How to setup a retainer program

"How do I setup a retainer program?"

"How do I find clients for retainers?"

"What do I price my retainers at?"

"Do you do hourly retainers or by project?"


Deep Breath y'all.

So retainers are far and away my most frequent email I get. Some from clients, but the majority is from people wanting to implement a retainer model into their business but don't even know where to begin. Retainer Programs are actually my most popular page and has been for 2 years lol. I probably have a sit-down/phone call at least once a month with designers, photographers, consultants, you name it, but with people wanting to know what I did, how I did it, and what advice I have for them in their situation. So I'm going to layout the foundation that will probably answer most of your questions of how I do my retainers that I think can apply to just about any industry. And with the tips below, you'll be able to see some of the mistakes I made early on and how its evolved.

Let's start with what a retainer program truly is. Because your definition is what sets up the entire process for you and your clients expectations. 

Knowing time is everything for a retainer


For me and my business, this is how I have it (para) phrased on my site

A retainer fee is a monthly fee. Its perfect for those who know they will need professional services throughout the year and want to reserve a professional's (aka your) time.

Now this is the important part. 

Since its purpose is to retain the professional, it is paid up front each month before work is ordered. Essentially, you are "pre-ordering" time versus a service. Since I will anticipate  a preset number of hours of work from you, I will block out my schedule with the appropriate time each month. This gives me the ability to plan my workload accordingly. Which gives you the certainty of a pre-established amount of work each month without having to worry about what else is "in the queue" ahead of you. Its more efficient for all involved. 

So a couple of key take aways from that, because this lays out the entire foundation of how my retainers work and I think yours should too to avoid burnout. You as a business owner should know how much availability you have each week and each month to take on retainers. This is 100% your responsibility. If you have clients knocking at your door and keep taking them on, which is a great problem to'll quickly get overwhelmed, do shitty work, and hit burn out real quick. So the key here is to much free time you have since the retainer is essentially reserving your time each month, and your client needs to understand that. 

I drive this point home, because its the key to having some semblance of work/life balance - which is pretty high on my priority list - and I think should be on everyones. If you balance this right, you'll be happy, you'll have happy clients, produce great work, and live happily every after. If you don't you'll straight up be this within 3 months. #TRUST


So step 1 (if you don't know already) track your time on how long it will take you to complete the tasks your retainer service is for so you can plan accordingly. 

Now I setup my retainers two ways - by time OR by output of work each month (which I'm honestly leaning towards more and more because time tracking gets old real quick). The difference being one I have to actually track my time for, the other is just a guarantee of how much work will be done each month. For example:

  1. a 10 hour retainer for the month
  2. Or my monthly responsibilities include 1 photoshoot and editing photos, 2 newsletter designs, 10 social graphics, + curating content and posting 1x each day for 2 social channels

So if I was just tracking time, say 10 hours each month, then I would just track my time and turn in a time sheet at the end of the month. Or I can just do what is outlined in my contract of what I will fulfill and thats that. 

I can do option 2 because I've been doing this for a hot minute and know how long tasks will take. Some clients may prefer option 1, but most are fine with option 2 because trust has already been established. Which brings me to my next point on how to successfully run retainers...

I only do retainers for clients I've already worked with.


Stick to this rule, just trust me on this one. I've been there and I know what you're thinking. You'll chat on the phone or have a meeting with a new client, and well I mean, they're just so nice and friendly, you really like their mission and seem like  such a joy to work with, and what harm could it be, I mean, you really like them so lets just get a contract signed, because you need the money and blah blah blah. And before you know it, you've pulled into crazy town with a client having no respect for boundaries and where in the world did that nice lady go that I talked to a few weeks back?

I get that its tempting when there's money dangling in front of you, to want to basically put a contractual ring on it. But just do a trial run first. You can do the same amount of work you'd do in a retainer, just do it for an hourly rate for 2 months (because month one, you'll basically just be getting your feet wet since you know nothing about their business so month two is when things will start to get real...real quick). In fact, this might be a good trial run to see if your time estimate will be off or not and it gives you a chance to see how well you and the client work together. 

You do not want to be locked into a 6 month commitment with some one you can't stand to work with. You're not freelancing and working for yourself to be miserable every day. If that was the case you could just go get your old job back. This is one of the perks of being the pick what you do and who you do it with. So while the money may be nice, not having to deal with crappy clients is better.


