I know, I know, if clients are on retainers you know what’s coming in every month (caveat – providing everyone pays their invoice and don’t decide to stop working with you).

But many VAs find it extremely stressful and complicated trying to convert those poor clients over to guaranteeing you X number of hours every month.

I worked with a subcontractor who kept on and on at me to go on a retainer and, totally unlike me, I gave in – against my better judgement! I couldn’t guarantee I’d have enough work for them every month, so immediately felt uncomfortable about it and panicked about finding her work.

I’m not sure if it was me, or them, but I found their standard of work went right down as soon as the retainer was paid, and I am not entirely convinced they used the hours as well as they did when we were just working on an ad hoc basis. There was nothing in this new arrangement for me, so I stopped working with them.

But, the positive was it gave me an insight into how VA clients feel if we’re badgering them to go onto a retainer.

Carole Searle is a member of my Private Members’ Club, just recently she turned a corner in her business with regards to retainers, here’s her story…

What were your thoughts on retainers before you joined the membership?

I’d always been made to feel that retainers were the be-all and end-all, like I’d made it as a VA if I’d got a client on a retainer.

What are your thoughts now?

Since joining the membership, my thoughts have now totally changed. Catherine teaches that it doesn’t matter if the client is ad hoc or retainer, what’s important is that they are on the right contract for the both of you, relationships are being built, and that you are both happy with how things are.

What made you think differently?

I think I started feeling differently about this once I actually had a couple of retainer clients and realised that there wasn’t really all that much difference to ad hoc work. Yes, a retainer is a guaranteed monthly income but if the client suddenly can’t afford to be tied in to the commitment for whatever reason or just can’t always find enough work to fill the hours, they’re soon going to end the contract and leave you with nothing. So in some ways, it can be easier to just have lots of ad hoc clients which still equate to enough of an income for you.

Do you now see the importance of building a relationship over what you bank credit might be every month?

I can see it’s really important to build relationships with clients, get to know them and their business properly, so you can then advise on the type of work needed, the amount of time tasks are likely to take, etc. and they can then make a more informed decision as to whether a retainer or ad hoc contract is the right choice for them. It can also make these kind of conversations more comfortable to have with each other, it makes the client feel more relaxed and not under pressure to commit to more hours if they don’t really need or want them, they trust their VA, which as you say contributes to there likely being a longer term working relationship.

If I were the business owner who had a VA constantly trying to push me into spending money every month that I’m not sure I’ll be able to always afford, for work that I can’t guarantee I’ll always need doing, it would probably make me feel stressed and resentful of this contract and so would eventually want to end it.

I spoke to a potential client only yesterday who has never worked with a VA before as still in the fledgling stages of their business. They asked how the payment side works and when I explained they have the option of going on an ad hoc contract as opposed to a retainer as it’s not fair to tie them into something they can’t commit to yet, you could hear the relief in their voice and they replied this was exactly the kind of thing they were looking for. Perfect!

Yes, ad hoc work isn’t a guaranteed income, but it can be so much better in other ways. It’s still an income, it gives flexibility to your client which will in return help build a great relationship with them and maybe in the future lead to more work from them when they are in that position. You can take on more work with several different clients, along with a range of different tasks so that you’re not doing the same thing every month. If the ad hoc job is stressful and not really your thing, that’s fine as it’s only a one-off.

What was the biggest lightbulb moment for you?

The turning point for me was just recently. I had a client who signed up for a retainer (through their own choice) but a few months down the line, they realised that they couldn’t afford it at this moment in time, due to still being in the early stages of growing their own business. I’d have panicked before because of the ‘I must get everyone on a retainer’ mindset.

I knew that the client still needed help though so suggested instead of stop working together totally, why not swap to an ad hoc contract instead and that way, they could just call on my services as and when they needed me with no commitment on their part to have to guarantee me work, but the help was there still if and when they needed it. They immediately agreed to this as it was a much better solution for them at this moment in time.

They’re happy now that there’s no pressure on them to provide work all the time but that if they do some up with anything that needs doing, they know they can contact me and I will schedule it in for them asap.

Carole Searle is the owner of CS Virtual PA, based in Kings Lynn.

Building relationships is far more important than getting clients on retainers and this is what I tell my Private Members. Once you get over the mindset that retainers are the be all and end all you can relax a little, and do the one thing that’s more important – build long term relationships, build trust and create a model of longevity in your business.