As a small business owner, some of my best experiences and growth opportunities have been a result of me giving away my services. Yet, not charging for services when I should have has also gotten me into a lot of trouble. Knowing when to give and when to draw the line can make or break a small business.
I am in the professional services business. My boutique agency provides web design and development, as well as Internet marketing services. Starting from scratch ten years ago was tough. I actually took on my first few clients for free, just to start a portfolio where I could “hang my hat.” This was particularly helpful for search engine optimization services, because once I had a handful of successful clients, the work started to snowball. Flash-forward almost a decade later: that initial portfolio helped my business to become a leader in our metro area. In terms of getting started, giving your services away is an awesome way to invest in yourself, in order to create a portfolio and establish a track record. Not to mention, your beta customers will be thrilled. You will likely get your best testimonials and online reviews from this initial group of clients, too.
Yet another area where giving services away has been not only rewarding, but also helpful for my small business, is to charities in need. This is a form of cause marketing. Once or twice a year, we will create a new website for an existing, established non-profit in our metro area. We get some of the best publicity, testimonials and social media exposure when we donate new websites to organizations in need. From a business development standpoint, working with established local charities has another phenomenal benefit: the chance to impress board members. In my case, some of those board members have been the most influential business leaders in the area. Our work for charities has led to many board member referrals – and there is no better referral than one by a respected member of the community.
There is a dark side to giving services away, especially when you are providing services to an existing or recent client. In the earlier years of my company, I was always tempted (and sometimes still am) to over-deliver on projects. When you condition a client to expect more than they pay for, they expect you to do more for free. Sooner or later, you will end up disappointing them when you try to set boundaries after the fact. Providing free work mid-engagement cheapens your value and makes reasonable clients turn greedy. There is nothing worse than working your butt off on an engagement, only to have the client “dissatisfied about what they didn’t get,” versus all the great work they did.
You don’t have to let your good nature back you into a corner. Here are some basic tips that have helped me to keep my clients and me in line:
1. Make a point of discussing “scope creep” issues at the start of the relationship. Tell your clients that surprises hurt both sides, so it’s important to spell out the deliverables early and agree on how to treat requests that are out of the scope of the project or service.
2. Create a detailed order form or contract that specifies a cost for time or an itemized list of upgrades or additional services. A sample list of pricing or fees communicate that any work outside of the scope has specific value.
3. Learn to say “no.” If you are like me—always eager to please—this can be a tough one. For professional service providers, you almost always have to say no at some point during an engagement.
4. Set very clear expectations on post-delivery support. This can be one of those “gotchas” for both the provider and the client. For service providers, you have to be careful not to let a client back into extra services under the guise of warranty support. Once again, communication and clear documentation regarding after-purchase support protects both the client and the provider.