By Nat Thompson May 12, 2017

The Concierge or Retainer Model: Which Is Better For A Freelance Programmer?

When I first began programming outside the confines of my 9-to-5 responsibilities, I had a very narrow view of what I could offer in terms of languages, industries, and system features. This view came about as a result of my prior experiences and what I knew I could excel at—I figured that since my job had a demand for this skillset, others would have the same demand.

So, I hung my shingle, got the word out to my network that I was “For Hire,” and waited… and waited… and waited…

Eventually I received one or two odd programming assignments, but nothing consistent; nothing I could rely on. I would complete a project and then the customer was gone. I was struggling. I needed a strategy to improve. I listed my challenges: infrequent assignments, unreliable income, lack of consistent leads, and no repeat customers. Then I started analyzing the cause.

Why was I not seeing the customer volume I needed?  What was turning them away?  My marketing efforts clearly stated my core competencies. My experience and background were spot on and verifiable. I had made it easy to understand that I was just what a specific customer was looking for.

Then it hit me. The target customer persona I had defined was TOO specific.

I hadn’t realized it, but by being so precise about the skills and services I was offering, I was effectively filtering my customer base to nearly nothing. I was marketing with an engineer’s mindset. I had to cast a wider net. This worried me, though––what if they wanted something outside my area of expertise?

Some more analysis was in order. It was time for some creative thinking. I imagined a scenario where a customer came to me asking for something outside of my focus area. I asked myself, “What would you tell this customer that wasn’t ‘Sorry, I don’t do that.’?”

I realized that depending on the need, I could handle requests outside my core capabilities. Those capabilities weren’t the only areas I was competent in, just the ones I felt I was most accomplished at. I could do a lot more for customers than just requests within that area of focus.

I listed all the technologies and processes I had used, and problems I had worked on, over my career and used a simple Red, Yellow, Green indicator to show whether I would be comfortable charging a customer for work on that item. There were quite a few green items on the list, a lot more than my initial area of focus.

The seeds of an idea were beginning to sprout.

Next, I started working on the problem of consistency. I had heard the adage repeatedly that it’s far easier to sell to existing customers than get new customers. For me, though, I would finish a project and the customer would ride off into the sunset, never to be seen again. How could I get that customer to come back?

Thinking it through, I realized that my second problem came from my first problem: a too narrow focus. I would sell a customer on a project using my “area of expertise” and that alone. They would then think of me only in that context. If they ever had another project of that nature they would think of me, but not for anything else. How could I change that mindset?

My idea was in full bloom now.

The Concierge Programmer is Born

The customer problem I came up with was this:

“You, as a customer, often have need of diverse programming capabilities month to month and bringing in a new person each month and getting them up to speed costs time and money .”

By stating the problem from the customer’s point of view, I hoped potential customers would immediately recognize the challenges they run into and start thinking about what benefits they would receive by solving this problem. Next, I came up with this outcome statement:

“By having a consistent resource to draw on to address the diverse needs from month to month, you will save time and money by eliminating the need to introduce them to your organization beyond the initial engagement.”

Now the customer can clearly see the benefit to them. Their desire to solve the problem now becomes concrete and their perception changes. If they do not solve the problem, it is no longer an annoyance but instead an added cost to their organization. They are ready to pull the trigger and eliminate this cost. They are ready to hear my solution proposal:

“I am a skilled programmer with diverse capabilities. I can address a wide range of technologies, concepts, and problems. I am familiar with your organization and can start immediately on any project you present. I require no additional ramp-up time beyond my initial engagement. For a monthly retainer that includes a set number of hours, you can guarantee my availability each month to address any need you have.”

There it was. All wrapped up neatly in a bow; problem, outcome, proposal. I just needed to start trying it out on customers.

Marketing the Concierge Programmer

I started with the network of IT professionals I had developed over my career. I checked in with colleagues to find out what projects they were working on and let them know of my new Concierge service. I asked that if they heard of anyone in need of my service to put them in touch with me.

Before long I got an email from a colleague, suggesting I should have lunch with him and a friend of his that was starting up a new company. They weren’t ready to invest in a full-time programming staff but needed programmers to help get their product off the ground. We set the date for lunch and had our first meeting.

Understanding the Need

Over lunch, I got the details on what the company was, the product they were trying to build and the current need they had while getting started. What they wanted fell squarely outside of anything I was ready to offer. But I did know someone who was skilled in what they needed. I offered to find out if he had the availability to help and put the two together.

I immediately got the green light.

A quick flurry of emails and a meeting for coffee the next day confirmed my contact was interested and available to help.

The next morning, we all met for breakfast and talked over what the startup had envisioned for their platform. The conversation revealed that a lot of information was still To Be Determined. Further, we discovered that the startup needed help with their process for organizing the work they needed to get done. Something that did fall squarely within what I was ready to offer.

In the past I would have heard the initial concept from the customer, determined it wasn’t something within my narrow band of focus, and decided that I couldn’t help. The customer would then have been on to the next vendor and I would still be sitting on my hands with no work to do and no revenue coming in.

