Turning “free” into strategic business building
By:  MaryAnn Rivers
This question seems to come up all the time from new health coaches. “What should I say or do when someone I know wants me to coach them for free?”   In my opinion it’s not really a yes or no answer.
So when is free coaching a good idea and advantageous to those you are helping and for building your skills or business?   When does it become a problem and how do you identify those situations? How do you set healthy boundaries for your own physical and emotional health when you do offer free coaching?
Last week I am fortunate enough to be enjoying an end of season ski trip in the beautiful mountains of Lake Tahoe, Nevada with my husband, boys and another family.   My friend Bev who is with us happens to be a fitness coach and has been building her client base successfully for the past 6 years.  The topic of providing ‘free’ fitness, nutrition or health advice was perfect for our 2 hour escape off the slopes.
We both pursued health coaching because we get fulfillment from seeing others change their lives and impact those around them. Yet fitness and health coaching is not just a hobby for either of us. We are both driven and desire to build highly successful, profitable businesses. However, we are clear that never want wealth building to become our primary focus.  Our mantra – “Aim first to help, focus on the customer and the money will follow”. We both were able to cite examples where we helped someone out of love and a giving spirit and we gained more benefit than they did. What is your intention for your business and what will bring you the most fulfillment?
Our best collaborative advice for how to strike the balance and turn free coaching into a win for everyone follows.
Practice Skills on Your Family and Friends
If you are new to health coaching the more you practice the art of listening, asking thought provoking questions and using selective silence the better. In the end you will be a stronger coach. Family and friends are sometimes the most difficult to work with so if you can be successful with them imagine how you can influence others.  If you are nervous about working with people you don’t know this is a great way to build your confidence before you break out into new territories.
Test Your System or Processes

When you first start coaching you aren’t exactly sure how best to step people through a gradual program that doesn’t push them too fast, yet presses hard enough to make change. What techniques, materials and exercises will work the best?  How do you use a common platform each time yet tailor the program to the individual need in an efficient way? Engage those you are coaching for free in helping you critique the program as it develops. After each session ask them what worked best? What was most helpful and what would they do to improve? Make their willingness to provide feedback part of your agreement for free coaching. Your paying clients will reap the benefits of a more finely tuned program.
Trade Services
Can you barter with others to help you build your business in areas that you have no expertise? Maybe your friend is an accountant and can help you set up your financial system. Can a family member watch your kids while you are doing workshops or marketing to build your clientele that can be their payment?  Make your free coaching a ‘’give to get” opportunity.
Pair Up
Do you have more than one person that is a free coaching candidate?  Coach them together if possible and make better use of your time.  Make them work together as accountability partners for better long term success.  You’ll be getting group coaching experience to boot.
Aim for success and ask for testimonials

Offer to coach for free with the understanding that they will write a testimonial of how you helped them. Or ask them to help you recruit at least 1-2 future clients for you by talking to those they know about your program.  When others comment on their progress make sure they have business cards or can direct potential clients back to you. Train your first clients to be your sales force.  You may even want to seek out certain people that are influential in their circle to offer free services. Consider community & spiritual leaders, business owners, or born sales people. “Influencers” can help you get your business off to a fast start as they are connected and role models.
Selectively choose those who will sharpen your saw
Offer free services to certain people that you know will challenge you. Maybe someone who has a specific condition where you need experience? If you are an extrovert and need to practice listening and getting comfortable with moments of silent breakthrough seek out introverts. Measure how often you are listening versus talking and aim to improve with each session.
When “free” coaching crosses your boundaries

I believe that helping family and friends for free can be highly advantageous while you are building your business. However you should also be wary of people that expect too much time or attention, drain your energy or lead you to feelings of resentment.   Do you recognize any of these people?
All talk, No Action
We all know people who have great intentions and will spend hours listening to your advice but truly are not willing to make the changes necessary to become healthier.  Or are you reserving time for this person and they frequently cancel because they are truly committed.
 If you see that all the time you are spending is falling on “deaf ears” it’s time to have a loving and direct conversation with the person about whether they are really ready to make change. If you don’t see a true effort after this talk let them know they just aren’t ready and your time is better spent on those who will most benefit. You are only the coach – they have to want it bad enough to do the work.
The Sampler
This is someone who doesn’t really want to go through a program but is always calling, texting, emailing for advice. This is possibly the most common scenario. The questions they ask may turn into minutes or even hours of research, guidance, and spending time offering suggestions. Over time this can add up to hours of productive work time.
Instead of doing all the work direct them to websites, blogs or provide materials you already have at your disposal for their information.   Get them started and enlist them in the process of learning. You can also not respond as immediate as you would to the people who are paying you to help them and deserve the “VIP” treatment.   Ask them to share learning and turn them into a researcher for specific topics.
The Expert

In some cases family or friends may not view you as the expert and challenge every suggestion you make. Perhaps you are the baby sister and your older siblings always view you as knowing less. Birth order dynamics can play a huge role in the interactions you have with family. Does every conversation and recommendation you give turn into a debate yet they say they want your help?
If so, it’s time for a conversation about whether they will acknowledge your expertise and heed your advice.  This may be an opportunity for you to build your confidence as you reinvent yourself and how others view you.
Best Practices
In all cases to make the most of your free coaching investments make sure the person you are working with knows the guidelines under which you will work. Clearly spell out your expectations for the arrangement (e.g. times you will meet and committing to those times, providing testimonials or helping to get future clients, bartering for other services and how that will work.) Developing a simple, written ‘statement of understanding’ can assure that the relationship is a win for both of you.
To make sure you are staying committed to your financial goals, you may also want to follow the 80/20 rule.  Agree that you will spend no more than 20% of your time offering free coaching to those you want or to those that can indirectly help you build your business.   The other 80% of your time you should be working with paying clients or working on marketing to build your client base.
Be careful not to devalue your services and pricing by sharing with others that you are coaching certain people for free.  Also make the true value of your services (your normal price) known to non-paying clients.  Once they realize the high value you are providing they should be more committed and better able to sell you to others as they spread the word.
Like everything in life YOU choose how to view each situation. My personal belief is that every challenge has a solution and can be “flipped upside” down to become an opportunity.   Sometimes providing free coaching when someone comes to you motivated and truly ready to change be very beneficial to you and your business growth. Or do it because it just feels good. Giving of yourself within boundaries may be more of a blessing to you in the long run any way.
I’d love to hear how you have found ways to grow and help others by offering your services for free.  Were you blessed more than the person you coached?  Let me know by visiting my Facebook page at  http://www.facebook.com/MaryAnnRiversBiz
Here’s to Making a Difference AND Making a Living!    MAR