Freelancing. That’s the life, isn’t it? Total control. Total freedom. Abject terror.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to be said for the freelance life. You’re in charge of your own time. You pick and choose the projects you’ll take on. You select your clients.
When it’s all working the way it’s supposed to, that is.
When you’re not breaking into a sweat as you open your checking account statement. When you’re not wondering how you’ll pay next month’s rent. When you’re not thinking, “Maybe a job with a salary wouldn’t be so bad …”
There’s a simple solution, though. One that will restore a feeling of stability to your freelance life.
It’s nothing you haven’t heard before. But you may not realize how important this solution can be for your freelance business. You may not be taking full advantage of the peace of mind and regular income it can provide.
Let’s get it working for you.
How to build an income foundation for your business
The solution to a freelancer’s unstable income problem is to take on a handful of retainer clients. Retainer clients pay you a set amount every month, and they provide a steady income you can count on. There are several ways to negotiate a retainer agreement, and we’ll cover them in this article.
For a freelancer, retainer clients are the closest thing to the stable income a salary provides.
The reliable income retainer clients provide is great, but if you don’t specify exactly what their retainer payments cover, you may find yourself selling your time for cheaper than you should.
Here’s what to aim for and what to avoid.
Why retainers rock (and why they sometimes suck)
Retainer clients have massive advantages:
- They provide a set income you can count on.
- You don’t have to spend as much time in the networking-prospecting-qualifying-selling cycle.
- Admin tasks are reduced because they’re predictable.
And there are some important retainer client minefields you should be aware of:
- You are “stuck” with your retainer clients: they’ve bought your time and you have to deliver on whatever they ask you to do (like it or not).
- Your projects may suffer from scope creep: clients feel a sense of ownership toward your time and may try to sneak in a few extra tasks here and there.
One way to minimize the risk associated with beginning a retainer relationship with a new client is to do a few “test projects” to see how you like working with them. These test projects would be one-off jobs you bid on, complete, and invoice individually.
As you work with the client, ask yourself:
- Is this client clear about her expectations?
- Does she understand the value my work contributes to her project?
- Is she easy to communicate with? Does she return my calls or emails?
- Does she pay on time?
Treat these one-off projects as a vetting process you’re putting the client through. When you find those client “gems” who are easy to work with, appreciate your contributions, and have ongoing projects, think about moving them to a retainer relationship.
How to protect your time, energy, and income with retainer clients
There are two primary ways to structure a retainer relationship.
The “Reserve Your Time” Retainer
- You’re paid a set amount for a specified number of hours that you reserve for that client every month.
- To make this attractive, you can offer your hours at a savings (but you don’t have to).
- Hours aren’t carried over to a new month: the client starts with a fresh chunk of your time each month.
Clients with ongoing needs like content creation, website maintenance, or social media management can be ideal for this type of retainer arrangement. You — the freelancer — need to find a way to carefully track the time you spend on the client’s work.
A note of caution: Be careful not to overbook your time. If you have several retainer clients who reserve your time and don’t use it fully, you may be tempted to book an extra client since you “always have time left over.” But if all your clients show up with heavy loads of work at the same time, you may find you don’t have the bandwidth to meet your commitments to them.
Solve this issue by either not overbooking your time or having a stable of reliable freelancer colleagues you can outsource the extra work to.
The “Handle These Ongoing Projects” Retainer
- Writers or professional content strategists can provide a set amount of content each month: for example, four blog posts, two email newsletters, two emails added to an autoresponder series.
- Designers may commit to handling specific ongoing design needs: website graphics, print material design, social media graphics.
Some freelancers prefer to handle specific projects and take their clients “off the clock.” This can be freeing: if you are able to get their project done in less time, all the time you save is your own.
This type of retainer relationship works best when you really know the client, their working style, and the projects they give you. When you can predict how much time it will take you to do their work consistently, you can take them off the clock and focus on delivering a result for a set fee.
2 easy ways to make retainer proposals irresistible
One easy way to make a retainer proposal extra attractive is to guarantee a set amount of time for a lower-than-usual hourly rate. The lower rate is only available if the client purchases the full block of your time for the month. And remember, hours don’t carry over from one month to the next.
Your normal hourly rate is $125/hour. Your retainer client asks for 20 hours/month of your time. Twenty hours of your time would normally be $2,500. For clients who pay you on a retainer basis, you can sell this time for $2,000, effectively reducing your hourly rate to $100/hour.
To protect yourself, ask the client to commit to a set period of time for the retainer relationship — perhaps six months. That will help you avoid clients who view your offer as a way to get one month’s worth of work for less.
Another way to make retainer agreements attractive is to bill on a quarterly — or even annual — basis.
I once had a client who had to jump through all sorts of administrative hoops when a vendor’s invoice was submitted. I suggested billing my retainer once per quarter so he’d only have to request four checks a year rather than twelve. He was thrilled, and it saved me administrative time, too.
Freelance writers: we have something just for you
Inside our Content Marketer Certification program, we’ve got a lot more for writers.
