By Georgina Laidlaw

How to Avoid Retainer-client Burnout

By Georgina Laidlaw

Do you have clients on retainer? If so, you’re probably familiar with the concept of retainer-client burnout.

Retainer arrangements can seem like the ultimate freelance goal—after all, who doesn’t want a reliable, bread-and-butter income to support their freelancing? Yet retainers can wear pretty thin over time.

Let’s face it: bread and butter isn’t the most exciting meal. Many of us freelance because we like variety. Balancing our need for regular, reliable income against the potential for boredom can be difficult. But the last thing you want is to underservice or lose interest in your retainer clients—they’re more likely to be the ones you want to look after best of all.

How can you ensure you don’t get bored by retainer work, and keep your quality levels high, over the months and years?

Change the schedule

When you first begin a retainer, you may decide to schedule the work for the same time slot each week or month. It makes sense: this way, you can ensure you’ll always complete the work required.

That’s all good … until the retainer starts to feel a bit humdrum or boring. At those times, simply changing your schedule can have a surprising impact on your motivation for the work.

Don’t just look at moving the retainer time to a different day of the week—consider breaking the work itself up differently too. By chunking tasks differently—potentially into smaller, more specific blocks—you can find you have greater focus and can produce work of even higher quality for those regular clients.

Streamline and improve service

Once you have a retainer up and running smoothly, you may find it a good testing ground in which to try streamlining your work processes to make them more efficient.

The more efficiently you can complete the retainer work, the more profitable it’ll be for you. And if you find you have extra time in the retainer, that might give you the opportunity to expand the nature of your retainer work with that client.

But that’s not all! You can also use retainer relationships to do non-intrusive, ongoing, qualitative market research. Work closely and regularly with a retainer client, and you’ll likely build significant rapport.

That strong, ongoing relationship will support your evolving understanding of the retainer client’s business, needs, expectations, and industry as a whole. And that can give you deep insights into offerings you can provide to other businesses operating in the same space.


One thing I’ve found retainers to be great for is experimentation. Over time, you’ll likely find that you get into a groove with the routine of your retainer work, and it begins to take less time as you naturally streamline the way you work.

Why not use that extra time to try new things? This isn’t about treating retainer clients as guinea pigs; it’s about offering them added value and innovation ahead of your other clients, all within their regular retainer fee.

Similarly, your growing knowledge of your retainer client’s business and needs can help you perceive other opportunities for your services to add value to their work. These may not be opportunities that increase your retainer income, but they may keep you interested and motivated as the months pass.

Manage your rate

Money’s another, pretty compelling motivator. Yet retainer arrangements usually involve a volume discount on our standard hourly rates. While that makes sense, it can make it hard to get motivated to do retainer work when we have (or want to chase!) a nice lucrative project at the same time.

To that end, it’s probably wise to keep track of your retainer rates—don’t set them and forget them! Each time you raise your hourly rate, review your retainers as well, and make sure you tweak them accordingly.

Finally, if you find you’re losing interest in a retainer, rates can be a good first place to start diagnosing the problem: do you think the work is worth your time? If not, you may need to up your retainer rate.

Keep in close contact

For some of us, project work tends to involve more intense client contact than does retainer work. But if you like that contact, you’ll want to make sure you keep it up with retainer clients, too. Otherwise, months down the track on a retainer, you might find yourself feeling like a machine, cranking out the same old widget each week—a widget that the client has come to take entirely for granted.

A better option is to keep in close contact with your retainer clients. While it’s true that they and you both want the arrangement to be hassle-free, it’s an error to equate contact with hassle. Keeping in touch is essential for effective collaboration, and your ability to provide the best possible value for the retainer fee.

Continuously build a relationship with your retainer client—not just their business!—and you’ll likely find retainer work far more satisfying than if you work as autonomously as possible.

These are just a few ideas, but I’d love to hear how you avoid retainer burnout in your work. Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Image courtesy stock.xchng user saavem.

  • I’ve found that how you start a relationship can determine how you finish and feel the key to a lasting relationship with any client is setting clear objectives and expectations upfront. Always deliver but when possible overdeliver!

    Good Information is KEY!!! Trying to design the ship before knowing what cargo it will carry has potential to sink fast and just plain counterproductive… Good communication is vital to staying focused and working in smaller blocks helps ito avoid redoing extensive work due to last minute details and/or sudden changes of heart or new info. Leave it to the minor details to derectly effect your design and/or require extra hours not accounted for with each project.

    The biggest burn out for me as a designer is redoing work due to bad information or rushed deadlines that aren’t really necessary. Just wait till you work around the clock to meet a deadline only to find out the client is on vacation and won’t be back for another week. ARGHHHHHH!!!!! Communication is KEY!!!!

  • Is it common practice to lower the rate for retainer clients? I can see why this makes sense (volume, regularity) but on the other hand, isn’t the availability, preferred scheduling and perhaps other value added components enough to deliver the value?

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