Keeping Up Team Morale When Working with Retainer Clients

Agency Leadership

Over the past several years, many of our clients have in one way or another become retainer clients. This means that we’ve worked with them over a long period of time on a monthly, quarterly, or annual basis.

We handle everything from website optimization to ongoing marketing campaigns to content creation. As a company, we love these relationships. Client acquisition cost is non-existent and we are able to establish a strong relationship built on trust.

Image for post

Retainers allow us to evolve the work created during our initial engagement, dive deeper in understanding the customer/audience, and over time, create real impact for our client’s businesses. With that said, it’s not always rainbows and butterflies.

A retainer means that the team will work on numerous, if not dozens of projects for that one client over the course of the relationship. Whenever this topic comes up among colleagues, they mention this as one of their biggest challenges (after creating a retainer relationship, of course).

How do you keep the team engaged when the work is really just a lot of the same stuff? Doesn’t the relationship become dry?

We’ve had our ups and downs but have made it a priority to creating an environment that will keep the team engaged and energetic on all projects. It’s been particularly exciting to see the team rally around retainer client’s projects in recent years.

Below are some tips for keeping up team morale when dealing with retainer client’s projects.

Distribute knowledge

When signing a client onto a retainer, it’s natural to think that the next best step is to build a dedicated team that will work on that client’s projects and that client’s projects only. Sure, this approach has its benefits but overall, the negatives outweigh the positives.

Rather than building a dedicated team; plan to onboard more than one designer and developer, make sure project managers have other projects to manage, and lastly, give the rest of the team some background on the new engagement.

There are a number of benefits to this approach:

  • It encourages variety in the team’s workload. Cycling people through the project keeps ideas fresh, introduces new perspectives, and ultimately, creates stronger work.
  • If there’s any turnover on the team, the account doesn’t suffer. If the team is structured as above and knowledge is shared, projects should be able to continue as planned. This also means that no one team member is left carrying all the weight.
  • Dedicated teams often mean that the client’s revenue is supporting that team’s salary. We all know why that can be a problem. At Barrel, we’ve made it a rule that no one client take up a majority of our annual revenue. Big layoffs = the exact opposite of team morale.

Highlight the big picture

Have you ever wondered how the team could be getting bored when leadership isn’t at all tired of retainer clients? There’s actually more to it than one might think.

Every agency operates a little differently when it comes to business development but even so, leadership is often involved in very early discussions with the client.

We talk about the client’s business, where they are headed, what they hope to accomplish, and how the agency is going to help them achieve all of this. Among the leadership team, we’re excited about what this client means for our portfolio or how the ongoing work will impact revenue.

Then, the project is won!

We onboard the team and somehow, we forget almost everything that happened before. We get tactical. We share the project, what features are needed, how many templates we’re making, etc.

We haven’t set the team up to care about anything else.

Luckily, there’s a solution: highlight the big picture for the team. Tell them the story of how the business was won. Was it a referral from a past client? Did they reach out after seeing a specific portfolio piece? Maybe they clicked one of the agency’s ads that the design team recently helped create. Why has the agency decided to work with the client?

How will the agency add value? Why is the agency excited to get the project started? How have previous projects prepared the agency for the work to be done with this client? Open the floor for any specific questions from the team. When relevant, bring in your client’s product so the team can experience it first hand!

These questions apply to all projects. Even when engagements are short, this context makes a big impact over time.

At the end of the day, we want our employees to feel invested in the work (more on that next) and enthusiastic about what’s going. The part we miss is giving them the tools to do so. What better way than to include them in the part of the process they often miss so that they too can get the big picture?

Note: It’s never a bad idea to extend this knowledge to those beyond the project team in a team meeting or other event. The last thing we’d want is for any employee to be confused about why a client is a client.

Bring it back to results

In his book The Fifth Discipline, author Peter Senge states:

“The most powerful learning comes from direct experience. Indeed, we learn eating, crawling, walking, and communicating through direct trial and error — through taking an action and seeing the consequences of that action; then taking a new and different action. But what happens when we can no longer observe the consequences of our actions?”

This statement couldn’t be more true.

When people learn and see the fruits of their labor; they’re more enthusiastic and feel invested. It’s human nature.

  • People make healthy eating a priority when they see an impact from their change in diet.
  • People amplify their workouts when they start seeing results.
  • A designer becomes more invested in making emails when they find out that their decision to change up their approach and create an animated graphic yielded the highest performing email the client has ever sent.

Unfortunately, unlike healthy eating or exercise, this impact isn’t always clear. It’s our jobs to surface results for the team and to avoid any gaps, train employees to seek out this type of information. Help create the system for them to learn.

