Retainer Work and Magic-EP58

Today, Laura walks her listeners through a critical shift she made in her freelance business that had a massive impact on her ability to earn money and only work with her ideal clients. If you are new to the freelance world and are still juggling ten, or even twenty client projects, this episode is for you. In it, Laura explains how one-off and retainer clients are different, as well as how you might start the process of converting one-off clients into retainer arrangements.

Full Transcript:

Hello everybody and welcome back to the Better Biz Academy podcast. Another solo episode here where I am going to walk you through one of the shifts I made in my freelance business that had a tremendous impact on my ability to earn money and work only with ideal clients. If you are like most people starting out in their freelance journey, the very beginning is you cobbling together all these various jobs. It's not uncommon for a new freelancer, for example, to have ten or even twenty clients where they are juggling all these little one-off projects. Someone may hire you to write the copy for a brochure or to create a branding kit or to do whatever it might be but it has a specific end date. I call these one-off projects and there is nothing wrong with them. In fact, when you use them appropriately, they can be a way great way to supplement your income, and as a new freelancer, one-off projects are also perfect for figuring out if you like what you are doing. A great example of a one-off project that taught me the lesson about how to be choosy over clients was when I worked on some software help articles. I assumed I could brand myself up to speed and figure things out but I really hated doing the work, I wasn't good at it and the client wasn't ultimately satisfied with the end result. Thankfully, because we weren't locked in to a retainer agreement, I didn't feel compelled to continue working on that project. We just simply parted ways and cancelled the contract and left it at that. So, one-off projects can be really valuable when you first start out because you don't know what you like doing yet. A lot of times, freelancers will change. I really started off as an SEO writer and a whitepaper writer in my freelance writing business so I did not kind of do away with the whitepaper aspect of it until I had worked on a couple of those projects and just found that I was faster with the SEO blogs and I liked doing it more. So, I used that to transition into retainer work. Now the major difference and the obvious difference between one-off projects and retainer work is that you are doing a specific set of work every single month for a retainer client. Now, SEO blogging is the perfect example of how to transition into retainers, because clients need new content every single month. But you can still use retainers on all types of freelance projects. Somebody may just buy a bulk of your hours, for example, if you are a virtual assistant or they may hire you to do a specific number of social media posts every single month or something like that where it is ongoing. Now, retainer work has huge benefits for freelancers; it also benefits your clients because they get to work with someone consistent and the client has to not think about this very much, right. They just hire somebody and they can outsource it and not have to worry about whether it’s being done. For a freelancer, it is a game changer because all of a sudden, you can predict your income to a much better extent. At the beginning of my freelance business, the first of every month, I would sit down and use a legal pad to write out all of the jobs I had pending. So, every job where I have been hired, where I was waiting to still be paid, I would list that out and it was exhausting because I felt like I had to reflect on that often. That first of the month review would give me an idea of whether or not I was on track for my income goals for that month and if I wasn’t, then that meant I needed to get back out there and start pitching myself immediately. I still track my income and look at things from that perspective but it is much different now because I am primarily concerned about the number of retainers that I have. So, I have worked with several of my clients for two years or even three years on various projects. I know exactly the way they like things done, exactly how many things they need each month and it makes my life easier because if I try to go on vacation or need to take a couple of days off, I am not pending instructions from them or waiting for their feedback. The work is just getting done and they are not super involved in that process and that works really well for me because I have found that any time that I allow a lot of phone calls on my schedule, it's extremely distracting and not something that really fits into what I want for the model of my business. So, having ideal clients who don’t need these regular phone calls where I can work in advance is the perfect situation for me. Retainers allow you to see what's coming down the pipe and you could still use this information to say, 'hey, I need to ramp up my marketing. I have only got $1000 in retainers booked or $5000 in retainers booked and my goal is higher than that so I need to go back to the drawing board and market myself, reach out to previous clients etc.' But retainers tell you how much you need to do that. So, what makes the difference between a one-off client and a retainer client? First of all, you can convert a one-off client into a retainer client but you have to be able to talk about the regular ongoing value that you provide. If you have already