compatible hard drive.
  • Option C: We delete the files after a year, and you send them back (from the Dropbox link you downloaded) if you need us to work on things in the future (or we charge to recreate things, if necessary).

6. If we store the files and have moved storage to our off-site facility, it may take up to a week to recover the files.

7. Please let us know within a month which option you prefer. If we don’t hear from you within a month, we’ll assume you chose Option C.

Applying a file policy at your agency

Ready to make this avoidable headache go away? Keep these points in mind.

  1. Customize your policy, getting input from your team on likely issues and what’s doable. Get feedback from your attorney about the right language—including whether you’re creating bailment—and how to protect yourself if something catastrophic happens to your office.
  2. Plan to share your policy during the client onboarding process, ideally getting a signature confirming receipt. When you give clients options up front, it makes it easier to charge if they change their mind later.
  3. If you promise to retain files, you must be sure you deliver on the promise. As fertility clinics have found, you can get sued if you promise to retain something but fail to deliver.

Again, be sure to get advice from your accountant and attorney on retention requirements for financial and legal-related files!

Question: What’s your agency’s client file retention and recovery policy?

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