If you’re panicking, ready to compile an extensive report on results, don’t sweat it. There are a few easy ways to make the right changes now for long-term impact:

  • Adapt your language to focus more on results. When reviewing designs or discussing a new feature, talk about the impact of those decisions and tie it back to the goal of the project. Over time, this can help evolve the team’s mindset.
  • Include the full team on projects debriefs. If you don’t have debriefs, make sure you do — no matter the size of the project. Use this time to talk about what worked on the project, what didn’t work on the project, and any key takeaways. Don’t forget to talk about how the project has impacted the client or what KPIs are being tracked.
  • When kicking off a project that’s similar to one from the past, reference what was learned on the last project. Collaborate with the team to develop a strategy for the new project, don’t hand it to them on a silver platter.
  • It’s just as important to share progress with the internal team as it is with the client. If the whole team isn’t on ongoing meetings with the client, schedule weekly or monthly check-ins to catch everyone up on the status of the relationship, what’s recently launched, what’s in progress, and what’s coming up next.

Open up the airwaves

There are so many tools for keeping communication centralized (we use Basecamp). While it’s always important to keep key conversations documented and make sure the project manager is aware of all new feature requests, delays in feedback, etc. — we’ve seen a lot of success in opening up the conversation between the client team and employees.

This isn’t just on basecamp but with other tools like Slack, commenting in Google Docs, or in some cases, even exchanging phone numbers.

Communication can be a tricky topic, especially in environments where there are multiple layers of hierarchy and employees are often removed from directly working with clients.

It’s understandable, we don’t always trust that every employee can handle client conversations but more often than none; employees are left missing important conversations that could positively impact their work, feeling undervalued or left out, and ultimately becoming unmotivated. In retainer relationships especially, there’s always a time to give it a try.

By opening up a channel for the team to directly communicate with the client, the relationship becomes more like a collaboration than a typical client <> agency relationship. In the end, the hope is that:

  • Revisions/updates can be made more efficiently and the relationship always feels active
  • Employees start to really understand the client’s motivations/preferences and can be more strategic with their approach
  • Both teams feel invested because they’re able to openly share new ideas and work together to turn them into results
  • Leadership can provide real value by focusing on overall vision and strategy rather than getting bogged down by day-to-day communication

Celebrate the wins, debrief on the losses, and plan for more wins

Think about the last time everyone was so busy with work that you felt like you needed to hire more people immediately or you might not make it through.

Now think about that big project that launched during the same time for one of your long-term retainer clients...

What did you do?

Oh, that’s right — you shared a link to the team on Slack and followed it up with a powerful message:

“Congrats (client name) team, great job!”

Your team has been putting in countless hours to make this new project a reality and now that it’s launched, it’s just on to the next thing?

Yes, this is the reality of the business but this is also an opportunity to turn the experience into a learning experience. One that most employees crave, whether they realize it or not.

Celebrate the wins

When the project goes really well, celebrate the win with the team. Take the end of the day to thank everyone outside of a computer screen, talk about what went well and how it can be even better next time.

(You wouldn’t believe the power of a few pizzas during this conversation!) Not only do employees feel valued for their hard work but they’re also able to share a sense of pride with the rest of the team.

Debrief on the losses

If a project results in a negative experience like a missed deadline or even a client pulling the contract, don’t leave it at that. Remember: Employees are going to feel the loss, too, and you never know how hard they’re going to take it. Rather than letting this demotivate the team, it’s your job to turn the experience around and make it into a positive one.

What can we take away from the project? Where did we go wrong? Are there any areas of the process that actually went really well? How can we do better next time?

Plan for more wins

Whether the project went well or not, it all comes down to rallying the team for the next big win and working together to find ways to raise the bar on the relationship.

The benefit of a retainer client is that over time you not only get a real sense of the client’s business/brand/audience/etc but every new feature or launch can help surface insights that make every next step more strategic. Use this to your advantage!


All in all, if you want to keep up team morale when working with retainer clients; it’s important to create a culture that prioritizes ownership, respect, and learning above all else. With every project experience, provide the big picture to help the team feel more invested in the work and understand why their work actually matters.

Give them a chance to explain their thinking and collaborate with clients to find the best solution. Show your team you care by continually celebrating the wins, having ongoing debriefs to analyze process, and help them prepare for even bigger wins next time.

Have you ever dealt with low team morale on retainer projects?

This article was originally published on Startup Grind.

Join My Newsletter

Every Monday, I share weekly themes and progress in running an agency business/team and doing my best to live a good life. Details