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How to Land Freelance Retainer Projects (and Set Them Up for Success)

Below, we've shared our top tips for landing retainer projects and ensuring that they result in success.

The freelancing world is full of people who get paid and work differently from one another. Some might charge by the hour while others charge by the project, all ultimately leading to their desired rate in some form.

A retainer, an all-inclusive price for a detailed scope of work for a specific amount of time, is a form of payment for projects that can be the most beneficial for freelancers. They're sort of like a freelancer's version of a reliable paycheck, because they lock freelancers and clients into a contract for, typically, a few months.

Tips for Getting Retainer Projects

Retainers aren't always easy to land. But if you want to make the most of your freelancing career, you should make them a necessary part of your business strategy. The following tips can help you get more retainer clients and structure your retainers for success:

Tip #1: Schedule a Phone Call to Discuss Each Project

Phone calls are a legitimate pain point for some freelancers, especially the more introverted freelancers, who prefer conversations with clients via email, Skype, or some other digital means. But the power of a phone call when it comes to closing retainers isn't something to ignore.

Speaking over the phone to potential clients gives you a chance to sell yourself more than you can in an email. You'll have the opportunity to sound more personal, explain what you can do, and outline how a retainer might work for their project.

After having an initial conversation with a client through email, suggest a phone call to help you both go deeper into your goals and convince the client that a retainer is the best, most cost-effective option for their business.

Tip #2: Offer Related Services

Most business owners would prefer to hire one person who can do ten related things than ten people who do those related tasks separately. It's easier to pay one person a large check each month than ten people smaller checks. The more skills you can group into your package of services, the better your chances for landing a retainer.

Suppose you're a writer who specializes in blogging for health-focused companies. However, you also know SEO, social media, and lead generation. Marketing yourself as a health content creator who offers all those services will likely get you more retainer business from clients who want a go-to person for it all, solely for the convenience.

Tip #3: Offer Customized Package Options Tailored to Each Client

No two businesses are the same, so you can't offer the same package to each client you speak with. Your retainer might look entirely different for two clients for the same month, and that's totally normal.

After speaking with a client and getting a good idea of what they need, you should draw up a few retainer packages for them to choose from with a range of prices you're comfortable with.

By giving them options, you're not saying "This is what I offer; deal with it." Instead, you're saying, "Here is what I can do for you; I want you to have the best options possible for your business goals."

Tip #4: Give a Discount

Since you'll be getting steady work from clients on retainers, you might consider dropping your regular costs slightly in favor of scoring that retainer.

You don't need to drop your rates much, either. Simply show your client that, although the services you're offering would typically work out to about $1,000, for example, separately, the retainer saves them about $50.

That $50 might be enough to convince your client to go for the retainer while your benefit of getting reliable, consistent work far outweighs losing $50.

Also consider a monthly subscription for your services with slight discounts for long-term subscriptions, like 3 or 6 months, versus monthly.

Tip #5: Make the Contract Process Easy

Contracts can be frustrating for both clients and freelancers but can get even more confusing with retainers. In a retainer contract, you'll need to be specific about the payment structure, scope, and length of work involved in your retainer, making sure both parties are on the same page.

You should also include a way for both of you to end the contract early, just in case the project isn't working out as you'd planned. Retainers are excellent for long-term work, but locking a client in for several months without a backup plan isn't going to make them jump at the chance to hire you.

Have all contracts ready to go during the onboarding process and use an online service like HelloSign to let your client sign them on the web for convenience.

Setting Up Retainers for Success

Now that we understand how to negotiate retainers with clients, I'll give some tips to ensure that you're able successfully deliver on your retainer project, and exceed your client's expectations.

Tip #1: Outline a Detailed Scope for the Project

One of the biggest mistakes a freelancer can make when setting up a retainer contract is leaving out important details that make a retainer work. Retainers involve more than just doing one or two tasks for X amount of dollars. Instead, they consist of an inclusive project in which both parties should agree on significant to minor details.

Your conversation with the client and the contract you draw up can include some of the following key elements:

  • When the client should pay for the work, how, and how much
  • Specific project deliverables and a schedule for delivery
  • Number of revisions allowed for your retainer price
  • Ownership of the deliverables in a project
  • Reimbursable expenses
  • Helpful assets from the client, like imagery, logos, or interviews
  • Terms for extending and canceling the contract

Tip #2: Break the Project into Pieces

It usually serves both you and the client best if you focus on breaking a retainer project into deliverables for the client to review as you complete them. This can also help you maintain a flow for the project by breaking it up into digestible deadlines.

Say you've landed a retainer for social media and email marketing for three months. Breaking the project into weekly milestones can keep your project moving fluidly, give the client a chance to review each week's work and make tweaks as necessary, and ensure that you keep your work on track.

You can outline a specific schedule in your contract for all deliverables after talking it over with your client.

Tip #3: Get a Portion Paid Up Front

No matter how you choose to break up your retainer into manageable pieces, you should always insist on getting a portion of your retainer price up front. Generally, asking for 50% of the retainer's cost before you begin work is a proper way to ensure that the client is ready to pay and move forward with your service.

You might want to include in your contract that the 50% portion is non-refundable, as it is essentially a deposit for your services.

Tip #4: Avoid Making the Retainer Too Long-Term

The most successful retainers typically last for three to six months because it's not too long of a commitment for most people. Most clients will want to make sure you're the right person for the job on a short-term basis first before agreeing to work with you for longer.

Shorter retainers can benefit you, too, because you might also learn that a client isn't the best fit for you. You can always extend a contract or draw up a long-term contract after the first one concludes if you and your client agree that you're a good match for one another's business.

Retainers act as insurance for steady work, so it's always best to work toward closing in on a retainer instead of a short-term project. Once you get your first one or two retainers under your belt, you'll feel more confident in asking for them, so keep moving toward that goal!

Bruce Hogan

Bruce Hogan is Co-founder & CEO of SoftwarePundit. He leads the team's research and publishes content about software products and trends. Bruce has experience investing at multi-billion dollar private equity firms, leading teams at venture-backed technology companies, and launching new businesses. You can connect with Bruce on LinkedIn.

Bruce is an expert in several software categories including:

  • Dental software
  • Mental health software
  • SEO software
  • Social media software

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