had an amazing experience with the client and shown them the quality of your work, there is a much better chance that they will be open to the retainer conversation in the first place. Most people who are in the position of hiring a freelancer wants somebody who is professional, who is going to meet deadlines, who’s going to comply with all of their brand or tone and voice requirements, and when they meet somebody like that, they are looking for any opportunity to continue working with that person so long as it is in their budget. So, if you do a great job on a one-off project -  let’s say a client hires you to do two blog posts. If you do an amazing job on that project and the client sees the potential to hire you on an ongoing basis, it can be to their benefit to work with you on a retainer to, say, produce four blog posts every single month because then they don’t really have to think about it but the work is getting done. This is ideal for a lot of my clients who are extremely busy and do not make their money from content marketing. They get leads from content marketing but they make the money when they close the client and represent that client. So, taking this huge piece of the puzzle off of their plate and saying "yes I’ll do this within your guidelines and submit it on time every single month" means that they don’t have to think about it at all. Now that material is going out as if they produced it but they really had very little to do with the process aside from providing any initial directions and paying the invoice. A retainer client is only going to work with you if they can see the benefit of a partnership on an ongoing basis. And there are two major ways that a client will see this benefit. The first is money; of course, if you partnering with someone regularly and they are bringing you more leads, more traffic to your website, more money, more sales calls, whatever it is, they can easily see the benefit of outsourcing that to someone else so that they can focus on other things. A great example of people who often position themselves as money value in terms of retainer clients are people who do SEO optimization. So, they may do things like inbound and outbound linking, keyword research, google ads etc. They are specifically focused on ROI for the marketing budget and that is really powerful for someone who is in the position of hiring an SEO expert. However, there is one other way to draw in your clients and convert them to retainer and that is talking about the time back that they will receive. This is the primary focus for a lot of my clients. They simply don't have the time or the energy to write blog content regularly.  So, by passing it off to me, they know that it is getting done, it’s getting done in a way that’s going to make the most sense for their business but they don’t really have to think about it. They don’t have to worry about it and they definitely don’t have to invest time into doing it. So, those two ways can help you to position a retainer conversation but you want to find out more about the client first, before pitching them. You want to discover what their marketing goals are and how your freelance services on retainer can fit into that. Retainers are honestly my favorite way to work. While I occasionally accept one-off projects, I am more focused on developing a retainer agreement and relationship with my ongoing clients. First of all, working with somebody on retainer allows you to get to know their business more deeply. So, I have a client I have worked with for more than three years at this point. I know exactly what they are looking for, the topics they don’t want covered, when they want things posted and how to do it. As a result, my process has not only gotten faster but I have gotten better at writing for them because I am an expert at what they are looking for now. The more research that I have done for their ideal topics, the more familiar I get with the industry and the terminology as well. So, my writing gets better, I get faster at it and I become more of an industry expert where I can position myself to other companies in that niche where it’s the right fit. This has payoff benefits for the client too. They don’t have to worry about bringing me up to speed about what’s required in their company. They don’t have to touch base with my often and it even benefits my future clients too because I can say, "yes, I can do this for five years; I have a refined process to define topics to write this and submit it in a way that's most effective and efficient for everybody". So, you can see how the retainer is a win-win because the client benefits from your expertise and a better understanding of their business, but you also benefit because you can plan ahead, you can see your income that’s coming down the pike, you can work more quickly and you get to know the client's individual needs so you can kind of determine effectively what is and isn’t going to work for them. Now, sometimes you may have a client who is interested in a retainer off the back rather than a one-off project. There are a couple of things you can do to increase your chances of landing that particular project. The first is to provide social proof. So, if you have feedback from any other clients where you have worked on retainer, provide that. One thing that I like to share with my potential clients is my average client retention period. So, that means how long on average do I work with each client, and when that number is high, that shows my other clients that I am really in it for the long haul, this is not a quick fix, I am not somebody who is going to disappear on them partway