The Three Characteristics of Retainer Work

I recently saw a freelancer ask “What characterizes your client retainer packages?”

And I get it. Some clients only use your services for a month and then come back two months later. Wouldn’t it have just been easier to stick with you every month?

If you worked on retainer you’d move away from $500 one-time gigs to $5,000 projects.

With the extra income you wouldn’t have to put life plans on hold. Like starting to save to purchase a house.

Retainers are nice because you get paid to be kept on a project indefinitely.

But what kind of work needs to be done to justify a retainer? Retainer work has three characteristics:

  1. It’s indefinite.
  2. It provides consistent value.
  3. It’s Irreplaceable.

It’s Indefinite

For all the retainers I’ve worked on there was never an end to the work.

In one instance a client was trying to secure funding. Since their investors wanted a more mature application, the list of feature requests never ended.

For another client, our team replaced an entire development department. Once we completed one internal application we moved onto the next one.

You see, I wasn’t just filling an empty chair. I was doing work that produced results. Clients kept me on retainer because they could see consistent, tangible value from my work.

The client could see consistent, tangible value from my work.

This brings us to the second characteristic of retainer work.

It Provides Consistent Value

I’ve mentioned before that I have a desire to never do anything related to yard work.

Despite telling multiple lawn maintenance companies this statement I’ve had to go through four different companies. Four!

The fourth company, Ashton Landscaping, has been perfect. They come every week and handle everything related to our lawn: pulling weeds, cutting grass, aerating the lawn, blowing leaves, etc.

They key lessons to take away from my favorite lawn maintenance company are:

  1. The work is at least monthly. I see them every Friday. If it rains, they make up the work on the weekend. In the fall they start to cut the grass monthly. Anything beyond a month and a retainer wouldn’t make sense.
  2. The work is tangible. How do I know they’re doing good work? I can actually see my lawn being cut.

Ashton’s services have been so good they were even able to upsell us on a backyard patio with pavers! Now it may seem like I’m gushing over my landscaping company but there is a point. After going through the other three crappy services. I’m going to stick with Ashton.

Which brings me to my last point, I stick with Ashton because in my mind no other landscaping service can replace their services.

It’s Irreplaceable

Earlier I mentioned that one client chose to pay our premium rates instead of hiring their own dev team.

This wasn’t from a lack of trying. And we tried to help them! We had them buy a booth at RailsConf, wrote the perfect web developer job description, and started evangelizing their projects and technology stack on Twitter.

Despite all of that they continued to choose us over hiring. Why?

They said they couldn’t find the right talent, but it was deeper than that. We were getting the work done.

Hiring someone and training them would mean a delay in projects that had internal deadlines. So they ate the extra costs.

Retainer work isn’t limited to developers. I used to have a Virtual Assistant on retainer to handle my weekly billing. I have a copy editor on retainer to make sure I don’t sound dumb in these articles.

I’ve seen designers on retainer to help design new marketing assets each month and offer small site tweaks with after monthly A/B testing.

The opportunities are there. You’ve just got to spot the patterns.

Remember, retainer work must

  1. Be indefinite.
  2. Provide consistent – monthly, tangible – value.
  3. Be irreplaceable.

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