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Are Retainers For Inbound Marketing Agencies Still The ONLY Way To Go?

Posted by Mike Lieberman on Jan 31, 2017 9:10:00 AM

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Retainers and Project Work For Inbound AgenciesI get it, long-term, contractual relationships with inbound marketing agency clients who pay you every month is going to be better than managing month to month project work.

However, what if there was a way to do both and do it in a way that kept cashflow predictable, matched delivery with revenue and allowed you to service many more clients. Would that be interesting? It should be.

When you look at the market opportunity there are just as many inbound marketing agencies who still do project work as those who only work on retainer. That means, by definition, there’s a big group of clients who prefer to hire agencies to do project work. Now the question becomes, how do you handle both, so that you can work with everyone and anyone who qualifies in to work with your agency?

Here are some innovative ideas to consider applying to your portfolio of inbound agency services to help you snag project oriented clients.

Ask Them To Sign An Agreement That Specifies You As The Agency Of Record

Agreeing that you and your new client desire to have a long and productive relationship together should be the key at the start of every new client relationship. Whether they pay you a retainer each month or they pay for project work, who cares? If they’re committed to your business and you’re committed to theirs, that’s the goal.

If they want projects, that’s fine, ask them to sign an agency of record agreement. All that does is forces the conversation. We want to work together for the foreseeable future. Now it’s on you to do some of the work discussed in the rest of the article, but it’s really on you to produce results. Regardless of what your first project is, if you produce, there’s always more work to be done. When your agency provides enough diversity in the scope of services, you can have a long, profitable and productive relationship with clients even if its project by project.

Agreements like this are typically referred to as Master Services Agreement and cover items like payment schedule, disputes, intellectual property and other general items. These agreements supersede the project agreements which might look more like statements of work. These master service agreements are wonderful vehicles for uncovering clients who want long-term relationships.

Get Paid Upfront

Retainer or project, again who cares? Just make sure you get paid upfront to do the work. This might be a little tougher with projects work, but it’s doable if they want to work with you as much as you want to work with them. You never want to be billing them after the work is done and then waiting for them to pay Net 30. That pushes your cash flow back 60 days at best.

Instead make it clear that the project is scoped and the first payment is required to get started. You can then create a schedule of payments around timing or deliverables, but make sure the payments are always ahead of the work. Now you’ve applied one of the advantages of retainers to project work.

Give Them A Long List Of Project Ideas

Take a more holistic approach to the client’s projects. Even if they’re hiring you to do one task, show up with a long list of other ways you can help. For example, if you’re building a website, help them understand how important content and search is to the website being successful. You can also help them understand how conversion rate optimization or even ongoing website optimization is something they should consider.

You can literally maintain a product or tactic backlog that allows you to regularly recommend additional work in context to the work you’ve already been asked to do. Today marketing is so interconnected that it’s easy to extend projects into other areas of marketing without seeming pushy, salesy, or overly aggressive. It’s the right advice it’s probably going to look like you’re trying to help, not trying to sell your next project.

Consider Staff Augmentation As A Service

Staff Augmentation for Inbound AgenciesTo be honest, this type of service might be a hybrid between retainer and project but more and more companies, especially the bigger ones, are looking to add skills, expertise and resources to their existing teams. If you can place a resource at their shop or on call for their team for 10, 20 or even 30 hours a week, you become a very strategic partner.

While this might be considered project work and the goal of the placed resource might be to deliver a specific project, this type of service can be billed for each month at the beginning of the month, just like a retainer client. Some of the considerations above apply here too. Make sure you have tight communication with your client and make sure your team can deliver value.

If they like having your person around, the engagement should continue. But if they’re planning on hiring, you need to be aware of it and you need to have your next set of tactical recommendations ready to go. Your person on the ground needs to be thinking about how to extend the engagement and have open communication with your client.

Actively Manage The Transition From Project To Project

This is going to be big if you chose to go down this route. You and your team need to be so intimate with your client’s business that you’re always ready with the next biggest and most valuable way to help them. The ability to move from project to project seamlessly is key.

It can’t look like you’re trying to sell them every couple of months. It should be more natural. One way to deliver this is to be constantly providing recommendations, whether you do the work or not. In fact, you might want to add this to your statements of work, so they expect to see ideas, suggestions and ways to improve their marketing coming from your team.

Create a series of check ins with your client, so you’re formally meeting about the project. As you get closer to the end, you can use these check ins to discuss additional projects, budgets and timelines. Now your project client feels a lot like a retainer client, without forcing your client to sign a retainer contract.

Get Them Results And They’ll Never Leave

Regardless of the stuff above, it all comes down to value and results. If you get them results, if you show them true business value, they’re going to want to continue working with you. If you simply deliver what was in the statement of work, you’ll probably be out as soon as the project is over.

Again, this means there is very little difference between how you behave while in a retainer relationship vs. a project relationship. Even with retainers, you can be fired at any time. We’ll even tell a client, if we’re not getting you results, we deserve to be fired.

If the line between retainer and project work is so thin, then why put barriers up for clients who want to hire you, but don’t want to sign long-term retainer agreements? Get clients great results, make sure you have processes in place to keep them engaged with you and train your team to be constantly adding value. Now you’ll have enough retainer clients to allow you to take as many project clients as you want and you’ll have a brilliant agency with all the benefits of steady cashflow, happy clients and long term client relationships. Sounds like mission accomplished to me.

As our business evolved, it became apparent that certain subsets of clients are more comfortable buying a series of projects. The larger clients, who are more sophisticated, with bigger teams, and bigger budgets have been buying projects from agencies for decades. No matter what you want to sell, they’re always going to be more comfortable buying a project.

I once heard a top-rated business development speaker say, “you have to sell them what they want to buy, not what you want to sell.” Nothing could be closer to the truth.  The ideas above allow you to sell clients projects while protecting your agency’s cash flow, hiring plans and growth objectives. All you have to do is apply a little creativity and be responsive to the needs of your prospects.

Inbound Marketing Agency Growth TipsStart Today Tip – Our agencies don’t live in a black and white world. There are multiple shades of gray. Make sure your policies and practices allow you to deliver in a flexible way. Being able to do projects and retainers is going to allow you to have a more diverse set of clients. It’s also going to help you extend beyond the small and medium sized business segment and start to push into more enterprise level companies. The result will be nice growth and exiting new work for you and the agency.

Agencies 2 Inbound – Helping You Go ALL IN ON Inbound!

Topics: inbound agency services, project vs. retainer, inbound marketing agency services

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