We designed this program to help writers make the most of their careers — to help them position themselves and their offerings, so that they can build profitable freelance writing businesses.
And we’re opening the program soon. Drop your email address below and you’ll be the first to hear about it.
Share your retainer tips in the comments
If you have structured your freelance business to use retainers, please visit the comments below. I want to hear about:
- How you first proposed a retainer
- Both the positive and negative aspects of retainer clients
- Whether you still use retainers today
Let’s talk! Scroll down and share your thoughts.
Reader Comments (32)
j james says
Clients today do not want retainers, with millennials writing full articles for $30. This is unrealistic…and very slow to get to the point.
Pamela Wilson says
I think that would depend entirely on the clients you cultivate, J James.
I agree with Pamela, I have no issues with retainers.
Sheryl Coe says
I think this is the ONE thing I’ve really “gotten” in freelancing is the need to go for a retainer over short-term goals. At first I did it just because I hate billing. If I can do this, anyone can.
The comments here are interesting, in terms of strategy, and I’ve love to see something more in depth. Maybe inside the certification course? A new module?
— Sheryl Coe
Sonia Simone says
Smart businesses with real marketing goals very quickly learn how hard it is to rely on content produced at the rock-bottom pricing.
The right clients are out there. They take more time to find, but they’re out there.
Leah Hackleman-Good says
Choosing clients carefully for this work is key; don’t offer it to clients who routinely question your hours or have other ways they’ve nitpicked your invoices.
Also, I learned a lesson twice about retainer clients: try to ensure you have regular contact and relationships with more than one person at the company. A retainer I had for several years suddenly changed with a new executive who didn’t value clean, crisp, and correct writing and thus wasn’t willing to pay for it!
Pamela Wilson says
That’s a great point, Leah, and good advice. Sorry you had to learn it the hard way. Thank you for sharing it here so others don’t have to.
Elisabeth K says
Oh darn! The client I would REALLY like to move to a retainer arrangement is exactly the nitpicking and hour-questioning kind. I was hoping a retainer would put an end to that. Then again, she probably won’t go for it anyway.
Sonia Simone says
Sometimes you have to come up with an exit strategy to move this client out of your life so you can make room for a better one. 🙂
When it comes to client work, boundaries are the most beautiful thing ever.
I am a full time content writer but never thought of offering my regulars a retainer option. It would be great from my point of view, but not sure they would go for it – certianly worth thinking about, for the future.
Pamela Wilson says
The first time I dipped my toe into the retainer pool, it was with a client who I’d worked with for years, and who had regular, repetitive projects. They loved the idea: it’s all about presenting it as a win for both of you.
Angie Nelson says
As someone on both sides of the fence – a service provider and someone who hires service providers – I love retainers. They are good for the budget-conscious.
Luckily, I think there is a lot more openness to retainers than there was back when I got started in 2007. Especially if your target market is online businesses, they are oftentimes expected.
Naven Pillai says
Thanks for such a timely content, Pamela. Loved every aspect you pointed out in the blog post. Retainer often overlooked by freelancers and tend to get paid on per project basis.
It would be great if freelancers start to make use of monthly retainer approach as they could count on them.
Thanks again for this awesome post 🙂
Chris Johnson says
Our take has been to sell our inventory. We have sold all of July’s deliveries and have 4 more in August. Then it’s on to September.
We do also give discounts to “retainer” clients in the form of about 20% off the normal rates when they buy 3+ projects.
Pamela Wilson says
Love that, Chris! Your company can truthfully say that you have limited bandwidth as well, and that’s a powerful motivator.
Jesse Gernigin says
I love retainers but I work to limit the amount of hours I put into a retainer offer per month. I try to keep a client at ten hours per month and put them on a six month minimum contracts. Ten hour months allows me to avoid clients trying to creep in extra work and also keeps clients who might have a slow month or two from feeling that they spend to much.
I’ve had as many as six retainers going (when I charged less than I do now) and hated it. Now I stick with two at the most. It does open me up to lower income months when work is slow but it also lets me grow my client roll which means rebooking at higher rates which averages out to greater income for the year.
As I become more skilled in copywriting I feel I will move into really specific retainers in the future (x amount of updates on a split test landing page, x amount of emails for an autoresponder, x amount of ads).
Pamela Wilson says
That’s really smart, Jesse. And limiting the hours also means that you won’t end up depending too heavily on the income of just a few clients, which can really mess things up if one or two drop out at the same time.
Jennifer Fenske says
I’ve never seen this topic discussed on a copy blog before, so it was cool to recognize my model! I’m a content marketer, and retainers are what I do. It’s predictable income and work (for the most part).
I still take on one-off projects but they are more nerve wracking: getting used to new personalities, expectations, meetings and administrative details (like you mentioned). I have had success converting some of these clients to retainers; some just don’t have the budget yet to do so.
Thanks for the article, Pamela!
Pamela Wilson says
That’s great to hear, Jennifer! Glad the topic resonated with you.
