Reason why upaid coaching is a bad idea

There are any number of reasons that unpaid coaching is a bad idea, for the coach, the client and the profession as a whole. Some of those reasons include:


  • It breeds resentment - Charity has a nasty habit of creating resentment in both the giver and the receiver. Over time, the giver begins to feel used, taken for granted and drained by expectations of service. And the givee feels guilt, anger at being expected to be grateful all the time and a loss of self-esteem and dignity because each gift is another reminder of what they can't provide for themselves. The only healthy, mutually beneficial way to offer charity is for the giver to remain anonymous and for the gift to be received in a way that doesn't require the recipient to pay for it with their dignity or their independence. There is simply no way a straightforward coaching arrangement can meet these requirements.
  • It devalues coaching - If you get something for free, you usually view it as being worth every penny you paid for it. If that. What a wonderful basis for a healthy coaching relationship, no? No.
  • It undermines professionalism - Coaches feel they should be viewed as true professionals. But just think for a moment - when was the last time you saw another trained and respected professional - say a therapist, a doctor, a lawyer or a nurse - start out by setting up shop and promptly offering months of service for no fee whatsoever. Now granted, they may not be charging the big bucks, yet. But I can guarantee you one thing - they are charging something and it's not bargain-basement token fees, either. And yes, they may offer pro-bono work to those who couldn't survive without their services. But coaching is self-actualization, not life support, and it isn't (or shouldn't be) considered a basic-survival-needs service.


  • It violates the core tenet of all helping professions: Physician, heal thyself - One thing you learn early on as a helping profession, whether that's as a nurse, a psychologist or a coach, is to take care of yourself first. If you can't pay your own bills, let alone feel comfortable presenting yourself as a skilled professional or deal with your own insecurities around accepting payment, you're in no position to help anyone else.


  • It commodifies coaching - If folks can get coaching for free, why would they pay someone else for it? And if they can get it for bargain-basement prices, why pay "full retail?" When a mega-stores move into a town and sells stock at artificially deflated prices, it often forces businesses whose products reflect their actual value to close because they can't compete. Likewise, discount coaching makes it all about the money. Never mind that the price doesn't reflect the actual cost of providing the service, or the value of that service in the client's life. When services become price-based rather than value-based, it's never long before someone discovers a source that charges pennies on the dollar (usually in a third world, where those pennies represent a lot of money), after which that service's economy predictably crashes. It's happening in many other highly skilled service industries, from copywriting to X-ray interpretation, that many folks mistakenly considered too skilled and specialized for it to happen to. Don't let complacency fool you into thinking that it can't happen to coaching. If it does, we may never recover as a financially sustainable profession.

Of course, there are many other reasons why this is a bad idea. But I also want to discuss some of the reasons it may seem like a good idea to those who may not take the time to consider the consequences.

Inexperience, or just insecurity?

Many coaches taking part in the discussion offered suggestions as to why coaches offer no-cost coaching. One suggestions was that when just starting out, there is almost a reflexive resistance to charging full fees for coaching, mostly due to belief that without experience "green" coaches can't justify charging as much as someone who has more experience. And I admit, when I was a fledgling coach I started out with a couple of non-paying clients just to get my toes wet and to get my game together, as it were.

But to be honest, looking back now I can see that in reality my desire to offer unpaid coaching had less to do with my concerns about my status as a new coach (I knew that with the training and practicums I had under my belt combined with my own innate skills, I could do the job and do it well, which indeed turned out to be the case) and more to do with my own insecurities and feelings of worth and my fears of other people's perceptions of the same. In other words, it wasn't my lack of experience that led me to offering unpaid coaching. It was personal insecurity and issues around perceived and self-assigned worth. I think if many coaches who charge well below the going rate were to examine their own motives, they might find something similar lurking underneath.

Underpayment = undervaluation

I can have since come to realize that those clients I coached at no cost were my least successful ventures. I don't know if either they or I were not fully invested in the proceedings, or if it was something altogether different. Maybe it was just that those who can't afford to pay a coach probably have enough other stuff going on in their life to make coaching a bad fit at that particular time and place in their lives, regardless of a coach's skill. Other coaches in the discussion echoed this observation, pointing out that with few exceptions, their own low or no fee clients tended to be the least involved, least committed and least successful clients in their practice.

