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Landing a few clients who keep you on retainer, paying you a set amount each month, can do a lot to even out a freelancer’s income.
While most clients will make sure to send you as much work as you’re willing to do for your retainer, you can occasionally get an even sweeter gig where a client winds up paying just to have you available, whether or not you’re needed. You can’t count on that sort of opportunity coming along, but it’s certainly a nice idea. The reality, though, is still a great opportunity for any freelancer.
Andy Stratton, a WordPress developer who works on retainer for several clients, says “I know that I have a baseline of pre-paid hours coming in a given month; I can better allocate time for my clients, plan my month(s) and they know I'm anticipating X amount of hours of work for them in a given month. They get a lower rate and we're both pretty happy.”
What Sort of Work Makes Sense for a Retainer
The type of services that you offer on a one-off basis are not always identical to what will work well in a retainer situation. You need to take a careful look at what you’re offering and make sure it’s a good fit for your clientele.
Stratton for instance, makes a point of offering WordPress maintenance to his clients. He noticed that several of his clients needed eight or more hours of work a month, in terms of adding functionality to WordPress themes, building WordPress plugins and supporting their SEO goals. He offered to do that sort of work on retainer.
When you notice a client coming back to you on a regular basis for similar work, you’ve got a clear opportunity to offer to work on retainer. You might also consider these options:
- Handling routine maintenance work that may not get done without you
- Being on call for emergency issues
- Offering extremely fast turnaround for routine tasks (such as turning out new versions of an existing ad design)
- Consulting on strategy or planning for the company
- Handling routine, repetitive work
Just like any other service you might offer to your clients, it makes sense to develop something a little more complex than a statement that you are available to work on retainer to add to your website. Work up a list of what you’re willing to offer to clients who want to put you on retainer and a price list.
You may want to put a plan in place to ensure that you can handle any work for such clients ahead of time, just in case you have one of those months with a few huge projects all coming due at the same time.
Finding Opportunities to Work on Retainer
The frequency with which prospective clients look for freelancers who work on retainer differs dramatically from industry to industry. In some niches, it’s almost required for most companies to have access to a freelancer who can turn around work in a hurry. In other industries, it’s practically unknown.
If a retainer is something that may fit, you’ll need to find a graceful way to let your clients know that you are willing to work on a retainer.
You need to take a look at the type of clients you normally work with and see if a retainer is something that’s going to make sense for them within the context of how they operate.
Don’t be surprised if most clients aren't interested in jumping into a retainer relationship with you before working through a one-off project first. Treat it as a trial run and get everything right so that the client is eager to discuss future projects. Then you’ll have the opportunity to discuss future work and how to structure it.
If a retainer is something that may fit, you’ll need to find a graceful way to let your clients know that you are willing to work on a retainer. As Stratton did, you may find that it’s just a matter of pointing out that your client is already asking you for a certain number of hours a month. A retainer may also make sense as a way to follow up with a client. If, for instance, you’ve built a website for a client, you might offer to handle maintenance on retainer — you can sell it as a package if you’re so inclined.
The Length of Your Retainer
The two most common types of retainers are monthly and yearly. For most freelancers, a monthly retainer is more likely to make sense than billing on an annual basis. For one thing, it’s easier to decide on a payment date: As the freelancer, you’ll want to get your payment in one lump sum before you start working so that there’s no chance of a client disappearing.
You’ll also want to agree in advance on just how much work you’re expected to complete each month or year.
The client, on the other hand, would rather pay in one lump sum after you’ve worked for a full year. There’s logic on both sides of the equation, but it’s probably going to be easier to agree on a monthly payment.
You’ll also want to agree in advance on just how much work you’re expected to complete each month or year. There may be a set number of hours or a standard list of tasks. In some cases, such as if you’re providing maintenance, this may translate to a variable amount of work that you actually do, along with a set expectation that any maintenance work that needs to get done will get done. Once again, this sort of planning tends to work better at the monthly level than at the yearly.
The payment frequency doesn’t need to match the length of the retainer, of course. You can sign a contract for a full year, while still working on a monthly schedule. It’s always a question of what works for you and your client.
Get It In Writing
When you’re working on retainer, it’s even more important than usual to write down the details of the arrangement in a contract or letter of agreement. With a one-off project, you might not be running the biggest of financial risks if something goes wrong. But with an on-going relationship, a few months of disagreements could do serious damage to your finances.
Even if you’re working with a client who you trust implicitly on a handshake deal, tell him that you want to write down the expectations for the retainer arrangement. Even if it’s just so that you won’t forget any minor points a year out, it’s an important step. Make sure the following details all make it into the contract:
- The amount you’re to receive each month
- The date you’re to be payed by
- Any invoicing procedures you’re expected to follow
- Exactly how much work and what type of work you expect to do
- When your client needs to let you know about the month’s work by
- What notification you need before the retainer relationship can be ended
- Anything else that is relevant for ensuring that work is completed in a timely fashion
You may also want to set a date for the contract to expire, if only so that you have a scheduled point when you can raise your rates with your client. You can, of course, just announce a rate hike whenever you need to, but give your client plenty of notice about it.
Ending or Modifying a Retainer
There may come a day when the work you do on retainer doesn’t quite match everything else you’re doing in your freelancing career. You can probably keep going along with the work for a while, and you may find that it’s incredibly difficult to give up guaranteed money. But you do have a finite amount of time in your day and it may be better spent on work more in line with what you’re doing now. That can require an uncomfortable conversation with your client.
But scheduling a sit down to discuss what options are available is likely the best way to handle the situation. If you have another freelancer in mind (or perhaps a list of names) who you can recommend to a client, you can assure the client that you aren’t leaving her high and dry.
Depending on the type of work you’re doing, you might also consider negotiating the option to come in and teach someone at the client’s company how to handle the work or seeing if the client is okay with you bringing in a subcontractor. If you do negotiate a new set of parameters for the retainer, rewrite the contract at the same time.
No matter what, you want to make sure that you keep the clients who have you on retainer thinking positively about you. Because you work with them on a long-term basis, compared to many of your other clients, they’ll be a better source of references and recommendations, even if you’re no longer working together.
You should always seek independent financial advice and thoroughly read terms and conditions relating to any insurance, tax, legal, or financial issue, service, or product. This article is intended as a guide only.