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Retainer client work can be profitable, fun and liberating, if you do these things

Pili Laviolette

When I left the 9-to-5 world to work full-time on my business, one of the things that scared me the most was not having a stable income. A month later, almost by coincidence, I got two retainer clients.

I was excited yet scared.

I’ve heard so many bad stories about having retainer clients and I’ve had a couple of bad experiences myself.

If I were able to set clear boundaries with them, it would be a great opportunity, don't you think?

So I took the chance, and almost four years later, I've built my business around retainer clients primarily. There was a lot of trial and error, I have to admit, but I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve been able to establish the right processes and systems to have a sustainable work-life balance and business.

That’s why I’ve put together a list of tips I would give my younger self if I had to do this all over again, so I'm sure you'll find them helpful too:

Think of your future self first

I start with this advice because it changed my mindset and turned me into a bit of an organization freak (in a good way!). If you consider what your future self will be able to remember and how frustrated would be if you decide not to write down important information, you’ll be more careful. In fact, it’s not about being organized versus disorganized, it’s about having a system that saves you time. Just assume that you won't remember anything, and you’ll think everything twice.

Use a project management tool

It may sound obvious, but the number of designer friends who still rely on physical notebooks and sticky notes is surprising! The truth is, you can't remember everything, and a notebook can get lost. I use Asana, but there are many tools out there, such as Notion, Trello, and ClickUp.

Keep tasks, notes and files aligned

I like to create a Google Drive folder for each client, with subfolders for each project. I use the same system and structure for tasks and notes. In my experience, naming everything consistently saves time. I try to use the same name that my client and their team are using to refer to projects, so it’s clear. For example, if you are designing a Valentine's Campaign webpage, you will most likely call the project “Valentine's Campaign Webpage Design”. I use that same name for the project’s Google Drive folder, files, and notes.

Keep a high-level list of all the projects and the status of each

Working with retainer clients often requires you to work on multiple projects simultaneously, so keeping track of the status of every project is very important. This will not only help you plan your weekly work because you'll easily see where things are at, but it will also make you feel like you are in control.

Plan your work every week

I know this may sound boring, but you have to dedicate time every week to review the status of each project and plan your week. Honestly, you only need an hour. I usually do this every Monday morning, but I know some people prefer doing this on Sundays. It usually takes me between 30 to 60 minutes, but I block off two hours in case I need extra time to gather information from the client or read feedback. And if I finish early, I reward myself with a long break.

Assume there are going to be several iterations

Don't get frustrated if a project takes 5, 10, or more iterations. One of the beauties of retainer clients is that they are often billed hourly, so you are charging for every second you spend on the work, including revisions. Therefore, a client can ask for as many revisions as they want, and you will still get paid. If you don't bill your retainer clients hourly, make sure you have a pricing structure that allows for revisions and flexibility.

Keep copies of everything

Talking about iterations, keep copies of everything. EVERYTHING. I like to create a copy of each iteration I’ve sent to the client. Why? Well, often clients see version 15 and give you feedback that makes you work on things you already did in version 1. This happens more often than you think.

Have a structure to name individual files

It’s not just about adding the name of the project but about considering all important details that will help you quickly see which one is the latest version. Saving a file like "Design - VERY VERY VERY FINAL" is confusing, not scalable, and will only give you headaches. This is how I name files: Name of the project - Additional info (optional) - Date (Version). Here's an example: Soap Box Design - Large Box - 20230531 (V1). I put the name at the beginning and the date at the end so that if you have lots of versions, they'll be organized one after another. I know it sounds very OCD, but I swear it helps a lot. Whatever naming system you decide to follow, make sure it’s easy-to-follow, easy-to-remember, and scalable.

Define your main client communication channel

To communicate with clients, it is important to choose ONE main channel. This is the place you and your client will use to quickly communicate on a daily or weekly basis. In my case, I prefer using Slack. While some people prefer email or Voxer, I find Slack to be the best option because it allows me to mute notifications after a specific time and on weekends, save and pin messages, and create channels for each project. I pay for my Slack account and use Slack Connect to communicate with most of my clients. Over time, most of them also end up adding me to their own Slack accounts.

Have a schedule to check emails or Slack messages

Retainer clients often assume that you are available 24/7, so it's essential to set some boundaries. Instead of simply stating the boundaries, show them to your clients. You must respect your time and process because if you don't, they won't either. Although you may feel obligated to respond to emails and messages right away, you don't have to. Instead, establish a schedule to check messages every day or every other day. I like checking Slack messages in the morning, around noon, and before wrapping up work. However, don't inform clients about your messaging schedule to avoid being held accountable. Instead, make it a habit and an internal strategy, and let them know you'll respond to messages within one to two business days.

Keep track of the time you dedicate to each task

Even if you don't bill your clients hourly, keep track of the time you spend on every task. It will give you an idea of how long things take and if your pricing is still fair. For example, if a task used to take you 4 hours but now it takes you 2, maybe it's time to increase your hourly rate. By the way, meetings, reading emails from your client, and even brainstorming ideas for your client's project all count as dedicated time, so you must bill for them.

If you have any questions about how to manage retainer clients, you can send me a DM on Instagram.


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