Heart shaped money, on white background. Clipping path included.

Over the past decade, I have been running the vast majority of my day-long and weekend workshops on a pay-what-you-can, or sliding scale, basis. On the surface level, I’m aware that this appears to be altruistic in the extreme, at best—and foolish at worst. But the truth is, it’s worked well for me. This model makes marketing my workshops 10 times easier. When I lead an introductory workshop, I don’t have to give an elaborate pitch about why my weekend workshop is worth thousands of dollars. I just say, “If you like what I’ve been talking about here, there’s more in the weekend workshop. It’s pay-what-you-can at the very end.” Easy.

This model makes marketing my workshops 10 times easier. When I lead an introductory workshop, I don’t have to give an elaborate pitch about why my weekend workshop is worth thousands of dollars. I just say, “If you like what I’ve been talking about here, there’s more in the weekend workshop. It’s pay-what-you-can at the very end.” Easy. Although I apply this model to workshop sales, you can apply it to massage sessions, and to multi-session packages.

Although I apply this model to workshop sales, you can apply it to massage sessions, and to multi-session packages.

The pay-what-you-can approach also makes it very compelling for people to spread news of your work via word of mouth, because said work is accessible and admirable. Pay-what-you-can is a comunique selling proposition. It also means people leave my workshops thrilled with what they paid, because they chose an amount that felt good to them, which means they’re more likely to spread the word.It turns out that, if you do it well, there are actually more selfish than selfless reasons for using this kind of model.

It turns out that, if you do it well, there are actually more selfish than selfless reasons for using this kind of model.If you do it well. That’s the key.

If you do it well. That’s the key.

red heart on top of dollars white backgroundTime to experiment

What’s important to start off with is acknowledging this approach is not any more enlightened, spiritual or politically progressive than any other payment model. There’s nothing inherently better about it; it just works well in certain contexts. However, I’ve seen people go broke using this kind of approach carelessly.

What’s important to start off with is acknowledging this approach is not any more enlightened, spiritual or politically progressive than any other payment model. There’s nothing inherently better about it; it just works well in certain contexts. However, I’ve seen people go broke using this kind of approach carelessly.Another important caveat about these kinds of models is to pick one area of your business in which to experiment with this, versus converting your entire business to an alternative pricing structure.

Another important caveat about these kinds of models is to pick one area of your business in which to experiment with this, versus converting your entire business to an alternative pricing structure.

For example, I know of many restaurants that offer one dish—one that costs them very little to make—on a pay-what-you-can basis. I also know of an online, life coach fellow who offers all of his products on a pay-whatever-you-want basis: You decide the price yourself. I know another marketing coach who offers three prices and lets you pick the one that fits you best. Radiohead released their album In Rainbows and let people decide what they wanted to pay.I know of people who do their one-on-one work, such as massage, on a pay-what-you-can basis. Then there are people like myself and author Charles Eisenstein, who offer their workshops up on a pay-what-you-can basis.

I know of people who do their one-on-one work, such as massage, on a pay-what-you-can basis. Then there are people like myself and author Charles Eisenstein, who offer their workshops up on a pay-what-you-can basis.So, I’ve picked one area of my business—my workshops—and made that pay-what-you-can. But I charge a flat rate on my products and $300 per hour for my coaching.

So, I’ve picked one area of my business—my workshops—and made that pay-what-you-can. But I charge a flat rate on my products and $300 per hour for my coaching.

Pick one. Start small and let yourself experiment.

Six blank numbered sequential steps business diagram illustration6 Steps

But, how do you make sure you experiment wisely? Here are a few tried and tested steps:

Step 1: Make sure customers know what full price, i.e. the market rate, is up front. I’ve seen so many people say, “Just pay whatever,” and meanwhile the customer paying is sitting there with, literally, no idea what might be appropriate to pay. Is $20 what people normally pay for a weekend workshop like this, or $2,000? It’s so stressful to have no idea.

The way I’ve chosen to address this is to give customers three options for payment: a full price; a four-pay option where they can spread the full amount over four months; and the pay-what-you-can option. I urge people to use the pay-what-you-can option, but I offer the full price and payment plans because I’ve had people tell me that the pay-what-you-can option made them so uneasy that they weren’t going to reschedule.

Almost everyone chooses the pay-what-you-can option, but a few will choose the four-pay option and, every once in a while, someone feels much better just paying full price.

But, of course, what this also means is that, engineered into the registration or intake process itself is an education about the pricing. This is important. If you try to sneak that in at the end of your workshop or session, people will feel betrayed. It can even seem like you’re trying to guilt them into something. The further in advance they know, the better they’ll feel about it when it comes time to pay.

Step 2: If you are selling a multi-session package or a weekend workshop, allow people to make pay-what-you-can payments over time. Ask them to divide their payment into three or four payments. It will double what you get.Step 3: Take the pressure away. If customers feel pressured by you to give a certain amount, they will resist and end up paying you less. The more you take the pressure away, the more you will unlock their generosity.

Step 3: Take the pressure away. If customers feel pressured by you to give a certain amount, they will resist and end up paying you less. The more you take the pressure away, the more you will unlock their generosity.

Step 4: Appeal to the bigger picture. At the end of Vipassana meditation retreats they will say, “You’re not really paying for your space here. You’re paying for the spaces of those to come after you. Your space was paid for by those who came before you.” I say a similar thing at my marketing workshops. It helps to contextualize this is a conversation bigger than the single session, product or workshop.

Step 5: Know your minimum. For my weekend workshops, I charge a $100 deposit and the pay-what-you-can model is on top of that. I found that, without a deposit, the no-show rate was heartbreakingly high. So I asked myself, “What would I need to charge so that, if they didn’t show up, I wouldn’t resent it?” $100 was the number that came to mind. For a day-long workshop it was $25.

Your cancellation policy is so important. It protects you. You can also use this in setting your sliding scale by asking yourself the same question. Then you don’t accept any less than this. If you want to, you can also say, “I require a deposit, but I refund it when you show up so that you genuinely pay whatever you want.”

Step 6: Phase it in. The main thing here is to be willing to do some modest experiments to see what works. Try it on one multi-session package or one weekend workshop, and see how it goes.

Have one day a month, a day that’s normally deadsville for you, and offer the sessions on that day on a pay-what-you-can option basis. Once a year, do a pay-what-you-can option or sliding-scale sale on your online products.

Don’t change all of your pricing to some alternative model overnight in the hopes of winning karma points. You can’t pay rent with karma points.

About the Author

When he isn’t hosting potlucks, spending too much time on Facebook, designing a new product or puttering on his laptop, Tad Hargrave is likely working on thelocalgood.ca—a project he co-founded in 2008 that has become one of the leading hubs for green and local lifestyles in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.