How to smash your freelance money goals using retainers

Life as a freelancer has its perks: you can work when you want from where you want, there's no nasty boss on your case, and you get to choose work that you love. However in the early stages of freelancing it can bring its share of anxiety-inducing moments, especially when it comes to money in the bank.

We dream of the days when we can pay ourselves on time and consistently. One way to make the dream a little closer to reality is getting your clients to move onto a retainer agreement rather than hours or project-based work. 

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A retainer (also called retainer agreement or retainer fee) is a paid ongoing relationship between a freelancer and client. For the client, retainers give them the certainty of accessing the freelancers' services for a certain number of hours or deliverables per month. For the freelancer, retainers allow you to plan our your workload, build a deeper understanding of your clients business, and pay your bills on time every time! Locking down a handful of retainers is one of the closest things a freelancer can get to having a salary. But how do you get your clients onto a retainer agreement? 

Step 1.
Don't try to sell a brand new client a retainer.

Would you sign an agreement to hand over your hard earn cash every month with someone you've never worked with?  Chances are slim (unless they have an incredible reputation or you've been recommended by a trusted friend). It's simply easier to build trust and deliver results before proposing a retainer agreement. Have a think about the clients you have recently completed or are about to complete work with. You will have gained valuable knowledge about them, their pain points and goals. Your existing clients are your best opportunity to secure a retainer deal with. 

Step 2.
Pick your timing. 

Now that you've identified a few existing clients, think about when to propose a retainer. I'd recommend starting to brainstorm ways you can support your client after you deliver the project even before it's complete. For example, if you are a copywriter and your ad hoc blog posts are sending a record number of enquiries to your client, time to strike! Present an ongoing package of blogs so you can continue to grow their business and bring them even more results. Offering your client ongoing support will help them continue to smash their business goals while putting money in the bank for you. 

Step 3.
Propose your package & benefits.

Create a carefully crafted proposal that offers them a few options to continue the working relationship with you, three options is a good number. It might outline a package of services you can offer, this is a type of 'Pay for Access' model. For example:

Option 1: 4x blog posts per month $400
Option 2: 6x blog posts per month plus 1xhour ad hoc (e.g. uploading to website, consulting, strategy) $700
Option 3: 8x blog posts per month plus 2xhour ad hoc (e.g. uploading to website, consulting, strategy) $1000

Ask the hard questions to get to the bottom line for them. If their goal is to grow their email list to 10K, let them know that after 6 months you will help them achieve that. Be bold and ask your client what they are trying to achieve as a marketing department or business overall. You want to be able to give them a ROI on what they are paying you. E.g. If you are charging $2K per month you want to show that you are returning that to them in some way. This could be the gamechanger in getting the work or not. 

Another common way to sell a retainer is to offer a certain number of hours of support per month sometimes called a 'Pay for Work' model. This is where you need to be careful. While hours seem like the most logical way to lock in work, it can be limiting. Why? Because as you get more experienced and streamline your own processes as a freelancer, you will naturally become faster at doing the work, therefore needing to find more to do. This will suck your time and lose you money in the long run because you can't fill your spare hours with other clients. My preference is to sell results, not time.

Make sure you add in the benefits to the client or talk them through this on the phone. The goal is to demonstrate value to the client. Retainers will reduce briefing and admin time. You're just a call away to listen to the brief and get started on delivering results. And with one invoice per time-frame (say 3 month), these two things alone will save them loads of time. Because you are targeting existing clients you've already gathered valuable knowledge on their business, They've put time into onboarding you, sharing docs, imagery, brand guidelines etc and the longer you work together the more likely you are to deliver value as you work with them on their business.

Step 4. 
Treat them like gold. 

This is an important one. You've nailed the proposal, your client is onboard with your retainer, now you have to keep them & deliver! Show exactly what you have done and the results that you achieved in a clear outcome based report every month. Complacency is a fast track to failure so always treat them like your first-class clients. 

Final tips.

  • Build trust first. Don't go in for the retainer right away. Excel in one project first then propose it. 
  • Start with a one-month trial retainer. If your client is hesitant this can be a good angle. Over deliver, be easy to work with, be responsive, show results and chances are they'll be extending. This also covers you with the option to get out if they aren't the right fit. We've all had those clients that are slow to respond or question every detail - if you find out that you can't achieve results with them, they are the kind of clients you don't need.  After the trial move to a three-month retainer and invoice once every three months. 
  • Don't rely on one or two clients for all of your income. If one drops off you might be left reaching for that tinned tuna and rice again. Keep at least three good-sized agreements in your back pocket.  
  • Give clients options. When you sell in a retainer, be sure to offer a range of options with varying levels of support. This means you are covering your time while being considerate of the clients budget. 

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Good luck scoring more retainers and making more cash! If you have any questions or have any other tips to share, please add them in a comment below.