How my retainers work...

Sent by Jonathan Stark on September 23rd, 2016

Reader Jason K wrote in to ask:

Hi Jonathan,

Started reading the book and enjoying the emails — a quick question about retainers. I’ve done these before, usually based on hours (erk) per month etc. You mention “picking brains” and 24/7 — so how does this work in practice for you — as I’m interested in this approach.

— do you pluck a number based on value? — do you answer the phone / email / comms outside of normal hours and weekends? — do you do dev work for that time or just consultancy? — how do you manage “too much” — does it balance out or do they take the piss?

Great question, thanks Jason!

The word retainer is used differently by different people. Here’s the specific definition I use in my coaching program:

A specific type of productized service where you offer your clients access to your expertise on a subscription basis - typically monthly but sometimes quarterly or even annually. A client asks you a question over an agreed upon channel (e.g., phone, email, Basecamp, Slack, etc) and you answer within an agreed upon time frame (e.g., “within 90 minutes for requests made during business hours, next business day for after hours requests”). Think of it as a hotline to your brain.

Here’s what my retainer is NOT:

To answer Jason’s questions specifically:

— do you pluck a number based on value?

No. It’s a fixed scope productized service that I offer at a published price. You can see an example on my mobile consulting website here.

— do you answer the phone / email / comms outside of normal hours and weekends?

Yes, but it’s extremely rare to get a request outside of business hours. My retainer is only of value to folks who are fairly high up in successful organizations. They typically don’t have time to ping me at night or on weekends.

— do you do dev work for that time or just consultancy?

No. I explicitly DO NOT author shipping code in a retainer engagement. I might do a proof of concept to determine feasibility, but that’s pretty rare. If deliverables are ever requested, they’re usually things like a mobile usability report, a system architecture diagram, an interface teardown, an so on. In short: stuff that doesn’t need to be debugged ;-)

— how do you manage “too much” — does it balance out or do they take the piss?

I don’t know what “take the piss” means but I think I understand the overall question :)

I have never once felt overwhelmed in the slightest by a retainer client. I can do two or three of them concurrently. Busy people are busy - they don’t have time to bug me for no good reason. When they have a question, they want an answer pretty quickly. When they don’t, I don’t hear from them. I’ve had five-figures per month retainer clients go for months at a time without contacting me.

Retainers are a great example of why hourly billing is nuts.

The relationship is wildly profitable for both parties and has nothing at all to do with the amount of time spent.

Yours,

—J


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