How to Shift From Projects to Retainers

Girl typing on her laptop

One of the biggest myths about freelancing is that you can’t find consistent work. Sure, you may be able to land a long-term project here and there, but can you really find steady projects in this current economy?

To the disbelievers out there, the answer is yes.

One of the cons of freelancing (inconsistent work) is actually something that we might be able to control, given the right mindset.

I’d even argue that this so-called con may actually be one of the best things about freelancing. Not only can you attract and vet clients and projects that you want to work with, but you also have the opportunity to grow with them after you deliver your work.

That is, if you can successfully switch from project-based work to a retainer.

What is a Retainer?

Before we dive in, it’s important that we first establish what a retainer is and how it can help you.

I like to think of a retainer as a ‘package’ of hours.

Imagine that your customer is shopping in your virtual store and they have the option of buying 5, 10, 15, or 20+ hours of time from you. This is a retainer.

Essentially your client is buying a monthly block of hours, which can be used for a variety of services. These specific services will depend on what your client needs.

With a retainer, if your client does not use all of their hours for the month, you still get paid a set amount. That’s the beauty of a retainer, which is a huge plus for freelancers.

The other big difference between a retainer and a project-based fee is that this purchase is

Talk about consistency. With a retainer you won't have to face the uncertainty of where your next paycheck will be coming from.

Now you have a win-win situation.

However, your clients are not going to call you and say, “Hey Devan, can you sign me up for one of those retainer things you offer?”

Although that would be amazing!

Instead, you’ll have to position your services accordingly. But don’t worry, that’s what this article is here for.

Consider the Growth Potential of Each Project

If there’s one thing I learned from working at a digital marketing agency, it’s that you shouldn’t only focus on the task at hand.

Yes, you should be focused on what you’re doing when you’re completing each task, but you should also be considering potential long-term strategies for each project.

The best way to do this is to mention this option during your kick-off meeting.

Let’s say a client came to you looking for a new website. If you were in a project based situation, you’d build them a website, turn it in, and hope they’d call you again.

But in a retainer situation, you’d manage all aspects of the website

Let’s think about this for a second.

Do most of your clients know that once a website is built there is still more work to be done?

My guess is no.

That’s where you, as the expert, keep them informed about what else needs to be accomplished.

However, you don’t want to overwhelm your client in the early stages since this could turn your deal sour.

Your best way to go about this is to make mention of the retainer during your kick-off meeting and leave it at that. Save the more serious, commitment-focused conversation for

Here’s how you can do this.

People taking notes as they discuss a project

Discuss the idea of a Retainer

Remember, most of the time the client is looking to you for advice, so you’ll need to explain that a retainer can benefit them.

Here’s what you could say:

“Now Mr. Client, I also want to make mention of the fact that once your website is built, it’s a good idea to keep it properly maintained and regularly updated. For this reason, I offer my clients the option of choosing one of my retainer plans. "

With a retainer plan, I would handle all aspects of your website moving forward. This would include things like:

  • Routine maintenance and updates
  • Cosmetic changes
  • Installing new plugins
  • Troubleshooting

Essentially you would be purchasing a set number of hours from me each month, and I would work on whatever tasks your website needs completed for that timeframe. The tasks would vary from month to month, but the amount of hours you receive will remain consistent.

So you’re not overwhelmed, we can revisit the option of a retainer

This is also a good time to mention how much a retainer costs so your client is not surprised once the website is built. At this point, you’ll be able to gauge fairly well if the option of using a retainer is even in their budget.

Mention Retainer Services As You Work

Once you’ve mentioned the option of a retainer, it’s time to set that notion aside unless something specific comes up.

Let’s say you’re working on your client’s e-commerce site, and they start asking questions like, “What happens if my featured product is sold out and I need to change it to a new featured product?” Or, “Will you be able to fix my website if it goes down for some reason?”

These kinds of questions are the perfect opportunity for you to mention that services like those fall under what you consider maintenance services. Instead of your client having to pay per change, a retainer would actually save your client money if they wanted you to do them.

Because your client doesn’t know that they need a retainer, these opportunities can help bridge the gap between needing a retainer and seeing it as an added expense.

As always, the key is striking a balance. You don’t want to harp on the idea of a retainer every chance you get, as that will likely annoy your client, rightfully so.

Rather, use these occasions to educate your client about how a retainer will benefit them in the long run without being a pushy salesmen.

How to Switch Current Clients

You may be thinking, “Well this is all good info for the next new client I meet, but what about the ones I already have? How can this help?”

Great question!

If you currently have clients who should be using a retainer, don’t hesitate to say so.

Spend some time brainstorming why a retainer would benefit them and come up with long-term strategies that you think can help take their project even further.

Next, you’ll want to schedule a phone call, Skype meeting, or in-person visit to discuss all your ideas about how you’ll be able to help them in the future.

Oftentimes, your clients may not even realize that you provide these services. All it takes is a mention and a solid strategy.

Don’t rush through your strategy either. Make sure it’s really going to address their needs and benefit them specifically. Otherwise, you’re wasting both your time and theirs.

And this strategy is not only limited to web design. I’ve also found that it works well for blogging.

Let your client know that you can provide a retainer that includes a consistent number of blog posts each month and additional services such as sharing articles and updating social media posts, just to name a few.

Whatever additional services you can offer with a retainer, the more you can show their value, the easier it will be for your client to say yes.

The heart of creating long-lasting, recurring freelance work is putting your clients' needs first and delivering exceptional work. Once your client sees that both of those are taking place, the notion of switching from a project-based structure to a retainer will be a no-brainer.

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