Bartering Can Help Set Boundaries

Doing business with friends is dicey without the right conversation upfront.

Posted Feb 02, 2014

For many of us, our close friends and social circles provide valuable opportunities to create new business opportunities.  As my father used to say, many an important business deal was nailed down over a round of golf.  But having close friends who don't merely help you network, but actually provide the service themselves, can be tricky.  For me, it's my next-door neighbor and childhood best friend Les, who is also the family veterinarian.  I’m always resisting the temptation to hit his number on speed dial every time my cat coughs up a hairball.

When I think of Les, I think of someone who balances this delicate equation beautifully. He is exceedingly generous but also recognizes that he has a business to run. So he gives us the friends-and-family rate on office visits and free medications here and there. He even has made two house calls to euthanize ailing and aging pets, for which he never charged us.

But there are plenty of people who struggle to find that happy median between being helpful and getting taken advantage of. We all live in fear of a few pro bono minutes of our time quickly turning into unbillable hours, days and weeks. Our most reasonable friends understand this, of course, which is why they say, “I’ll pay you. Just tell me what you charge.”

When situations like that come up, I often give the same advice I once gave to my daughter when a neighbor asked her what she charged for babysitting. My daughter loved caring for children, but like many people, she hated talking about money. In the past, she’d often responded with “Whatever you think is fair.” That answer, however, rarely resulted in her being paid fairly.

“How about you tell them, ‘All the other parents pay me fifteen dollars an hour’?” This eased my daughter’s anxiety and awkwardness. Now she wasn’t saying what she charged. She was merely saying how others compensated her. This tactic, I knew, was also more likely to result in a reasonable wage. After all, no one wants to look and feel like the cheapest person in the neighborhood. It worked flawlessly. Whenever she used these lines, her employers answered, “Oh really? That’s fine.”

Few people like to talk about money with friends they're doing business with, but not having the conversation could be costly.  With friends and neighbors who need your services, it’s good to fill them in on what you normally charge and then let them know you’re happy to extend a friends-and-family rate to them, perhaps 15 to 20 percent less. If an actual exchange of money is just too awkward, then perhaps you can let them know that you’d be happy to barter. If you’re a plumber, you can replace a broken pipe for your lawyer friend in exchange for him/her looking over a contract you’re about to sign. So when you get the call, try saying, “Sure, I’d be happy to help you with that. In fact, I can think of a way we can be helpful to each other,” and then suggest the exchange of services.

About the Author

Bill McGowan is the founder and CEO of Clarity Media Group.

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