Tech & Work

Make sure a retainer arrangement doesn't become more than you can handle

What should you do when a client wants to keep you on retainer after you wrap up a job? Does it fit into your workload? What do you do when a client thinks you're on call but you've made no such arrangement? Here's some advice.


When a client approaches you to be either on a retainer or on call, you need to consider both your own available time and the client itself. In this article, I’ll take a look at anticipating the client’s possible needs and making sure you don’t overcommit. In addition, I’ll discuss how to handle clients who think you’re on call when you’re not.
Meredith Little’s first article on negotiating on-call and retainer agreements tackled these issues:
  • Choosing between on call and retainer
  • Establishing your availability and response time
  • Setting payment and billing terms
  • Determining your response time
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Limit your risk
When considering any retainer or on-call arrangement, you can limit your risk by carefully considering all of the following:
  • How many of these arrangements do you have? Just one is fine, but taking on multiple retainers in addition to projects for new clients could be asking for trouble.
  • What type of work is that specific client likely to need you to do? What’s the likely level of urgency for this work?
  • Do you have anyone you trust to back you up?

Evaluate the client’s likely needs
Don’t go on retainer for any client you aren’t already familiar with—you don’t know what you’re getting into. If the client has expected you to do the impossible at the last minute or made unreasonable demands during your regular relationship, think carefully before committing a chunk of your time to them.

On the other hand, if the client has a capable and proven IT staff, it’s likely that the calls you’ll get will be reasonable, and you may often be able to provide the solution over the phone without a personal visit. Also, be sure that you have the resources and skills to address the problems they’re likely to have.

Provide first-line measures, and define an emergency
If you’re providing a support arrangement, you can mitigate the number of calls and their urgency by making sure of the following:
  • You’ve thoroughly tested the product under a variety of conditions.
  • You’ve provided the client with a checklist of troubleshooting steps to follow before calling you. Update this list as necessary.

No matter what the arrangement, be sure your client knows what constitutes an emergency. Make clear that you expect nonemergency support to be arranged in advance, such as that required for moves or upgrades, or other environmental changes you can’t anticipate. Then be prepared to hold your ground if the client screws up your software and expects you to ditch your current project to fix it. Of course, you should support these as well but at your convenience.

Don’t worry too much about alienating your current client to provide support for a former client. As long as the interruption is brief, most clients should be impressed by your commitment to your past work.

Consider lining up possible reinforcements
If you run your own consulting shop, make sure you have enough sufficiently qualified people to handle any retainer arrangements you line up. If you’re flying solo, this is another good reason to develop a network of colleagues you can call on. Just make sure they do quality work and are qualified to take on your client. If you think you may call in someone else, stipulate with your client that you have the right to subcontract the work.

What about clients who treat you as though you’re on call?
As an aside, I’ll note that you may encounter a client who treats you as though you’re on call when you’ve made no such arrangement. They page you at all hours of the night and day and expect you to be there now. Of course, you don’t want to alienate them by refusing to be available, but neither do you want to keep giving in to their demands or listen to them whine when you explain that you can’t do anything for them until next week.

If you find this happening to you, you have a couple of options:
  • Arrange an on-call agreement with them.
  • Quit working for that client.

Obviously, the first option is better unless you’re dealing with a completely unreasonable client. Setting up an on-call or retainer agreement assures the client that you are committing to being available for them. It also lays the ground rules for when and under what circumstances you can respond to them.

With any project you take on, you can help prevent this kind of misunderstanding by spelling out in your initial contract what, if any, post-project support you will provide. If post-project support is included as part of your work on that project, you may want to limit it to either a time period or a certain amount of work.

Also, specify any limits to your support. For example, you don’t want to end up doling out free support every time your client decides to make an upgrade that you haven’t anticipated without talking with you first.

Of course, get it in writing
As the last word, once you work out all the details, be sure to get them in writing. A retainer or support arrangement is just like any other—only as good as the paper it’s written on.

Meredith Little wears many hats as a self-employed writer, including technical writer, documentation consultant, trainer, business analyst, photographer, and travel writer.

Ever been weighed down with a client who bugged you after a project was put to bed? How did you handle the situation? To share your thoughts, post a comment or send us a note.

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