How to Write a Retainer Consulting Proposal

by Corey Pemberton 11 Minutes

As great as client work is, it isn’t without its challenges.

One of the toughest things about freelancing or agency work is the unpredictability. You’re swamped with work one month, and your bank account grows to reflect that. But the next month might mean a drought—hardly any work or checks coming in at all.

Your income might be inconsistent, but your expenses aren’t. Rent, student loan payments, and utility bills come every month. It can be hard to make a budget or plan for them or when you aren’t sure how much money is coming in.

It’s easy to start stressing about when you’ll see that check, wire transfer, or PayPal notification. And anxieties about money aren’t the only obstacles. It’s also hard to schedule new client work when you don’t know what the workload will look like from your current clients.

Ready to overcome those challenges and enjoy some much-needed security and peace of mind?

Writing proposals with a monthly retainer—and submitting them to your best clients—can help. Keep reading to find out how to do it!

Monthly Retainers Can Give You an Income You Can Count on

Instead of never knowing how much money you’ll make each month, wouldn’t it be nice to nail down a fixed amount with your top clients?

It’s possible. A lot of agencies and freelancers are already doing it. They’ve gone from the unpredictability of one-off projects to more secure arrangements: monthly retainers.

Monthly retainers let service providers specify certain tasks or set aside a designated amount of time they’ll be available to a client in exchange for a fixed amount of money.

You get the security you need—and a monthly income you can count on. And the client gets guaranteed access to your services. Done right, it’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Most of the time, monthly retainers don’t just materialize out of thin air though. You have to sell clients on the value of a long-term arrangement… similar to how you have to sell them for one-time projects.

But there are important differences. Strategies that persuade clients to hire you for a one-time project don’t necessarily persuade them to agree to a monthly retainer. You have to package your services and present them in a different way.

How to Sell Clients on Monthly Retainers

Selling clients on monthly retainers is a little more complicated than selling them on one-time projects, but it’s worth the trouble.

Nailing down a retainer agreement or two gives you the stability of a regular paycheck, makes it easier to schedule client work, and saves time you would’ve spent marketing yourself to land new clients.

Interested in approaching your top clients about a retainer arrangement but don’t know where to get started?

Here’s how to do it… 

1. Getting Your Foot in the Door

Getting a new client to agree to a monthly retainer happens about as often as a waiter in Los Angeles becoming an Oscar-winning screenwriter overnight.

Clients are understandably hesitant about agreeing to any long-term deals before they’re 100% confident in you and the value you can deliver. The best way to overcome their skepticism is by demonstrating your expertise in a one-time project.

Proposals are critical with these as well. So if you’re looking to save time and use yours to land more clients, be sure to check out some of our free proposal templates or other articles on the Bidsketch blog.

Win the One-Off Project

This part is self-explanatory. Odds are you won’t get the chance to approach clients about a monthly retainer if you haven’t already established a business relationship with them.

That starts with finding a project that’s a good fit for your skills and submitting a compelling proposal that stands out from all the boring, generic ones they receive.

Once you land the one-off project, you’re in the perfect position to take the relationship to the next level.

Nail the One-Off Project

Submitting monthly retainer consulting proposals is a key part of landing long-term relationships with clients and making your income more consistent…

But even the best proposals in the world won’t get clients agreeing to keep you around if you don’t impress them with the initial work you do.

Once a client hires you for a one-off project (and you think there’s potential for it turning into something more), nail that project. Go out of your way to deliver as much value as you can and wow that client.

Going above and beyond might take longer than it takes other service providers to churn out mediocre work, but it’s worth it. Seizing every opportunity leaves an unforgettable impression. And it will help you with your long-term strategy: turning more one-time jobs into monthly retainers.

Approach the Client about a Retainer

After you’ve shown clients what you can do for them in one or more projects, they’ll be more receptive to a long-term arrangement.

Sometimes a client will be so impressed with your work they’ll approach you about a retainer arrangement directly. That’s what happened to freelancer Lisa Stein. But more often than not, it’ll be up to you to initiate the monthly retainer conversation.

It only takes a quick phone call or email to feel out a client’s interest in a monthly retainer. No hard selling needed. Tell them you’ve been thinking about how a long-term arrangement would help them better accomplish their business goals.

Then, if they’re open to the idea, offer to write up a monthly retainer proposal that lays out everything you’d provide—and the value of working with you on a long-term basis.

2. Coming up with an Ongoing Service

It’s easy for a client to understand why you’d prefer a monthly retainer. You’ll get stable work, a set schedule, and a secure paycheck.

But what’s in it for the client can be less obvious.

What happens when you approach a client about a retainer and they ask you, “Why should I hire you monthly instead of as needed? What’s in it for me?” There are the types of questions on most clients’ minds.

Failing to identify their long-term value—and convey it in a compelling way—is one of the biggest sticking points stopping freelancers from getting the retainer work they want.