through. So, I'll say something like my average client retention time is 14 months; I stick around with my clients because I live up to the hype, something like that. So, that is the first thing that you could do. The second thing that you could do to land somebody on retainer is to provide them a small discount for taking action today. I call this my premium client program. So, people who order a package over a certain amount every single month are going to be VIP clients and you can choose based on your level of business where these individuals fall. So, I have a number of different classifications within my VIP program based on the bulk of the work and what’s involved. So, some clients are going to - in my mind, and I don’t even tell them this - but they are going to get a faster response to me over email because they are my platinum VIP clients. Right now, I have three of them.  They are my biggest clients; they are my most important clients so of course, I am going to give them more attention. Now, other clients down the chain are still going to reap benefits of being a VIP client, because I may be affording them a small discount on services every single month. Now this may be 5% or 10% and as far as positioning this as a discount, I am not saying take your current rates and then just discount them really deeply in order to encourage the client to sign.  I like to say something like, for any client who orders a package of more than $500 a month, there is an automatic 5% discount applied. Clients love that because it shows that you're giving them an extra incentive to take action and they want to lock-in in that discount. So rather than ordering $400 worth of content, they would be thinking that, 'hey if I order the $500, I am going to get a 5% discount. I'm getting more content and it's less per piece. So, that's worked really well for me. Those are my two top tips for converting someone who is in the position of hiring you for a retainer project; talk about the past client experiences that you have had, if you have had them; and if you don't have that or if you are not comfortable doing that for one reason or another, you can apply a small discount to encourage them to take action. Now one other way that can work - and this works best if you truly are close to being fully booked - is to tell them that you cannot guarantee your availability after a certain date. You have one spot remaining for a client on a retainer basis and that may prompt them to take action. One final way that you could potentially encourage a client to get on retainer is to indicate current availability. What I mean by this is saying, "hey if you sign this contract today, I can get started tomorrow. Or I can get started next Monday" giving them clear parameters of what they can expect from you and how soon you will be able to jump into action is another way to incentivize your clients to take action. Now, of course, don’t say this if you can’t live up to what you are promising because being able to meet deadlines and meet and exceed their expectations is important. I love working on retainer and a lot of the students that I have worked with, whether they are virtual assistants, copywriters or something else, enjoy working on retainer because of that income predictability and because of the greater chances of success when it comes to their client. The longer you work with a client the better you understand them and their needs and the more likely you are to hit it out of the park every single time. That happy client then wants to increase your retainer or refer you to others or give you a testimonial. And the longer you work with that client, the more you’ll be able to talk about the existing relationships and build that social proof you have with your client. So, giving, I'll say that I'll land a brand-new retainer client today; I work with them for 8 months, now they are thrilled with my work for them, they are willing to give me a testimonial and a referral to someone else, and I can say things to new clients like, "yes, I have been working with another client in a similar industry and project for the last 8 months". That is social proof that tells that potential client I am talking to about the value of my work and my ability to deliver it over the long term. Making the jump from one-off projects to retainers was one of the crucial things that helped push my business to the next level. I see too many freelancers struggling by just generating many many small projects every single month and then when you complete that, you have to go out and market all over again, land new clients all over again and frankly, it's exhausting. It is must easier when you have retainer relationships already built with clients who you love working with. If you haven’t thought about developing a retainer package, my challenge to you after this podcast episode is to think about three pricing levels that you could offer a retainer for, with a deeper discount at each level. Of course, the most expensive package is going to be the one with the deepest discount but you want to give people options. This really helps when you are trying to land somebody on retainer. So think about services that you could package into either an hourly bundle or into a specific package that you could offer to a client on three levels. So, three options for them to invest to work with you over the long run. Start brainstorming this now and thinking about how you can make the transition from one-off projects to retainer work. I'd love to hear your questions about the retainer process. Send an email to to learn more.

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