Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Not-So-Fine Line Between Value and Greed ...

The always-interesting Jim Romenesko posted this item today about a blogger in Philly who posted this on her Facebook page:

"Instead of Cyber Monday I opted for Generous Monday and I waited all day for phone calls, texts or emails thanking me for the FREE work I did for people who have helped me out. AND...nothing. Crickets chirping. Sometimes I wonder why I help other people out. WHATEVER. Now every text, email and biz correspondence with [site name redacted] is billable. So if u contact me on any level for 10 min or less you will be charged $75. Think before you contact me. And we need all credit cards on file."

Ms. Blogger's rant — since deleted, apparently (and wisely) — really struck a bad chord with me.

What's up with expecting to be thanked for the work you do for people who have helped you out?

Yes, thank-yous are nice. But if you're doing work as a gesture of gratitude because you yourself have already been on the receiving end of help, that's effectively you thanking them.

That you now expect them to come fawning to your door with gratitude for the simple reciprocation that you should have done in the first place is ridiculous.

One of the things I'm learning as I carve out this new life of working for myself is that, yes, I need to get better about billing for my time. I'm perhaps too quick to dismiss something as no big effort or feel strange about wanting to bill a client for it. But I wasn't raised in a "Give me money for every single thing I do" way.

A couple of years ago, my parents were taking a trip and instead of hiring a car service, they wanted to pay me to drive them to the airport. I refused any money. My mom started to insist. I cut her off and said, "I'm sorry that you raised the kind of children who won't allow their parents to pay them to drive them to the airport."

I'm their kid. Of course I'll drive them to the airport. I don't expect to be compensated for it.

My mom did insist on paying for gas. OK, fine. I let them pay for gas. It made them feel better and I appreciated the gesture.

Granted, family is family and business is business, but my brain doesn't much differentiate the two.

I have a client who is also a friend for whom I have offered to help on small things. He declines because he can't pay me for everything I do. And I respect that he values my work and wants to pay me, but my point to him is this: Let me help you on the little things. Some day, when there's a big thing with a budget, yes, you can pay me for that.

And I have another client friend who recently insisted that I bill her for my time on a project that was really more socializing than work. I started to dismiss the idea and she said, "Your time is worth something. Nothing is free." So I billed her a few bucks, but more than the dollars, I appreciated her reinforcing the notion that I need to get better about billing and not let everything slide.

I'm very fortunate to have clients who are so respectful of my work. There are certainly a lot of entities in the world that want folks to work for next to nothing, if not nothing itself.

But I'm also happy to help purely for the sake of helping. (And also because the editor in me can't help herself when she sees a mistake.)

I know some folks who run a web site I really love and when I see errors, I fire off quick notes to the appropriate parties to let them know. I am all too familiar with publishing a post only to read it again later and see a typo in it. It's common to miss errors in our own work. So folks are usually grateful to me for letting them know, and I am mindful to mention that if they would prefer I not write in such instances, to simply let me know. I certainly don't want to be a pest.

And while there is no overt demand for quid pro quo from my side, those exchanges continue to forge a relationship that has evolved to a place where they've asked me to be part of a podcast series and who knows, someday, perhaps something else will come along.

But that's not why I'm in touch with them. I like them and I like their site and I know they want it to be as polished as possible and I know that I appreciate it when people write to let me know about typos on my blog so I simply pay it forward, as it were, and let others know when I see typos on theirs.

I sure as hell do not stick my hand out and say, "That'll be seventy-five dollars."

I can't think of a faster way to ensure that folks would never want to work with me again.

I had a follow-up conversation with a client this morning about a project that started a few weeks ago. She's not entirely happy with the existing content but she's not yet sure what she wants it to be. I've already billed for the first part of the work we've accomplished, so I suggested that we simply press Pause. "You know how sometimes you hang up the phone and you think, 'That's what I should have said to that person!'?" I asked her. Yep, she said. If something sparks in her brain over the next days or weeks, I said, she's free to contact me and we'll use that as a starting point to revise the copy. I want her to be happy. I want her to connect with the copy that she will use to represent her product in the marketplace. She is very much a part of her product. Her collateral shouldn't feel disconnected from her, it should feel like an extension.