And I agree 100%: retainers save you from having to go out there and sell your work month after month. For that alone, I think they’re pretty awesome. 🙂
Barbara Zeigler says
Coaches and almost all solo professionals have the same business models available. I’ve been a solo consultant / coach since 1996. The retainer model works for many clients. They are all local and I don’t have a contract. We just agree that as long as they are getting value, we’ll work together. 30 days notice is the only other stipulation besides sending an invoice which is due the 1st of the month. Keeping clients for years is easy this way. One of us looks at the calendar and ask, what day works for you next month. We meet for 2 hours/mo. plus emails or phone calls if necessary.
My friends who ask for a 1-year contract almost always lose their retainer clients at the end of 12 months.
And, I pay my VA on a fixed retainer basis. Better for her, but then, she’s worth it.
Pamela Wilson says
Interesting how asking for a commitment has the inverse effect your fiends want it to have. Business is about relationships at the core, so I wonder if having the “earn” their continued coaching business end up working better in the long run …
Rob Towles says
I have never personally considered a retainer option. Thank you for opening my mind a little Pamela.
Mark Wayland says
Pamela, I also have a mix of retainers and short projects. Cash (flow) is King when it comes to running a business, and that’s where the retainers come in. But here’s the thing.
Getting a retainer is one thing, keeping it another.
I never take the relationship I have with them or their business for granted. In essence, I treat them just like a “new” customer, the only differences being that I have ready access to talking with them and we have a great trusting foundation. In fact, my best 2 retainer customers have been with me for over 8 years and provided more than $350,000 worth of business.
Pamela Wilson says
One of the best things about long-term retainer relationships, IMO, is that you develop an institutional memory with that client. The business relationship with one of my retainer clients lasted 12 years, and went through a change of primary contact person. The new contact person was thrilled to have an experienced vendor to work with — someone who had more experience with their marketing materials than they did when they first took the job.
It can go the other way, of course: a new contact person decides to bring in their preferred vendors, and your retainer relationship can be in jeopardy.
I’m glad to hear it has worked for you, Mark. Thanks for leaving a comment!
Hi Pamela – this is what I have been trying to set up in my business is a retainer model with clients however I have clients that have been burnt so hard to get them on board, it is about building that trust. I also now offer my services for a retainer in a different form to try to entice new clients, gives them a taste and then can build that relationship from there. My biggest struggle is getting clients on a very limited budget (for advertising etc).
Great article Pamela. Lawyers and consultants have been working on a retainer basis for a really long time now, companies pay law firms millions of dollars a year just so they can call on them whenever necessary. I even knew someone who had an astrologer on a retainer basis so it does work as long as everyone is happy with the transaction of goods and value. Just imagine taking on a part-time cleaner for your home; you could hire a different person each time which some cleaning companies let you or you could have the same cleaner each week. By having the same cleaner, they know how you like things done, they know your schedule, you know theirs, they have a reliable source of income from you, it makes life much easier. As a marketer, I have been on a retainer myself and have hired others on retainers and it does save me lots of time trying to find new freelancers I can trust. It never hurts asking your clients whether they are open to a retainer agreement with you after you have established the trust.
Lindsay Pevny says
First of all, I loved your keynote at BlogPaws!
Lately, I’ve been building stronger relationships with my freelance writing clients at the start, especially by creating a set number of blog posts for them each month. It’s been easier to connect since I started writing almost exclusively for pet brands.
But only providing blog writing has not been allowing me to provide the impact my clients need – they also need someone to share the content on social media, create images, infographics and even tweak their web design. Plus, writing is time-consuming and I’m not making enough income by only offering this service, so I’m seriously considering becoming a content strategist.
Pamela Wilson says
Hi Lindsay! BlogPaws was so much fun. 🙂
Positioning yourself as a content strategist is smart: you can look at their overall marketing strategy and help ensure that the content they create actually works to reach the customer they want to attract.
And you should be able to charge more: content strategy adds value to your writing services that goes beyond word count or posts per month.
Good luck! Sounds like you’re on the right track.
Lauren Krzyzostaniak says
This is such a great suggestion and good advice for making it a win-win for both parties. Thank you for sharing, Pamela!
As a client that uses a lot of freelances, I prefer to work with most of them with retainer contracts. I find most of the time we can work out a good price and services this way.
However, the freelance must offer a higher service or results than just getting a person to work at your office.
I am so glad I came across your blog. I have always worked as a salaried writer for corporations. But lately have been on the fence about going freelance. But feel I don’t have time to ramp up to the income I have enjoyed now. Which really isn’t much in comparison to what many freelancers are making. It’s an excuse. It’s a risk. But the idea of retainers makes it sound so do-able. That’s the way to do it. Love the idea of selling a 6 month or one year package. Thank-you.
Pamela Wilson says
I’m so glad to hear this was helpful, Rebecca.
Going freelance is a big leap, but having a few retainer clients lined up helps alleviate some of the stress, for sure.
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