For some types of client work, the transition to a monthly retainer comes naturally…

SEO experts can continue to build backlinks and stay abreast of search engine algorithm updates in order to keep their clients’ businesses ranking well. And it makes sense for a PR firm to monitor and manage press about a client on an ongoing basis.

But what about other service providers like designers, developers, and marketers who handle mostly one-time projects? They can land monthly retainers as well… if they’re willing to get a little creative.

Turning One-Off Projects into Retainer Agreements in “Difficult” Industries

If you’re working in a niche where it’s mostly one project after another, you can still enjoy the security of a monthly retainer arrangement with your best clients.

The key is getting clear about why it’s worth it to keep you around instead of seeking out a new service provider whenever they need work done.

How?

For one thing, your time spent helping the client with their one-time project has familiarized you with their unique needs, workflow, and business goals. Working with you again will save them time because you already have a base level of knowledge…

And continuing to work with you going forward will save even more time; you’ll become increasingly efficient. That’s a good point to emphasize when you’re looking for a retainer. If a client agrees to X hours per month, they’ll get more and more value from you because you’ll be able to work faster with an intimate knowledge of their business.

Another thing that help you land retainer arrangements in “difficult” industries is offering complementary and related services. If you’re a web designer, for instance, you could offer to help a client out with basic technical support and website maintenance. Marketers could also offer to create content designed to get leads. And so on.

Your biggest friends are a familiarity with the client’s unique situation and packaged or bundles deals.

Offering Ongoing Services: Examples

Here are a few ideas to get you started landing more monthly retainers in the marketing, web design, and web development industries:

Marketing

  • Regular consulting sessions
  • Emergency consulting sessions (for product launches, PR issues, etc.)
  • Interviewing target customers to gather feedback and develop customer profiles
  • Ongoing competitive research to identify new opportunities in the client’s niche
  • Ongoing management of the client’s social media platform and/or PPC campaigns
  • Inbound marketing packages (blog posts, social media posts, emails, etc.)
  • Split-testing, tracking, and optimizing the client’s website for conversions
  • Benchmark reporting

Design

  • Minor design and layout updates
  • Regular design consulting sessions
  • “Design audits” to spot ideas to improve UX and conversions of client’s website
  • Conducting surveys on the client’s website for ideas to improve functionality
  • Integrating the design into marketing materials, social media profiles, etc.
  • Ongoing technical support covering minor issues (such as using the CMS)
  • Regular reporting to cover how design changes impact key performance metrics

Development

  • Ongoing maintenance and upgrades
  • Emergency on-call technical support to handle bugs, crashes, etc.
  • Training sessions to empower the client’s team to use custom functionality
  • Regular consulting sessions
  • Performance audits to assess the client’s website
  • Security audits to assess the vulnerability of the client’s website to threats
  • Regular benchmark reporting

3. Representing That Service in Your Monthly Retainer Proposal

Once you’ve decided which of your services would benefit the client long term, it’s time to win the client over with a monthly retainer proposal.

A solid proposal won’t just help convince a client to hire you. It also lays out a procedure about the work you’ll be doing every month, when and how the client should pay, what it takes to cancel the retainer, and more.

That probably sounds like a lot of details to handle up front. But the better you can iron these out before a retainer begins, the smoother it will be once you get started.

Here are some important things to keep in mind…

Set Client Expectations Early

A client hiring you to redesign a website has a pretty good idea of what to expect. It’s a one-time thing, and it usually isn’t a problem to straighten out any differences if you aren’t on the same page.

But what if that same client signed a monthly retainer where you agreed to provide minor design updates and ongoing technical support? What do “minor design updates” mean? Are you or them the one who should be working out that glitch with their web host?

Like weeds in a garden, it’s easy for clients’ expectations to grow out of control over the course of long-term project. Because they’ve reserved a chunk of your time, some clients start to think they’re entitled to work you had no intention of doing.

You give in a little here and there, and it becomes a pattern. Eventually you find yourself doing twice as much work as you anticipated.

The best way to keep this from happening is to stop it before it begins. Spell out exactly what a client can expect from you each month.

This could be in the form of a list of work deliverables. Here’s how that might look for a web designer offering to provide ongoing website maintenance:

  • Minor updates to XYZ Company’s website design, at client’s request
  • Regular updates to WordPress content management system and related plugins to keep XYZ Company’s website fast and functional
  • Technical support via email and Skype to help XYZ Company’s team use WordPress and their email marketing platform, AWeber
  • Monthly meeting with XYZ Company to discuss ideas for improving website design and to deliver an analytics report detailing work accomplished that month

Or you could specify a maximum amount of hours you’ll reserve for work with that client each month. Deciding to work hourly or by the project is a personal decision that depends on your niche and the type of work you’ll be doing.

Regardless if you frame your deliverables as a list of services or a set number of hours, define your terms. “One weekly blog post” could mean a 500-word post or a 2,500-word one. Don’t leave it up to interpretation, and it won’t come back to haunt you later.

Get It All in Writing

One-time projects are usually pretty straightforward. You do the work you agreed to do, and the client pays you a lump sum or over the course of a few project milestones. Then you’re done.

