Don’t let a retainer client turn you into an employee

Just one more thing.”

When Steve Jobs mentioned those words, for the first time, we didn’t know how they would change the world.

Fast forward a few years, when your clients said it, you had a sense of dread that almost made you go running for the hills. When it’s a retainer client or a regular client that’s uttering that phrase, we tend to go into defense mode. Why? It usually means that they want us to do something that we’re not be so keen on doing.

For a lot of people, we can search the internet and find a lot of great advice on what to do when this happens during a project. You’ll find great advice on how to add, remove or reduce the scope to make things work.

If its a retainer contract, it seems to get a little stickier though. Rather than tacking on an item or two to a project, it might feel like you’re becoming an employee instead. It isn’t what we’re in business for — we want the freedom of being our own boss!

But it isn’t too hard to keep things in line. There’s times when a you give a client an inch and they take a mile. We have to remind ourselves to push back (and that it won’t be the end of the world.) Remind clients what you agreed to do and what isn’t part of that agreement.

We can make this even easier though, and it starts when you’re putting the retainer agreement together.

Always (always, always, always) outline what you will be doing and what you won’t be doing for your client. Make sure you make this absolutely clear, too.

If you’re going to maintain and update a website, spell out what that means. To a client, that might include writing blog posts or posting to social media. To you, that might only mean keeping WordPress up to date.

Are you including a specific amount of available time to the client per month? Specify if that time is use-it-or-lose-it, or if it rolls over to the next month. You could even have unused hours expire after a certain period of time. The goal is to avoid that awkward conversation at the end of the contract when a client thinks you still owe them 120 hours of your work (when you really don’t.)

Be careful how reliable you are.

I know this sounds weird, and even a little backwards. But there is such a thing as being too reliable. When we get a retainer client, particularly for our first retainer clients, it’s easy to want to go above and beyond to please them. You’re eager to make sure that you’re always responsive. If its between the hours of 9 and 5, Monday through Friday, it makes sense if you’re fairly responsive.

What I’m getting at though, is when its outside of those hours.

If you’re responding to your client emails at 3am, than they’re expecting that they can reach you at 3am. If you work at 3am regularly, great! But, if it only happens once or twice and you prefer sleeping at 3am, you might run into a little trouble. A client can easily panic when they aren’t able to reach you when they expect to.

Something that I’ve done in more recent contracts is to make a note or reminder of your regular working hours. It’s nothing more than saying I’m available from this time” to this time.” I’ll also note if I take off regular holidays as well.

Like I said, it’s super easy for a client to slowly monopolize your time if you let them. When that happens, it feels like you’re working for them as an employee.

But as long as you keep boundaries and keep very clear track of what you’re doing for them (or not doing), you can keep a happy relationship with them. 

As a freelance designer, its better to be preventative than reactionary. While hindsight is 20/20, not having to look back with regret feels even better.

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