For the self-employed, “retainer” can mean two things. It’s sometimes a casual reference to any payment made up front. But, more commonly, it refers to a retainer agreement. It’s the latter that I’m going to discuss today.
A retainer agreement is a contract between yourself and your client in which your client pays you in advance – typically on a recurring schedule – for work to be determined later. In other words, your client pays you a set amount of money each month (or week or year) whether you actually work for them that month or not.
Retainer agreements – depending largely on the type of project and the client it’s for – can either be really good or really, really bad. In order for you to decide if a retainer agreement is right for you, I’m going to outline a few of the basic pros and cons.
Considering the amount of freelancers who swear by retainer agreements, there must be something good about them, right? Well, yes; of course there is. If you know how to work them (more on that later on), retainer agreements have several good qualities, including:
One of the few biggest issues with freelancing is the infamous “Feast or Famine” cycle. Some months the money will come rolling in, while other months you’ll have next to nothing. Your bills keep coming as per usual, but your payment schedule is constantly up in the air.
When you work on retainer, you no longer have that problem. Provided your client is on the up and up and actually pays you as agreed upon, you’re guaranteed a steady flow of income. It’s the closest a freelancer can get to traditional employment while still being their own boss.
Entering into a retainer agreement takes a certain amount of trust from both parties, but especially on the client’s part. With this in mind, typically only the “best of the best” of your current clients will suggest keeping you on retainer. The clients you’ve already worked with before, who are familiar with your dependability, are the most likely candidates.
Since you already have a comfortable working relationship, said clients are already familiar with your rates. You’ll also be working for a smaller group of “core” clients – who are, ideally, your “premium” customers.
Clients Like Retainer Agreements
There are a few exceptions to the rule of course, but, if a client asks you to work on retainer, it’s generally because they’re in favor of retainer agreements. It makes sense: most clients would rather keep the independent contractors they have than scour the Internet looking for someone new. By setting up a retainer agreement, they’ll have ensured that you/your services will be there when they need them.
Unfortunately, some clients prefer retainer agreements because it’s become customary for freelancers to offer their services at a slightly decreased rate in exchange for steady pay. Which brings me to the…
Just like every rose has its thorn, not everything about working on retainer is all it’s cracked up to be. You may run into:
Whilst working on retainer, you’ll always have a potential deadline hovering over you. Depending on the specifics and flexibility of your agreement, your deadlines – while ever-present – may be highly inconsistent. Essentially you’re under contract to be at your client’s beck-and-call.
When you have a vague retainer project deadline looming over your head, it can be hard to accept and schedule other time-sensitive work. Even if your deadlines are clear, if your work load changes from month-to-month, you’ll still be left in the dark. You never want to risk overbooking yourself and, when you’re on retainer, it’s harder to judge when that’s a possibility.
Since your contract likely states you’ll be “at the ready” whenever your client needs you, you’re going to be kept on a relatively short leash. Since many of us left traditional work behind in order to be our own boss, this can be frustrating.
However, personal frustrations aside, retainer agreements have a potentially more sinister side-effect: dependency. They encourage you to place all – or most – of your business “eggs” (time) in one basket. And that almost always spells disaster for the self-employed. When your client has the option to leave you at any time, you don’t want them to be your only client!
Potentially Less Pay
When you work on retainer, some months you may have (literally) nothing to do; while other months you’ll be overworked. Related to the above, if you’re “at the ready” 40 hours per week, but only get paid for five, then $X,XXX per month quickly becomes less than you’re worth. Not to mention the assumed discounts I discussed earlier.
I’ve never been fond of the idea of asking for payments of any kind up front. If a client suggests paying me in advance, fine. But, to me, telling a client that I require a “retainer” (in either form of the word) screams “I don’t trust you!” And that’s no way to forge a relationship.
On the flip side, if you manage to suggest working on retainer without coming across as distrusting, your client may begin to distrust you. Why? Because you’re asking to be paid for work you haven’t done yet, and you’re asking to do so continuously. If there’s no real need for a retainer agreement – or if your relationship with the client is new or unsteady – your client may perceive this action as you trying to put the squeeze on their wallet, rather than genuinely trying to help them.
Either way, when you attempt to make the first move, you risk damaging your relationship with your client. And that’s a big risk to take for a few dollars less – even if the pay is steady.
How to Make the Most Out of Working on Retainer
If you’re someone who has amazing time management skills and feels that a little less freedom is a fair price to pay for steady income, then working on retainer might be for you, regardless of the Cons. However, if this is a path you want to pursue, take heed of the following:
- Clearly define the scope of the work in your contract. Retainer agreements have a tendency to get out of hand. If your contract is poorly planned, there’s a good chance you’ll be taken advantage of. Make sure you have clear definitions of not only what you’ll be paid, but the type and amount of work. (i.e. Rather than simply “one blog post per month,” try “one blog post up to 3,000 words per month”).
- Suggest a trial/probation period. If you’re unsure about working on retainer and need to get comfortable with the idea, suggest a shorter payment period over a probation period. Say, “Let’s start with ____ and see how we feel.” Remember: you can always renegotiate with your client at a later date. Nothing is permanent.
- Choose a service that works well with this arrangement. The best retainer projects are exactly that: projects. If you try to offer “per hour” services rather than “per project” services, small details may eat up too much of your time. Stick to project-based arrangements that can be done routinely – three blog posts per month, a set number of social media posts, e-newsletters, or routine web maintenance/updates.
Above all else: be realistic. If your schedule is already stretched to the limit, say “no.” Don’t let the lure of a steady paycheck fool you into thinking you can “somehow” materialize extra hours in the day through sheer will alone.
And get everything in writing. If it works out for you, come back here and let us know in the comments.