The Problem with Free

Image courtesy of Jacob Edward's photostream

Image courtesy of Jacob Edward’s photostream

Over the past two years, my wife and I have been trying to instill the value of money in our 12 year old twin boys by having them save and pay for some of the things that they want: high-end headphones, MP3 players, and even sports jerseys. It is truly amazing how differently they treat the products that they have paid for as opposed to things we have purchased for them. The headphones are carefully tucked away in their protective cases, the iPods are cherished and wrapped in protective cases at all times, and the jerseys are hung in their closets with care. Meanwhile many of the things we have purchased have been treated carelessly or, in some cases, lost.

Why do they seem to treat the things we have purchased for them with relative indifference while they treat the things they have bought for themselves with such reverence? The answer is value and emotion. The vast majority of people simply do not have an emotional attachment to products or services they receive at no charge. It’s just human nature. Think about it: when you get a product for free, do you take care of it the same way as if you paid for it?

In the promotional products industry, I see many companies eager to give costly products and important services away as they try to protect their current clients and find new ones. When you freely give things away, clients will neither value nor have an emotional attachment to the relationship and they will continue to expect more from you while insisting on paying less. It’s a race to the bottom and that’s one race you don’t want to win.

However, if you are going to give away something for free, it is critical that you attach additional value. For example, if you are giving a client an ecommerce site for free – even though you will incur real costs in terms of dollars and resource allocation – have them sign a statement of work that details the following:

•    The work to be done
•    The cost (value) of that work
•    The charge ($0.00) to the client

The client still gets a website at no charge, but now you have an opportunity to build value into the conversation. Not only they will treat the website as if they paid for it themselves, they will be far less likely to ask for countless time-killing changes.

When you ensure the client sees real value in everything do you – especially “freebies” – they will begin to form that emotional attachment which will lead to long-term relationships.

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