Now though, I had dug just a bit deeper and uncovered an opportunity to provide value to my customer and be paid for it. All it took was taking the filters off and considering a broader range of services.

It was decided that I would go on retainer with my client for the next several months, for a block of twenty hours for the first month and ten hours in the following months. Any additional hours would be billed to my client at the end of the month, along with the upcoming month’s retainer.

The result? I helped my client set up a process for defining their requirements, prioritizing them, and tracking them through to completion. Additionally, I assisted with vendor consultation and tool configuration. These activities were outside my original concept but within my capabilities. It pays to look deeper and be flexible in what you think you can offer clients.

Yes, but…

You may be saying, “Yes, but…” followed by a number of reasons my experience doesn’t quite line up with your reality.

“Yes, but… I don’t have a deep network of contacts to draw on.”

“Yes, but… I don’t do well talking to people.”

“Yes, but… I having trouble getting a client to say yes.”

I’ve got some advice to help you get past these obstacles and get more business.

Few Contacts

This obstacle often just comes down to some creative thinking. Potential referrals can come from anyone you’ve had an introduction to in the past. Don’t limit yourself to just those colleagues that were managers or side-by-side co-workers. Think about everyone you’ve met or been introduced to in the course of your career.

Networking Tip: Always add a new contact via LinkedIn as soon as possible after being introduced.

If you don’t have a LinkedIn account, go right now and sign up. It is the modern evolution of a Rolodex. It will also help you uncover connections that you may have forgotten about. As you add connections you will receive suggestions for other potential contacts. Your network will start to grow quickly.

This exercise will likely show you that your network is not quite as barren as you think it might be. From here, start reaching out to these contacts just to let them know your services are for hire. Follow up every so often just to refresh their memory and you will start to receive referrals.

If this exercise shows you truly do have a measly number of connections, you need to work on that. Start making it a point to introduce yourself to people you work with. If you encounter someone you don’t know, stick out your hand and introduce yourself. Referrals can come from anyone. Don’t miss an opportunity to add more potential sources to your network.

Weak Communication Skills

If you have trouble talking to people, it is worth investing the time in becoming better at it. If you are going to be successful in business, you are going to have to talk to people. Email, instant messaging, and other forms of communicating at a distance have their place, but they are no substitute for face-to-face conversation.

Like any skill, talking to people gets easier with practice. Use low-risk opportunities to gain experience.

Low-risk conversation opportunities include: getting your hair cut or styled and speaking to the barber or stylist, dining out and speaking to your server and the manager if they stop by your table, or even when you have those inevitable pauses while on the phone with a customer service representative.

I use this method to sharpen my own conversational abilities. I try to be the friendliest person that whomever I’m talking to will remember that day. It sounds odd but it works.

Trouble Selling

What if you are talking to plenty of prospects but none of them are saying yes? The primary reason for a client not having said yes is that you haven’t had enough conversations with them yet. I’m being very deliberate here in not saying “a client that has said no.” Most clients won’t say no outright. They just simply won’t commit.

So why won’t they?  The surprising reason in most cases is that you haven’t asked them for the sale. A statement as simple as, “So, are you ready to give it a try?” after your presentation will surprise you by how often it results in a finalized sale. Clients wait to be asked for a sale before committing. Be sure to ask for it.

There are some great materials available to help you understand what a sales process is and increase your skill at it. However, if sales is just not for you, find a sales person you trust in your network of contacts and have a conversation about them handling sales for you on a commission. If they have trust in you, it is very likely they will be happy to partner with you.

Doing it Yourself

The concierge business model works well and is not difficult to set up. What follows is a step-by-step plan detailing how to implement this model for yourself. It is not complicated, it just requires thinking differently about how to package and present what you offer. Broaden your thinking and you will increase your potential income.

Redefine Yourself

From this moment forward you are a Concierge Programmer. Stop thinking of and marketing yourself as a specialist. Look at your marketing material. How narrow is your definition of what you offer?  Expand that definition. Make a list of all the technologies, processes, tools, and projects you have worked on. Indicate your comfort level in selling that service to clients. Use the Red, Yellow, Green system.

Green means you have no reservations about offering the service. You are ready to go.

Yellow items are things you are somewhat confident in your ability to provide but might need some extra time or additional research. Proceed with caution.

Red items are things that, although you’ve worked with them, you do not feel you can be successful at delivering. Stop! Either be willing to say no, or have a resource you are comfortable referring clients to.

This list will show you what you are capable of. It will reset your self-image. It will also help you prepare for conversations with clients by establishing how you will respond when asked about a specific topic.

However, this is not a catalog to put in front of clients. Your goal isn’t to have clients select from a menu of options. Your goal is to get them to have a conversation with you, so you can find out what it is that they really need and present yourself as the way to fill those needs.

Talk to Clients

Start out with those clients you’ve worked with in the past. You have a built-in opening with them, following up on the previous work you’ve done.

