Should we work for free in a crisis?

Lots of people wondered if they should discount their services or even work for free during the COVID19 crisis.

Some were pressured into doing free work by clients, or by thinking competitors will be doing it, so they should too.

Leaping in with offers of help or submitting to pressure can lead to resentment.

“I want to help” is a common feeling. 

Most people who start their own business have an urge to help. We’ve spotted a need and devised a solution. For some people, getting paid to do something they love feels like a bonus, and even in ‘normal’ times many struggle to accomodate people who need their services but can’t afford them.

The sense of wanting to help can come from a place of also wanting to feel worthy, or wanting to be of service. Not feeling needed can challenge our sense of purpose.

When lots of people are hurting, an unhealthy dose of rescuer complex can emerge. We want to be part of the solution; to help, to be heroes.

But good intentions can lead to very bad outcomes.

The ideal client / supplier relationship is when we treat each other as valued partners. When the power balance shifts we change that relationship and it is rarely successful.

Our personal values and business values are usually very closely aligned and working for someone who doesn’t share those values can quickly lead to resentment. We can resent being taken advantage of and the people we set out to rescue can resent that we see them as needy and unable to help themselves.

A further complication is that free is all too often associated with things that have little or no value. When we charge for our skills and talent we are sending messages about the value we bring to others.

This sense of value starts with our feelings of self-worth and discounting it has very deep consequences, sometimes leading to a feeling of martyrdom.

People who work for free can be perceived as ‘playing at it’ or someone with little experience or confidence so it needs to be handled with care!

Be your own hero first

Just as we’re all familiar with the injunction, “put the oxygen mask on yourself before attempting to help others”, in times of stress we need to be even more aware of this.

One solution is to make sure we don’t use up all our fuel and always keep a reserve of 20% (stop before the fuel indicator goes into the red).  By safeguarding our last 20% of energy we stay moderately safe and sane, not just for ourselves but for the people who rely on us.

Have a helping strategy

Rather than a scattergun approach – diving in to help anyone and everyone who looks as though they need us, sit back and work out who you are best placed to help, who is your ideal customer, and particularly how we can channel goodwill and good intentions into a strategy that will help everyone in the long run.

Ideas for alternative ways to respond

When you have some answers and are clear about your motivation, these ideas may help you decide what to do:

If we suddenly switch from charging to free, the people who have paid for our services in the past may wonder why they did that and it could affect future relationships, so only offer free or discounted services if they are different and of different value to your full price services – otherwise its hard to justify putting prices back up when the crisis is over.

Also, only do it if it will broaden your potiential customer base. There’s no point in giving stuff away to people you’ll never see again.

In order to stay available to help clients and potiential clients you need to ensure the survival of your own business but that doesn’t mean you can’t offer some help.

These are some strategies you might look at:

  • Create a new product or service that has minimal cost to you to deliver that will be specific to this situation but may also lead to future business.
  • Offer extended or deferred payment plans to help people trade through the crisis and emerge with a healthy business.
  • Offer Pay What You Want options for very specific offerings with a clear indication of what the product or service usually costs. This can lead to good relationships that can be developed when the crisis is over.

If you’d like to talk over more specific solutions for your business, or if you are worried about what is happening and how to survive or make sense of the uncertainty, please get in touch!

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