Years ago when I lived in San Francisco and times were tight, I was practicing massage therapy on a regular basis. Occasionally, I would question whether or not my rates were too high. I’d bring it up with my best friend, who founded his own online business printing high quality business cards (they were expensive… not the vistaprint crap, but the cards were gorgeous and totally worth it). The conversation would always go like this:
me: Business has been tight. I’m thinking of dropping my rates to get more customers.
him: Don’t drop your rates. Cheap rates means cheap customers. You don’t want cheap customers.
me: Yeah, but I could use more customers.
him: Cheap customers waste your time. What’s your time worth?
Inevitably I’d learn this lesson the hard way. When I moved to Chicago in the winter of 2005 I’d occasionally give a client a break on my rate to entice them to visit more often. Invariably the customer getting the discount would be the one who was always late and then would beg for more time without being willing to pay the difference.
So, I stopped dropping my massage rate. For customers who paid my full rate or tipped, I’d be generous with my time; I’d be less of a clock-watcher. The ones who came back again and again and got more than an hour of work and became part of my devoted client-base. They were willing to invest in my full rate and in exchange, I was willing to invest more time in them. I paid the bills and they got great service.
As a dance instructor just starting out years ago, I started with lower rates, so that I’d be competitive with dance teachers at my level. As I’ve gained experience and traveled abroad multiple times to teach, I’ve felt justified in increasing my rate even though I’d happily do what I do for free, since I love working with people on their dancing.
Occasionally I do offer my services to friends and close colleagues for free or nothing. I suggest a trade, or agree to spend time working and training with a colleague who has become more of a friend. (This agreement doesn’t apply to teaching partners with whom I’m building shared curriculum—we don’t charge each other to train together.) It usually applies to someone who wants more dance training and has some other business relationship with me.
And, what I’ve learned the hard way, yet again, is that when you offer to give your services away for free… or you don’t negotiate a clear exchange, people, even your friends take you for granted. They don’t show up, they flake, they’re late or they try to raincheck your time, often to a time-frame that’s no longer viable.
On the other side of it, I’ve watched as close friends pay practitioners and teachers less qualified than me for bodywork or instruction, even though they’re willing to give lip-service to my skills. This may just be a desire for business/friendship separation or an uncertainty for how to conduct business with a friend, but it still baffles me.
I don’t have clear solutions to either of these situations. Every dance teacher I know probably has friends with whom they’d love to work. Because they’re our friends, we’re often willing to do more for them, to share our skills in the hopes of enriching their lives and therefore adding to our own enjoyment of the dance. But when our colleague and friends waste our time, squander the resources closest to them, or simply fail to take advantage of what we offer, especially when we offer it for cheap or free, it can feel personal.
I’m a solutions oriented girl. I usually make clear rules for myself when it comes to handling business and friends. But I don’t have any on this one, other than to stop giving it away for free, which feels stingy to me. So, I want to hear yours.