Furthermore, a professional who offers low or no fee coaching is doing a grave disservice to his or her clients by undermining their belief in the process itself, essentially dooming it to failure. Several studies and reports from the medical and psychological fields have shown that the more confident and costly a doctor is perceived to be, the greater his or her treatment success rate is, regardless of the doctor's actual experience or level of skill. The researchers explain that just believing that the treatment and the doctor administering it is of high quality is enough to make it so for many people.

Now, I'm not suggesting we should all overcharge our clients in the pursuit of happy endings. But the reality is that nominal or nonexistent fees often become self-fulfilling prophecies of undervaluation - clients simply assume that there is a reason for the coach to charge so little, and that reason is most likely to include some lack of skill, experience or confidence on the part of the coach, therefore by default the coaching must be less valuable and the coach less effective than others who can charge more for the same service. Ergo, the coaching is less likely to be effective, simply because the client unconsciously believe that to be true.

Saving the world, one discount at a time

The thing is, coaches are by nature inclined to want to help people who are in need. And we often feel that those who can least afford to pay for us are, by extension, those who are most in need. But this is not always, or even often, the case.

Some clients might actually be able to pay, if they made sacrifices elsewhere - cutting out the morning lattes and expensive restaurant meals, ditching hobbies or spending habits that are putting them in debt, etc - but are unwilling to make such sacrifices in order to better themselves. This mindset not only undermines the value of the coaching in their own mind, it dooms to failure any action that involves real change. Others may simply be entitled jerks who think they are due anything they want without contributing anything on their own part - a combination that virtually precludes coaching from being successful. And let's not even get started on the "serial moochers" who hop from one complimentary session or package to another because, as one coach was told when they confronted such a person, "why should I pay for coaching when I can get it for free?"

The bottom line is that many clients who say they can't pay are, more accurately, simply unwilling to pay for whatever reason. Offering these folks low or no fee coaching isn't doing them any favors. Rather, it compounds whatever issues they currently have that causes them to treat others like disposable support systems for their own bad choices or personality problems by reinforcing their own view that such special accommodations made for them by other people are theirs by right.

First, and finally, do no harm

And yes, there sometimes are folks who truly can't afford to pay for coaching. But if a client's life is so out of control or financially borderline that they can't afford to pay even a sliding scale "earnest money" fee for coaching, chances are they won't have the mental, emotional and physical buffer space to deal with coaching in the first place. The reality is that coaching is a luxury or at least non-essential service designed to take the well from good to great, not to take the unwell from sick to functional. That's what therapeutic services are for. These are the clients that any reputable coach should be sending to a credit counselor, a job-training center or even a therapist or other medical professional, depending on the reason for their financial problems, and inviting them to return when their Maslowian pyramidal foundations are secure and sound.

All inclinations to the contrary, coaching is NOT the solution to every problem and we can't save the world all by ourselves, nor should we try to. Coaching has its place in the spectrum of helping professions, but it was never meant to be a substitute for the others on that same spectrum. Trying to coach over fundamental life-support problems is like offering pain relief for a broken leg without treating the fracture - you may disguise the pain, but you stand a good chance of losing the patient. Let those other professionals treat the underlying problems first. Afterwards, when the client is up on their feet and able to function reliably on their own without crutches, then and only then are we really doing any good by offering them our coaching services - at full price or, at most, under a slight "scholarship" discount or time-limited and contractually binding deferred payment system.

Wrapping up the article, but not - hopefully - the discussion

In closing, let me say that I have no way of knowing the experiential status of the coaches that did offer to coach this person. Nor do I know what other factors may have been behind their decisions to offer 3 months of unpaid coaching. But whatever the reason, the end result is that not only are they hampering their client's chances of success by undervaluing themselves and the coaching they are offering, they may be overlooking underlying problems which the discounted coaching could exacerbate and they are certainly making it harder for those of us who do charge full fees to do so.

After all, as was once said, why should clients pay us if someone else will coach them for free? And if that becomes the default setting for the way the market views and deals with coaches, I fear for the sustainability of coaching as a profession at all.