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Six Signs that You’re Being Unwisely Generous with Clients – And What to do About It

Have you ever been generous to a client, helping them out in special ways, giving them extra services? And then the client doesn’t appreciate your generosity. They say they aren’t happy with your work (not even all the extra work you did!), they want you to redo all of it, or they even want to break the contract and get their money back. 

If that’s happened to you, it’s possible that you were generous to this client in a way that wasn’t wise. Of course, generosity is a noble and honorable impulse that we all have, and being generous is a good thing to do. But when you’re being generous, it’s a good idea to do it wisely.

An Example of Unwise Generosity

Here’s an example of a case of unwise generosity, from a case I recently mediated (I’m changing details to preserve confidentiality). A website design company was in conflict with a client, a landscaping company. The design company had given the clients a 20% discount on their normal fees, and added a page to the website where the landscaper’s customers could schedule time with the landscaper. The principal of the design company had even spent several hours coming up with better taglines for the landscaping company.

But at the second design review, the client didn’t think the implementation of the site matched the design they’d okayed, the scheduling system wouldn’t prevent customers from scheduling their time in ways that would make it hard for them to stay profitable, and the “better” taglines didn’t reflect their business accurately. They were really unhappy. They wanted to terminate the contract and get their deposit back.

The designer felt used. The design was excellent, and he’d been generous to the landscaper with all of the extras they’d offered. They’d accept termination of the contract only if the client paid in full.

Why people are unwisely generous

The contract between the designer and the landscaper went bad because the designer was unwisely generous: he’d felt sorry for the landscaping company because they were still struggling to rebuild after the Great Recession.

People are unwisely generous with clients for several reasons. One reason is that they feel sorry for their clients, or they want to “give them a break.” Other reasons are feeling the need to “fix” people, wanting to generate referrals, and not having an outlet for their natural impulse to generosity.

The problem with unwise generosity

I often work with people who’ve been generous to a client, such as this website design company. But the client isn’t aware of it, or they take advantage and ask for more generosity, or the generous person has unconsciously not done their best work because they didn’t charge the fees they deserve.

The problem with unwise generosity is that the generous person usually loses money on the project, doesn’t get the gratitude they expected, and has the extra annoyance and frustration of trying to resolve a dispute with an unhappy client. Often, one party or both will sue.

When I ask the generous person (in private) whether they’d do the same thing again, the answer is always a heartfelt “No!”

Six signs that you’re being unwisely generous with clients

When you’re working with a client and you have an impulse to be generous, it can be hard to tell whether you’re being wisely generous or unwisely generous. So here are six signs I’ve noticed in my clients that reveal that you’re being unwisely generous with clients. Three of these signs are behavioral, and three of them are emotional.

Three behavioral signs

  1. You lower your rates significantly.
  2. You do work for free that you normally charge for.
  3. You provide extra services that you don’t normally provide.

Or, you offer to do any of those things.

Three emotional signs

  1. You feel sorry for the person.
  2. You want to give the person a break.
  3. You know the person really needs your services.

When you might notice these signs

You might find yourself exhibiting these signs when you’re negotiating a contract (either with an existing client or new client), or while in the middle of working on a contract. And the more of these six signs you see in yourself, the greater the chance the contract will end badly. So watch for these signs during the entire time you’re in a contract.

Here’s how to be generous wisely

If you want to be generous with clients, make an explicit policy. When you’re deciding on your generosity, here’s what you should decide on:

Who you’ll be generous towards.

How you’ll be generous.

The circumstances under which you’ll be generous.

For example, if you’re a website designer, you might decide to be generous to non-profit, mission-based organizations, to give them $6,000 of work for free, and do it any time within the first nine months of their founding.

If you offer re-branding consulting for job seekers, you might be generous to middle-aged programmers who are under-or unemployed, you’ll offer them 25% off your services, and you’ll do that for four months.

My own small-business coach, who’s been coaching for 12 years and has started several small businesses of her own, is also a director and actor. She’s generous to people in the theater, giving them a 15% discount on her monthly rates.

Take some time to decide to whom you want to be generous. Then create a specific policy as a guideline for your generosity.

What happened to the contractor and his client

In private conference with the designer, I asked him to consider whether it’d made business sense to be so generous with these clients. Embarrassed but relieved to acknowledge it, he agreed that it didn’t. In particular, the scheduling page was just a pet project for his lead programmer; the client didn’t need or want it.

When I brought everyone back together in the mediation room, the designer offered to settle on an amount reflecting the design the client had okayed, which they could take to another designer. He acknowledged that the clients hadn’t wanted the scheduling page.

For their part, the clients acknowledged that the design was in fact what they wanted, and they could use the taglines the designer had created. They agreed on a partial refund of their deposit, and the designer agreed to send the payment within 10 business days.

Remember to be generous wisely

Take some time to decide who you want to be generous to, and create a specific policy as a guideline for your generosity.

The next time you find yourself wanting to be extra especially generous to a client, take a moment to see whether you’re exhibiting any of these six signs of being unwisely generous. If you are, stop yourself. Remind yourself of your policy.

Avoid losing money, being taken for granted, wasting time in disputes with clients, and having to go to court. With a wise generosity policy, you give yourself an outlet for your natural generosity. Be generous wisely.



Louise Penberthy

Louise Penberthy is a mediator, coach, and trainer. Over her 14 years of experience, she's mediated a wide variety of cases, but specializes in mediating with programmers, software developers, engineers, and other technically and logically minded people and organizations.  As a white woman with significant experience in a community of… MORE >

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