January 19, 2021

Reader question: “What exactly is a monthly retainer?”

Fellow list member Matthieu Napoli wrote in to ask a question about my monthly retainers (shared with permission):

Hi Jonathan,

That is super interesting, thank you for sharing!

I am wondering what is a monthly retainer though? I’m french, it may be a translation problem or maybe that’s a concept that doesn’t exist in my country (though I sell consulting services internationally so I’m interested).

What do you sell? What do you do?

I’m guessing you don’t sell development. Is that like “support”, but support of what?

(PS: I am in the software development/audit/training business as well)

Thanks a lot!


For years, advisory retainers were responsible for the vast majority of my income. They are a fabulous way to deliver high amounts of value on a subscription basis with a relatively low time commitment. I could (should?) probably write an entire book on retainers, and you can read a bunch of articles on the subject here.


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

A specific type of productized service where you offer your clients 24/7 access to your advice 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:

Some common questions:

Q: Do you price retainers based on value?

I have value-priced retainers in the past, but I gave it up because it increases the marketing and sales effort. Eventually I switched to a fixed scope productized service that I offer at a published price.

Q: Do you write proposals for retainer engagements?

No, the sales page functioned as the proposal. I’d usually get an email from a prospect, set up a meeting, maybe tweak the offering slightly based on their specific needs (e.g., how much travel, access for additional client contacts, etc).

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 dev work for that time or just consultancy?

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.

Q: How do you manage it when the client demands too much of your time?

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.

Got any more questions about retainers? Hit reply and let me know :-)