Don’t make this a superficial conversation. Have the client’s interest foremost in mind when you talk to them. If they are facing challenges with what has been done in the past, be as helpful as possible. Eventually the opportunity to ask them if they have any new initiatives underway will present itself.

Ask them to describe what they have going on, even it is 180 degrees away from what you’ve worked on with them in the past. Listen to what they are saying. You are looking for them to describe situations that match your problem statement: “You as a customer often have need of diverse programming capabilities month to month, and each time you bring in a new person you spend time and money getting them up to speed.”

Once they’ve described some form of this scenario to you, present them with the problem statement and ask them to confirm this is indeed what they are encountering. It shouldn’t be hard to help them see their situation for what it is in terms of the problem statement. When they’ve confirmed this is indeed the case, present the desired outcome statement: “A consistent resource to draw on to address your diverse needs from month to month would save time and money.”

Again, because they have agreed with the problem statement, the outcome statement should be easy for them to accept. Since A, if B then C. You are building a logical proof of the solution you are about to propose.

When they have agreed with the logic of your problem and outcome statements proceed to your proposal, “I am a skilled programmer with diverse capabilities. I can address a wide range of technologies, concepts, and problems. I am familiar with your organization and can start immediately on any project you present. I require no additional ramp-up time beyond my initial engagement. For a monthly retainer that includes a set number of hours you can guarantee my availability each month to address any need you have.”

You will tailor these statements to the specifics of you, your client, and your client’s needs, but the process is the same. You echo the problem your client has described to you in the form of your problem statement, you present the desired outcome that resolves the problem they are experiencing, and you propose your services as a concierge on retainer as an effective solution.

When they accept, you are ready to move on to setting the terms of the agreement.

Setting Terms

This part can seem intimidating, especially if you’ve never worked on retainer before. The good news is that with some advance preparation, this part will flow smoothly. You’ve already convinced your client of their need and they want to take the next step. They want to get started. The agreement on terms is simply a detail that needs to be established.

The first point to clarify is the number of hours per month the client is going to retain you for. Be sure you have a good understanding of your availability and capacity. A typical month has four forty-hour weeks totaling 160 hours available. Depending on your situation you may have more or less. Know your number and do not overcommit.

Next, determine the rate per hour that you will charge. Research programming rates in your market. Talk to other programmers that are charging by the hour. Survey businesses to see what they are paying hourly for programming work. Know the rate you need to meet your own expenses. Determine what rate you will quote to clients and determine what, if any, reduction you will allow for in your negotiation with your client.

Formalize the Agreement

This is where you and your client put pen to paper and sign the master services agreement. Consult your legal counsel to either draw up your agreement or to review the agreement your client has presented to you. Do not rely on a verbal or handshake agreement. Have a formal, signed contract before accepting payment or beginning work for your client.

Get to Work

With the agreement in place, your client will write you a check for the hours in the upcoming month. Talk to them about what they need you to work on first. In most cases, they will have a laundry list of items to steadily feed to you. Start knocking them out and keeping track of your hours worked.

You will want to have a log of the work you’ve done for your client in case they want an itemized statement from you or if there is ever a dispute over the work you’ve done.

Resources

There are some great resources that I’ve drawn on to help me get my concierge practice off the ground. Each provides some valuable building blocks that will help you lay the foundation and build your own Concierge Programmer practice with your clients. Here are the top three that I recommend to you for getting started.

Flawless Consulting by Peter Block

This book will give you the mindset needed to dig deeper with your clients to get to their true need. It differentiates between Expert Consulting and Collaborative Consulting, and how each has a different approach and result. Reading this book will give you a clearer understanding of what you provide and how to provide it in a way that results in your client being better because of their relationship with you.

It’s Not Luck by Eliyahu Goldratt

This book teaches you how to look for your customer’s problem statements, analyze them for underlying factors, and present effective solutions. It’s presented as a narrative of fictional characters, but uses this parable form to teach you how to more arrive at more effective solutions for your customers.

Disciplined Entrepreneurship by Bill Aulet

Although this book focuses on products rather than services, the principles of customer persona and product definition all apply to the Concierge model. Working through the 24 steps in this book will get you thinking creatively. You will be better positioned to find deeper solutions to your client’s needs.

The Concierge Programmer Retrospective

The Concierge model has helped me expand my business. It has provided more leads, more stable income, and more income overall. Once I redefined what I could offer beyond my initial narrow focus, the floodgates of opportunity opened. I began helping more clients and helping my clients with more.

Flexibility equals greater opportunity. Be realistic but creative about what you can offer clients, and you too can be successful with the Concierge model.

Get out there and find the opportunity you’ve been missing!

About the author

Nat Thompson

Nat Thompson has worked in information technology since he graduated college. He began in 1997 as a consultant with IBM focused on database development and administration, then moved on to focus on e-commerce and website development. Over the next ten years, he added experience in information security, software development methodology, project management and product management to his portfolio. Now, he works with businesses to deliver solutions and improve processes to help them achieve their goals of time savings, cost reduction and increased profits. He owns and operates NatThompson.com where he writes about Agile, Cloud, and software development. It’s a great blend of technology and process.