The Price of Free

When I was starting out in my acupuncture practice, I attempted all kinds of creative (and free) marketing ideas to get my name out there. One night, I was struck by what seemed like a fantastic idea. I had about 30 clients in my database at that point. I decided to write out thank-you cards to all of these clients for choosing me as their acupuncturist. Along with the the cards, I included two gift certificates for fully paid sessions of acupuncture. One was for the client, and one was for anyone they chose to refer, no strings attached. As I placed stamps on the cards, I was filled with a growing sense of excitement; very shortly I was going to double my client base! 

About a week after the cards were mailed out, I was working at my second job and started a conversation with a woman who was very interested in acupuncture. After chatting for a bit, she revealed that she worked in public relations, and was happy to give me some free pointers on marketing. 

"What are some things you have done so far to promote yourself?" she asked. 

Bursting with enthusiasm, I told her about the gift card promotion I had just sent out. As I explained it to her, I noticed that her anticipatory smile began to fade. By the time I finished detailing my plan, she was shaking her head and grimacing. 

"Oh, honey. I'm sorry, but that is not going to work. I promise you, you won't get a single new client from this type of promotion."

Perplexed (and rather defensive), I inquired as to why.

"Because when you give people something that has no cost, that's how they perceive it: as worthless. If you give someone a service without monetary value, it loses ALL value in their eyes. You would have done much, much better even offering five percent off, rather than giving your services away for free. You'll see."

I stubbornly refused to believe it, but she was right. I didn't have a single new referral come in with a free gift certificate. My one patient who did end up coming in to use hers ended up rescheduling her session several times, as if she didn't care about the appointment one way or the other. 

This was my first lesson as an entrepreneur on the concept of value in the business world. People want to feel as if they are buying products or services of worth. The more monetary value, the greater the worth. Think about all of those expensive purses out there that sell like hotcakes, even though they cost as much as a small car. Yes, they might be of slightly better quality than the $29.99 special at Target, but the real draw for many is being able to have others look at them and perceive them as being the type of person who can afford that type of product. In their eyes, more money equals higher quality.

When purchasing services, this attitude can be beneficial for the client; after all, what is more motivating than not wanting to throw your money away? For years, I belonged to a very expensive health club and averaged 5-7 days a week working out. When I moved from the area, my only option was a basic gym that was very inexpensive. After I joined, I realized my drive to attend classes regularly dipped significantly along with the price. As a healthcare practitioner, I have noticed that my peers who charge less for sessions often attract patients who are less compliant, less dedicated to treatment, and less likely to show up for appointments. On the other hand, I know of a few acupuncturists who charge exorbitant amounts for their sessions. These practitioners have clients who fully commit themselves to lifestyle changes in their journey to health, and very few cancellations.

As a business owner who is just starting out, it can be difficult to resist the urge to undervalue oneself. In the beginning, every fiber of your being is invested in simply getting people in the door. Dropping your prices or offering freebies can seem like a quick way to do this. Remember, however, that everything you do in your business sets a certain tone, for both your clients and yourself. Once clients begin to undervalue your products or services, it can breed feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. This is a slippery slope to the resenting your clients for their lack of appreciation. Offering incentives can be a helpful way to attract customers or clients, but it should be done in a way that doesn't negate the value of your goods or services.