Why Retainer-Based Services Are the Best Option for You and Your Clients

By Kit Lewis
Content Manager
Apr 7 2022 read

Some months you’re riding the cash wave and some months you’re scrambling to make sure all client payments are coming in on time. This is familiar to many in the professional service business, as you frequently rely on project-based income. When one project ends, you’re thrown back into the cycle of searching for your next client, and your next paycheck.

For some businesses, this routine may be manageable, but for a small service business looking to grow and scale, this unpredictability can be detrimental. Companies planning on future growth need to create a business plan with clear goals and budgets, but that is nearly impossible when revenue is up and down month to month.  

Steadier income sources provide your business with more consistency and some much-needed predictability to set you up for more sustainable success. 

Shifting your payment structure to retainer-based can help create the stability you need, and eliminating the need to constantly search for your next client will give you additional time to take on high-return projects when they arise. 

With more time and security to focus on your current clients, the client benefits, and so do you.

In this article, we’ll cover:

Types of Retainers

There are two basic types of retainers and how you select one will depend heavily on the individual needs of your client and the type of relationship you have built with that client. 

Let’s review the basic retainer types, and what is expected from you, to help prepare for choosing the right retainer agreement with a new or existing client.

Pay-for-work retainer

In a pay-for-work retainer, you bill your client regularly and get paid before doing the project. Somewhat similar to project-based payment, in that the type of work you are helping with will be outlined, this type of retainer has a clear definition of what is needed from you and your services. 

This model works well when you have clients who require you to do the same type of work each month and the agreed upon retainer fee is paid before each period of work.

For example, your client needs their social media planned and managed every month with recommendations for strategies and tactics to improve. Prior to your work starting, you and the client determine how many hours this task will require and then you enter into a monthly fee agreement. 

This agreement includes clear parameters on the work you will need to produce, the time it will take and the recurring fee the client will pay during the agreement period.

Pay-for-access retainer

A pay-for-access retainer gives your clients access to use your time and expertise when they need you. In this case, the client’s retainer fee is paying for your advice, rather than project implementation or recurring tasks. 

This retainer type is most common for experienced consultants and requires that a client sees tremendous value in your expertise. The clients are paying to have access to your professional opinion and decision-making skills and they often will need to have great trust in your abilities before agreeing to this type of retainer. 

Because of this, strong client relationships are a requirement and entering into a pay-for-access retainer is often a decision made with a long-time client who trusts you and your expertise, not a client you’ve just started working with.

For example, you may have worked with a client for multiple years and offered advice that helped them successfully grow their business. There is trust between you and the client, and they have determined that having access to your expertise is a top priority. This type of long-term client relationship would be the perfect time to introduce a pay-for-access retainer. 

When starting this type of agreement, the retainer fee gives your client access to you and your knowledge in exchange for dollars, but to make sure you can meet client expectations, and so they feel they’re getting their money’s worth, you will need to build parameters into your agreement. These could include:

  • Outlining the methods for communication (phone, email, meetings, etc.)
  • Identifying the client contact(s) that you will work with
  • Setting a limit on the number of calls per period and setting a time limit per call
  • Being clear about carrying unused calls over to the following month

Key Benefits of Retainers

As we discussed earlier, retainers can provide benefits to both you and your clients. Whether you’re unsure about making the switch to retainer-based services, or your clients are, here are just a few reasons a retainer can lead to more successful business outcomes for you and your clients alike.

When hiring a professional service provider on retainer, clients will: 

  • Receive better support. Working with an expert who knows and understands the client’s business leads to better quality and increased client satisfaction.
  • Save time. By entering into a retainer agreement, the client doesn’t need to research and find a new service provider for each project, saving time and effort that can be spent on other projects.
  • Save money. Having a predictable expense will make budgeting easier for clients, and a retainer agreement will eliminate the cost of onboarding a new service provider every time they begin a new project.

Retainer-based services support your firm’s ability to:

  • Create a predictable income stream. A straightforward, recurring billing process gives your firm a clearer outlook on the profitability of your business.
  • Stop the constant search for new clients. You won't have to worry about the distraction of finding, pitching to and onboarding new clients. Instead, you can put all your focus on supporting your clients’ needs.
  • Budget for time. With clients having you on retainer, you can easily plan your team’s activities and manage your schedule. Having some predictability in your schedule will make it easier to manage your time and plan ahead.
  • Understand your clients’ needs. Focusing your time to get to know your clients and their long-term goals and issues will lead to better quality work and more satisfied clients.

Consultants and clients can do better work when using retainers. The additional time to understand a clients’ challenges and goals allows for a strong, trusting, client-provider partnership to form.

The benefits are clear and you’re ready to make the switch, but how does your business get started? And how do you find the clients who want to enter this type of agreement? Let’s discuss some tried-and-true methods for marketing your retainer-based services.

READ NEXT: Retainer Management: It's More Than Recurring Tasks

3 Methods To Successfully Sell Retainers

Even if you’re just getting started with retainers, you don’t need to start from scratch. Connecting with current clients and finding the right time to approach the idea is key. Let’s cover three proven ways for selling retainer-based services that can set your firm up for success.

  1. Approach a current client AFTER a successful project is completed. Timing is everything, and at the end of a successful project you’ve just proven your value. After working with the client on this project, you know their business needs and can write an attention-grabbing proposal identifying their need for ongoing work.
  2. Email your current client list with the opportunity to switch to a new agreement. If you have emails from current or past project-based clients, send an email explaining the benefits of using your retainer-based fee as opposed to buying one-off projects. Make a compelling case and clients will see the value for their business and their budget.
  3. Promote retainer fees to new clients. Even if you have existing clients, when your company is growing you’re likely still looking for more. As you connect with potential new clients, offer a discovery session for a small fee so you can demonstrate your expertise and so potential clients can get to know you. Building trust before entering into a long-term agreement is a crucial first step.

How To Manage Retainers

Managing multiple retainers can be extremely demanding when done manually. Searching through emails, balancing client needs and managing multiple agreements can require a lot of time, and will ultimately distract you from the work your clients are paying you to do. Finding a tool that can automate the administrative work lets you focus on providing value to your clients and building the trust you’ll need to maintain those relationships.  

Before you start your platform search, learn why it's important to find one that does more than create recurring tasks.


About the Author


Kit Lewis is a Content Manager at Accelo, where she manages content projects, social media and content reporting. With a decade of writing for industries ranging from education to tech, past experience supporting client work and a commitment to building efficient systems, she is passionate about creating valuable content to help professional services teams.

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