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January 15, 2014

2 Ways to Secure Retainers

Retainer arrangements for creative services are not new, but they’re also not very common for freelancers and small firms -- and they should be. It’s one sure way to instill a sense of stability in what is otherwise a bit of a roller coaster ride when it comes to income, time management and workload.

Retainer arrangements are committed relationships and they shouldn’t be entered into lightly. Plus they’re not right for every client. So you have to be intentional and choosy about whom you pursue – but they tend not to fall in your lap, so you do have to actively pursue them.

As I’ve helped clients secure them in the past year or so, I’ve noticed 2 ways they seem to come about:  Shutterstock_137478323

  1. They evolve out of an existing relationship where the work is fairly consistent and the working relationship is a healthy one. This is most common. So look at your current clients to see which ones are primed to be transformed into a more stable arrangement. Then approach them about it. Sometimes all it takes is a conversation. (If you’re not sure what to say, take advantage of my free session and we’ll brainstorm it together.)

  2. They are pursued strategically. What type of work that you do is characteristically ongoing and regular? Once you’ve identified that type of work, you can go get it. For example, a retainer is not likely to evolve out of a simple web site refresh, unless that web site is part of a larger campaign or rebranding. On the other hand, content marketing is good fodder for retainer work because it has to be done regularly, like a monthly newsletter or annual sustainability report.

What other types of projects are conducive to retainer arrangements? Share what you’ve noticed or learned in the comments.

And here’s another podcast on the topic of retainers with a small firm that positions itself as a company’s “virtual marketing department” – which is perfect for retainers.

* Win win image, courtesy, Shutterstock.


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This is a great topic Ilise. I got my first retainer client in December. I did have an existing relationship, but it wasn't long before we entered into the retainer agreement. And it was funny the way it happened - I was talking with my point of contact there and we both sort of mentioned it at the same time - simple. I drew up a contract which provides them with 20 hours of me/month at a lower hourly rate than they would be paying otherwise. The nice part for the client is they know they have a resource for those hours and for me it smooths the cash flow. Plus we don't have to do a new contract for every project. I rollover 3 unused hours for a maximum of 6, though I suggest thinking carefully about rolling over hours. In many cases it may be best just not to roll over any. My goal is to have three clients on retainer by summer.

As someone who does a ton of debt collections for freelancers, I can tell you that this is a very smart idea.

If you can do a retainer agreement, DO IT! I might ad to be SURE you stop work if the retainer runs out and don't resume until it's replenished.

I talk to freelancers every day who had NO idea they were about to get stiffed for everywhere between a few hundred to tens of thousands!! I go out of my way to teach freelancers, from first hand experience, how to avoid the amazing "disappearing clients"! The work is done, and poof they're gone! Forgetting all about paying you.

Great article Ilise.

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