What exactly is a retainer?

Sent by Jonathan Stark on December 29th, 2016

Tons of folks asked for more information about how my retainers work, so here goes...

What Exactly Is A Retainer?

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:

Common Questions

Here are some common questions:

Q: Do you pick a price based on value?

I used to value price each of my retainer engagement individually but these days I sell it as a productized service - i.e., a fixed scope engagement offered at a published price. The price I set is based on the value that a typical client should expect to receive. There is nothing about a retainer that would prevent you from value pricing each engagement individually. 

Q: 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.

Q: Do you do write code for your retainer clients?

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 fairly rare. If deliverables are ever requested, they’re usually things like a mobile usability report, a system architecture diagram, an interface teardown, and so on. In short: stuff that doesn’t need to be debugged ;-)

Q: How do you manage clients who use the retainer “too much”?

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.

Yours,

—J  

P.S. Retainers are a great example of why hourly billing is nuts -> the relationship is quite profitable for both parties and has nothing at all to do with the amount of time spent.


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