She seemed slightly surprised that I was being so flexible. But what other way is there to be? Sometimes my copy hits the bullseye the first time out. Sometimes, it overshoots the mark and I need to revise and try again. It's a process.

But the relationships with the clients are the key.

I signed a contract this morning for a multi-month project that came to me through a recommendation. Most of my work is based on referrals. And while I'm very pleased that my work is good and that clients are confident in recommending me on that basis, I'm even more gratified when they're able to add a personal aside, such as this recommendation from a résumé client:

"I contacted Beth to help rewrite my resume and am thrilled with the result. My resume no longer reads like a series of lifeless bullet points. It now tells the story of my career and allows my personality to shine through. This girl has talent! Not only does Beth do great work, she's genuine and fun - such a pleasure to work with."

That last part is important to me. I don't expect to become fast friends with every client, but working relationships are relationships, and I'm pleased to be able to connect with people as people in addition to delivering good work.

And given that I am my business and given that it's my nature to help others, I'm happy to give clients a bit of "free" effort for the goodwill it creates. If those gestures benefit me in some way someday, that's nice. But that's not why I offer them. I don't give with the expectation of getting back. I give to give.

Yes, some folks will take advantage of that. And in those instances, I respond accordingly.

But I'd much rather conduct business from a place of believing that most folks are essentially kind and fair rather than believing that I should bill everyone upfront for every moment of contact with me.

My work is valuable but money has never been my first and foremost motivation. And while I need to find a slightly better balance, I'm happy on this side of the see-saw.


Blogger Dave D said...

Beth - I always appreciate your posts, thank you for writing them. As a person who lives in the consulting world (and who is responsible at a P&L level for a practice), I deal with this decision every day and multiple times a day.

The net of this is that for each person/organization, there is a level of 'investment' that we have to realize and account for. Some of it may be very tangible (e.g. marketing, hiring resources into a non-utilized situation, etc.) and much of it is either non-tangible or non-planned (e.g. drinks/dinner ad hoc for a client, re-work, opportunity costs to win work in a competitive situation, etc.). The key, though, is that it's 'investment' with the knowledge and understanding that it will be recouped somewhere and somehow.

The other thing to mention here is that no one (or at least, no customer...) wants to be "nickel and dimed" to death. There's an inherent assumption that service providers have already worked into their pricing some factor for 'customer service' and expect such service to be given 'freely' - whether it's truly 'free' or not. The business climate today is not the same as it was in the days of the 'Firm' where you automagically billed in 15 minute increments when you simply thought about a client, let alone did any tangible work. Much of today's climate is because of these egregious scenarios and the collective corporate reaction to them.

In the end, you 'invest' where and what you need to and feel is appropriate to get an appropriate return. Bitching about not getting that return provides zero value and may, in the end, decrease your future busines prospects.

1:10 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Good comment, Dave. Thanks. I always appreciate your thoughtful responses.

Your mention of customers not wanting to be nickel and dimed to death is part of my philosophy, which is why I often offer to do things for clients that will take me a whopping five minutes yet provide a bit of polish on their end. I don't need them to pay me for the five minutes. I know it'll all work out in the end. And even if it doesn't end up being equitable, who cares? I did a nice thing for someone and it never hurts to have a credit in the karma column on life's balance sheet, eh?

1:16 PM  
Blogger Dave D said...

Beth - absolutely agree and that's why I (and my people) do exactly the same thing. That 'investment' in karma/goodwill, etc. goes a tremendous way, most of the time, in cementing relationships and building trust.

Aside from the potential afterlife benefits, it's just simply good business because it also differentiates you from your competitors. Again, there are always opportunities to get taken advantage of, and it does happen, but in the end people will usually go back to someone/someplace that gives them a 'little extra' for their dollar because it helps them feel like they got a better deal in the end.

It's all good. :)

10:18 AM  
Blogger Beth said...


10:20 AM  

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