January 21, 2021

Another reader follow-up: “What exactly is a monthly retainer?”

Fellow list member Fred Gutierrez wrote in with a follow-up regarding my recent message about monthly advisory retainers (shared with permission, edited slightly for clarity):

Hi Jonathan,

Offering a retainer at the conclusion of a project can both put value to your deep knowledge of the client and ability to see for them. And by the client not accepting this “retainer” relationship, it can free up the relationship and make space for new work.

Where does the implied idea of “warranty” fit into this. It seems obvious for brick and mortar goods (and services) but it can be “muddled” in coaching, educational and other advisory transactions.

Thanks for your work!


Thanks for the question, Fred!

My thoughts:

  1. A post-project retainer is something that I sometimes include in the initial project proposal as option 3 (i.e., the top option). For example, “Option 3 includes everything in options 1 and 2, plus I will make myself available to $PROJECT_CONTACT for three months on an unlimited 24/7 basis to ask questions and get quick answers.” (As Fred rightly pointed out in his message, if the client opts not to choose option 3, they aren’t allowed to call you with questions after the project is over.)

  2. Note that I timeboxed option 3 rather than giving an ongoing recurring monthly fee. Mixing an open-ended option in with fixed price options makes the buying decision confusing (which is bad because it makes the deal harder to close). When would I bring up the monthly retainer option? When the client was reaching the end of their 3 month retainer. I would say something like, “If you’d like to keep me on speed dial at the end of this three month period, we can switch over to an ongoing monthly retainer. Would that be of interest?”

  3. My preference is to initiate retainers BEFORE a project because the value is much higher than after the project. After the project, the “retainer” might actually be perceived as support or maintenance, which is typically much lower value.

  4. In an ongoing monthly advisory retainer, the “warranty” is that you’ll get back to the client within an agreed upon response time and deliver useful information. An advisory retainer is an insurance policy that provides peace of mind. As long as you’re doing that, the client will be satisfied.