The value of free

When you are in business, you are forced to give away free stuff all the time. Especially in the SEO consulting industry, where I am selling time - every time I answer an email or pick up the phone, that's my core product being given away for free.

As you get a bit older and wiser, you learn the value of something that is free.

Free SEO reports

I used to offer free SEO reports from this site. In most cases I could have said "put your keywords in your title" and left it at that, but I generally spent about an hour on the free reports making sure the information was accurate, and useful.

Most people never implemented anything from the report, and many didn't even have the basic courtesy to respond with a simple 'thank you'. Some even came back complaining about how rankings hadn't improved, despite them largely ignoring the recommendations that were made.

I eventually realised the value of these reports was zero. It doesn't matter how good the content was, it just wasn't being taken seriously because it was free.

Free site updates

I also used to work on people's websites without specifically getting in touch with them. Trying to be a pro-active webmaster and fixing spelling mistakes, bugs, usability issues and optimising content for search engines. I wouldn't usually charge for this.

Every so often, the client would get grumpy about a change that was made - it never mattered that the change was an improvement (security, usability, SEO, whatever), what mattered was that a change had been made without approval, and therefore should not have been done. The fact that you were helping them and not charging them means nothing in this case. In fact, the value of your time is less than zero in this case.

Some valuable lessons here. I wanted to talk about how to handle free stuff, and how to make your free stuff valuable.

The value of free

Generally speaking, people don't have an appreciation of anything - unless they pay for it, or unless you tell them what it's worth.
  • If you quote 100 hours for a job and spend 200 hours doing it, how does the client know they got the job for half price?
  • If you are feeling generous renew a domain name for free because you like the client, how would they ever know about it?
  • If you spend a good amount of coin on upgrading a web server, will the clients notice their site is running 30% faster?
  • If you spend time fixing a much-needed usability glitch, and the client doesn't like your changes, are they likely to thank you for making the change?

You can give value to free stuff by communicating it's value to the client. This may seem obvious, but the implications of this will change the way you operate. Doing a good job and throwing in freebies has no value to your business unless you let the client know.
  • When you take longer to complete a job than you should have, reflect this in the hourly rate or as a fixed discount so the client knows they got a discount.
  • When you do a free domain registration, put it on the invoice with $0 payable. If it's not on the invoice, it never existed.
  • When you upgrade a server, let clients know, remind them there is no extra charge, and ask them to try out their sites and see if they like the difference in speed.
  • If you make changes to a site, take the time to explain WHY they were made. With SEO and accessibility in particular, some changes just don't seem obvious to the layman and are more likely to generate frustraion than goodwill.

Doing all this establishes value. Without letting the client know, the value of your offering is zero (or less than zero). And when someone else comes along who is cheaper / faster / has nicer shoes (any Dilbert fans out there?), the client has no reason to stick around.

Creating value

Relationships almost never fail because of a poor standard of work - it almost always comes down to communication. If the developer doesn't communicate their good work, the clients may well assume that nothing is being done. It's as simple as emailing the client saying "Hi (client name), I just spent 10 mins making some text changes to your homepage to help optimise for (some phrase). Let me know if this looks ok".

You really do need to blow your own trumpet when it comes to your 'added value extras' - nobody else is going to.
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