Monthly retainers can get more complicated than that. But you can avoid potential complications by being thorough about work and payment procedure in your proposal.

It takes some work up front, but it saves a lot of time and trouble later on. And it helps manage clients’ expectations and keep them happy when everything is running smoothly.

In one of our other articles, Greg Ciotti ran down an excellent bullet-point list of what to get in writing for your monthly retainer proposals. Here’s an excerpt from the relevant section:

  • The amount you’re to receive each month
  • The date you’re to be paid by
  • Any invoicing procedures you’re expected to follow
  • Exactly how much work and what type of work you expect to do
  • When your client needs to let you know about the month’s work by
  • What notification you need before the retainer relationship can be ended
  • Anything else that is relevant for ensuring that work is completed in a timely fashion

The last thing you want to do is a solid month of work only to run into a payment issue with a client. It’s worth the trouble to take care of these potentially thorny issues up front.

Include Accountability or Regular Reporting

We all know what happens when you start dating someone…

Every moment is special. You appreciate every little thing he or she does. And you can’t wait to go out again. Time can wear away at that sense of excitement, though; the longer you see someone, the easier it is to take them for granted.

A healthy approach to monthly retainers is to “sell the client one month at a time.” Successful proposals win you the chance to help a client that first month. But your work after that determines whether the relationship will continue. The sales process never ends.

Adding a regular accountability or reporting element is a great way to justify the work you did that month and re-sell the client on continuing the retainer arrangement.

Here’s how a reporting element might look in a marketing agency’s monthly retainer proposal:

ABC Agency will meet with XYZ Company’s team once a month to deliver analytics reports detailing the impact of ABC Agency’s marketing initiatives in terms of new website visitors, email subscribers, and customers.

ABC Agency’s team will field questions and gather input from XYZ Company’s team, as well as offer recommendations to make marketing initiatives more profitable based on research of XYZ Company’s competitors, industry, and any product developments.

Give Clients (and Yourself) an Easy Way out

Some agencies and freelancers get aggressive about “locking in” retainer agreements for a quarter, a year, or even longer. It’s understandable; they want stability and the ability to plan their business. But it’s unnecessary, and it scares away good clients.

There’s no need to try to get clients to commit to a long-term retainer agreement. It’s counterintuitive, but giving clients an easy way out of retainers actually encourages them to stick around.

A retainer that’s renewable every month works like a guarantee. It shows clients you’re so confident in the value of your long-term services you’ll let them leave freely if they’re unhappy. And it makes it easier for you to get out if the arrangement turns sour.

The language for the process to cancel the retainer might look like this:

This agreement will renew automatically at the end of each month unless either XYZ Company or ABC Agency provides written notice of cancelation. Either party can terminate the agreement for any reason with 30 (thirty) days advance written notice to cancel. If XYZ Company does not provide proper notice the month it intends to cancel, retainer fees are due in full for that month.

Spell out What Will Happen if the Workload is More or Less Than Anticipated

With monthly retainers, your client’s demands will fluctuate from month to month. They might have a ton of you to do in January, but hardly anything in February. The only way to know for sure is to wait and see.

That’s why it’s a good idea to spell out what will happen if the workload is lighter or heavier than anticipated.

What if the client assigns you 40 hours of work when you’ve only agreed to 25 that month? What if they only need one blog article instead of the four you agreed to write? Your monthly retainer proposal is the perfect place to figure these things out.

An easy way to handle this: set the monthly payment you agreed to as the “floor” or minimum payment the client will make regardless of the work load. Then you can set out what will happen with payment if the workload exceeds the amount of tasks (or hours) you agreed to work each month.

An example might go like this:

XYZ Company agrees to pay a fixed amount of $1,500 (fifteen hundred dollars) per month. This amount retains ABC Agency for up 20 (twenty) hours of online marketing consulting per month. Any additional time ABC Agency works for XYZ Company during the month will be billed at $75 (seventy five dollars) an hour, invoiced at the end of the monthly period, and payable by the 10th business day of the following month.

It’s good business sense to give clients a heads up when they’re getting close to the maximum work you agreed that month. It helps them plan their budget, and it also shows them you’re genuinely interested in what’s best for them (instead of just inflating your monthly bill).

Get the Financial Stability You Deserve

Even if you’re working in an industry dominated by one-time projects, you can convince some of your best clients to keep you around month after month.

The key is proving yourself in a one-time project, packaging your services in a way that makes sense for the long haul, and sealing the deal with a monthly retainer proposal.

The worst thing a client can do is say “no.” And the rewards—regular income, security, and –are more than worth it!

Have you ever convinced clients to sign monthly retainers? If you haven’t, what do you think is holding you back? If you have, why do you think you succeeded? Leave a comment below and let me know!

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by Corey Pemberton
Corey Pemberton is a freelance copywriter and blogger who helps small businesses and software startups get more traffic and conversions online. You can find him on his website or follow him on Twitter.