Now usually people are pretty nice, and conflict can exist because of a lack of process or miscommunication...which can be easily fixed. But those are things you'll want to fix before a retainer starts, hence your trial run. Otherwise you'll be spending a lot more than your allotted hours on that client and then all this time management and tracking and planning is pretty pointless when a 10 hour retainer turns into a 20 hour retainer. 

Unused Time does not Roll Over


I feel like this is pretty self explanatory given how I've beaten to death the concept of time management, but in case its not clear...the client pre-pays for time, therefore you carve out that time. Which means you should be *hopefully* filling up your remaining time with other client work. 

So if the client doesn't have their act together enough to give you their projects for you to execute on, and the time isn't close to being used up, it does not roll over to the next month because that defeats the entire point of a time managed retainer. They can't have a 10 hour retainer reserved, only used half, and then expect you to make that up next month. Why? Because you my friend are going to be crushing it and only allotted them 10 hours and filled up your remaining time with other work and thats not fair to you to  kill yourself because they don't have their act together. Which is yet another reason why I like retainers that are based on project load of work rather than time. Because then its clear from the get-go whats going to happen each month instead of filling up time if they don't have enough projects listed. Which brings me to...

The client needs to be organized and available enough to put you on retainer


And believe it or not, this is the tricky part. Not the time, not the contract, not finding clients...its making sure the client is the right client to be on a retainer. Because while yes, you are coming into the picture to make their life easier, this will still require some work on their end, at least for a little bit, and they have to be willing and able to fulfill their end of the retainer. 

Now if you're lucky enough to work for a larger company and have an official point of contact that will communicate everything to you, then this probably doesn't apply to you and you should be fine. But for those who work with smaller businesses like me...this is actually the hard part.

Because for you to really help them, you have to learn their business, their process, their goals, and mission, learn whats missing and what needs to be done. You're here to add value and take things off their plate. And in order to do that, they have to communicate with you beyond "I need a flier to go to print at Kinkos tonight."

They need to give you work to do and bring you up to speed until you get to the point where you can just do it yourself without even having to bother them.  They have to be able to communicate in a timely manner. 

They have to have the ability and time to delegate.

And that can be hard to find in a small business, either because they're so used to being in control of everything, because this business is their baby, which I totally get and/or because...they don't know how. 

Sounds silly I know, but anyone who's managed people and/or projects can tell you, its harder than it looks. Because to be an effective have to have your shit together. To delegate properly, you have to be ready for meetings and be organized, and have be able to multi-task timelines to make sure everything will be done on time and you're not killing your team to get things done. This also ties back into perfectly my rant about working together before a retainer is introduced. 

See, unless you have a client who has the mindset "do what you want, just make me look good online,"  (and yes they exist...I have two of them...also goes back to the working together before we did a retainer and trust has been established), you'll need them to tell you what you can help them with. If you're in HR, you need to understand their business model and where roles are lacking, if you're a photographer shooting for a store, you need to understand past shoots and what worked/didn't work for their products and what their style can't be left to guess and just fill in the blank.

A perfect example of all of this rolled into one horrible situation:

  • You start a retainer with a client you've never worked with for X hours per month.
  • You don't hear from them for 2 weeks.
  • You reach out on week 3 and still nothing. 
  • Week 4 rolls around and then they finally send you X hours of work to do and want it done tonight because they bought that much time and the month is almost over.
  • You can't do that because that is ridiculous and you have other projects as well.
  • They're pissed.
  • You're pissed.
  • You resent working with them.
  • You squash it and decide to start fresh next month.
  • They're a little bit better this month, but ask "hey, that unused time from last month, that goes towards this one right?"
  • There's no way you can do that, because you have filled your month to capacity because you have bills to pay. 
  • They're pissed
  • You're pissed.
  • Repeat.

Makes me break into a full body sweat just thinking about it. 

You can easily figure out a lot of the mistakes I made when I first launched a retainer by these tips. I was broke, needed money, and took whatever came my way and thought my "ideal client profile" was something I'd worry about later when I was "making it." So I took on anyone who wanted me and within 6 weeks wanted to pull my hair out. Don't be that person. 

I know there's tons more to retainers from pricing to lead generation to software to manage it all, and I'll try to get that into another post and not take 3 years to write it. But I hope you find his helpful. If you ever have any other questions, feel free to message me anytime! And if you'd like to  setup a call to discuss your situation in more detail, you can do so here. 

I hope you find this info and some of my past mistakes helpful :) Make sure to follow me on IG for more behind the scenes and business tips!