Handling the money talk

by Sue Johnston, IAC-CC

As coaches, we’re skilled in the art of conversation. Questions that ignite dialogue are the tools of our trade. Powerful, provocative or simply curious, our questions help clients gain awareness, focus their attention, clarify their thinking, process their feelings, decide on actions and reach their goals. Without conversation, we’re not coaches.

But not all conversations are created equal. One that propels many coaches out of our comfort zones starts with the question, “What do you charge?” Palms dampen. Voices crack. Instincts shout, “Flee!” Despite our talents and training in communication, we’re not our best selves in the money conversation.

We’re not alone
Search the Internet for “uncomfortable discussing fees,” and you’ll discover this condition also afflicts personal trainers, therapists, financial planners, holistic practitioners, dentists, doctors and, believe it or not, divorce lawyers. What do we all have in common? We all work with individuals in a way that demands and fosters relationships. We’re helping and being paid for it.

And we’re not selling concrete objects like cars, shoes or maple syrup that can be held, examined and compared before purchase. We’re selling invisible, intangible, future states that are hard to explain and even harder to value. We’re selling things like happiness, wellness, better relationships, success and freedom.

Few people are trained or even experienced in talking about money. In some cultures and many families, discussing money is almost taboo. It’s certainly not dinner table conversation. For example, in a 2008 study, Canadians indicated they’re more comfortable talking about politics, religion, their love life or their weight than about money.

In an informal survey of coaches in my network who are uncomfortable talking about rates, a third of the respondents checked, “I was raised not to talk about money.” If we learned, as children, not to talk about money, we may have the impression there’s something bad about it. We may truly believe money is “the root of all evil.” Our beliefs about money, formed long ago, are layered with emotions we may not even be aware of. To be comfortable in a conversation about pricing—and to improve our overall relationship with money—we need to examine those beliefs, test their validity and rethink those that limit us.

Believe it or not
One of those limiting beliefs is, “I don’t feel good about selling.” If that one’s true for you, can you revisit and reframe it? Can you think of the sales conversation as coaching? That’s something you’re good at and can be good for the client. In a sales conversation, we’re trying to discover what potential clients want and whether we can help them. The pricing part of that conversation checks for a match between what a person thinks it’s worth to solve a problem or reach a goal and what we think it’s worth.

Determining value is where discomfort enters the picture. It’s hard to put a price tag on improving relationships, gaining confidence, finding joy in work and other outcomes of good coaching. What are these worth to a client? When we base our rate on coaching hours in a formula that starts with our annual income goal, we make the pricing story about us. We connect more effectively with potential clients if we make the story about them. What is the result of our coaching worth to them?

When we’re clear, in our own minds, about how clients benefit, we’re ready to tell the client story. And we can do it in an interesting, honest and confident way that lets clients see how they’ll reach their goals with our help. We and they can be confident that our fees are appropriate. At first, we can only blend market research with our best guess. Time, practice and seeing how clients benefit let us price more accurately. That can address and perhaps evaporate another pervasive belief, “They’ll think my fee is too high.”

Getting to know you
As with most conversations, the money conversation is easier to have with someone you know. That’s another reason to believe the marketing guides who say “Choose a niche.” When you focus on a certain type of person with a specific need, you get to know them well. You become an expert regarding their needs and issues, and that will show up in every conversation you have with potential clients, building your confidence and theirs.

Your marketing can bring even more comfort to the money conversation by helping potential clients get to know you before you meet. If they’ve explored your website, read your blog or articles, attended your teleclass or heard you speak, they’re already familiar with your ideas. They may have almost “sold themselves” on working with you.

Another option, though few coaches seem to do this, is to post your rates on your web site or brochure. When you do this, the person who calls about your services already knows what they’re likely to cost. The discussion turns to their goals, whether you can help them and, if so, with which coaching program, options and start date.

Perhaps surprisingly, another common fear about the money conversation is, “They might say, ‘Yes,’ and I’m not ready.” That’s when it’s good to remember that excitement sometimes feels like fear. Are we reading the sensation correctly? What’s “ready?” Our clients do not care about the one million things that make us less than perfect. When they say, “Yes,” to us, they have witnessed what they do care about: our ability to listen, to question, to challenge and to support them in reaching their goals. To be our best coach selves.

An anonymous survey respondent expressed it beautifully, “Coaching comes naturally and easily to most of us. Because it does not involve a lot of effort, we feel it doesn’t have a lot of value. Just the opposite! Because it comes easily, it means we are incredibly skilled—and those skills have tremendous value!”


Sue Johnston, IAC-CC, believes real conversation is our most powerful tool. Blending experience in journalism, corporate communication and psychology, she founded It’s Understood Communication to help create better workplaces through effective communication. Sue is also the author of the forthcoming book, Talk To Me: Workplace Conversations That Work.

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