The Pros and Cons of Offering Gift Certificates for Organizing Services

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gift certificate

More money exchanges hands in December than at any other time of year, but if you don’t sell products, how can a savvy business person get in on the holiday shopping frenzy? Many professional organizers get on board by selling gift certificates for their services, but is it really a good idea?

There are several ways to look at it. Let’s start by looking at the benefits of selling gift certificates:

  • Selling gift certificates can be an effective way to generate income at a time of year when clients are too busy with festivities to focus on getting organized.
  • If you accept PayPal, you can receive payment and deliver the gift certificate by email, saving both you and the purchaser the time and hassle of going out.
  • The recipient of the gift certificate may be someone who would not normally do business with you. In this way, the gift certificate also becomes a form of advertising.
  • If the recipient requires services over and above the value of the gift certificate, you have the opportunity for additional sales.

So far, so good. But that’s not the whole picture!

As a normal rule, you probably don’t agree to work with a client until you’ve conducted an initial consultation over the phone, if not in person. Although the consultation is an opportunity to sell your services to your potential client, it’s also a chance to determine whether it’s appropriate for you to take on the job. How can you commit to working with someone without that direct contact? What if you show up for the first meeting and determine that you’re incompatible or that you don’t have the specialized skills needed for that particular client or situation? Will you be prepared to offer the purchaser a refund?

A similar dilemma may arise if the recipient of the gift certificate has no interest or desire to use your services. You may not be obligated to return the money, but is it ethical not to?

When I was a professional organizer, people frequently asked me about buying a gift certificate for a friend or family member. I generally discouraged them, pointing out that the disorganized person has to want to change for the service to have any lasting impact. I made exceptions on three occasions:

  1. The gift-giver discussed the idea with the recipient before buying the gift certificate. We had met previously so I knew I would be comfortable working with the client, and vice versa.
  2. Two daughters purchased a gift certificate for their mother for an in-depth consultation. It would then be up to their mother to decide if she wanted to follow through with follow-up services. It took her nearly a year to book her consultation, and I never heard from her again after that.
  3. An executive wanted to buy the services for his son, who was also his business partner. I met with the father on a day when the son was out of the office to get a good understanding of what would be required. We agreed that I would provide a “blank” gift certificate which he would present to his son, who would make all arrangements with me, and that the father would pay the bill. That was the last I heard from either of them. (I can only assume that the son was not on board with the idea; I only hope his father gave him something else instead!)

I hope this information will help you decide whether offering gift certificates is right for you and your business. If you’ve already made that decision, please let us know what you decided, and what led you to that decision.

Image © / DNY59

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A former professional organizer, I now eliminate stress for my clients by hosting, monitoring, and maintaining their WordPress sites so they don’t have to worry about security, downtime or performance issues. When I’m away from my desk, I enjoy reading, photography, watching movies, and cooking.

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  1. Avatar Ruth Martin on December 8, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    Janet, this is a topic I’ve shared mixings feeling about as well. I have done some gift certificates with similar experiences as you’ve mentioned. A client’s husband bought her a few hours as a gift and since she was an established client it worked out fine. She was appreciative that her husband wanted to support her in her business in this way.

    I’ve also donated gift certificates to charities having a benefit auction. I’ve never had anyone from the benefit auction redeem a certificate. Most likely they weren’t sure how our services could meet their needs and I never had the opportunity to speak with them.

  2. Avatar Janet Barclay on December 8, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Ruth, thanks for your feedback. I can see that the situation would be quite different if the recipient is an established client.

    I’ve also donated gift certificates for various events, not so much as a VA, but quite a few when I was an organizer. A handful of people used the certificates, but none of them purchased any additional services from me. I’ve read that the value in donating gift certificates is more in getting your name out there than in actually landing a client. But that raises an interesting point too. What if the person who wins or purchases the gift certificate that you donate turns out to be someone you don’t want to work with or needs a service you’re not qualified to provide? That’s not going to do much for your reputation, is it?

  3. Avatar Allison Carter on December 8, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    Another pro – they may never call to use the gift certificate and you get to keep the income.

    Another con – they may call to ask for the money back. I suggest keeping the $$ in a fund for up to a year so that you may issue a refund. This is easy with Paypal.

  4. Avatar Janet Barclay on December 9, 2009 at 7:40 am

    Allison, your pro is definitely a nice scenario, but your con completely wipes out my first pro!

  5. Avatar Jacki Hollywood Brown on December 10, 2009 at 10:56 am

    How about offering a gift certificate that the giver doesn’t pay for until the receiver “cashes in”?

    When people ask me about gift certificates, this is what I tell them. However, it does take a bit of coordinating and the giver has to be ready to shell out the cash when the recipient is ready.

    Even though I have my P&P all set for gift certificates to be processed in this way, I have yet to have anyone “buy” one from me.

  6. Avatar Janet Barclay on December 10, 2009 at 11:32 am

    Jacki, your suggestion (which is basically the same as my scenario #3) does do away with many issues, and maybe that’s the best solution.

  7. Avatar Allison Carter on December 10, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    So the only problem I could forsee with that system is that the person sponsoring the gift certificate may be out of money, moved, out of business, etc. by the time the user wants to use it.
    I tried selling that system for realtors for their client gifts.
    — Allison

  8. Avatar Jacki Hollywood Brown on December 10, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Agreed. The problem is the person paying may not have the money when the user wants to use the gift certificate. I always explain that scenario to the potential purchaser and ask if they would like me to put an expiry date on the gift certificate.
    I seem to keep getting the “no that’s too complicated” complaint. I could just take their money & run but I’m too ethical dammit.

  9. Julie Bestry Julie Bestry on December 14, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    This time of year, I think we all hear from an inordinate number of people looking to purchase our services for loved ones, but I have to say it’s my least favorite situation. First, I praise the prospective gift-giver for wanting to help the person in question, and then explain in detail about the personal nature of professional organizing, about the need for the client to be committed to the process, and all that good stuff. Most people haven’t thought beyond “I think so-and-so needs help; I’ll pay for it” to the potential reasons behind the situation. (And, since they aren’t professionals, why would they think about it?)

    I discourage surprise gifts of this type, and hate the idea (as Allison mentioned) of having money not yet earned–an imbalance in my favor is just as uncomfortable as one not in my favor. I’d rather the gift giver overcome the desire for a surprise, tell their intended recipient what they have in mind, share my web site (and some articles) and arrange for the recipient to speak with me. Then, if everyone’s still up for it (I think I’m the right fit for the client, the client is actually motivated and committed, the giver still wishes to give the gift), we can move forward.

    As noted, there are distinct exceptions: when someone is already a client, and when someone has requested help. I used to be in favor of charitable auction gift certificates, but find they tend not to be valued by the recipients or particularly well-understood.

    I’d chalk it up to something to offer…with copious caveats.

  10. Avatar Naomi Pollack on December 15, 2009 at 3:25 am

    Janet, you raise some really good points here, thanks for this excellent post!

    These are all issues I’ve come across and I’m sure all PO’s come across repeatedly. I’m fairly new to the PO business (three years) and to offering gift certificates so I’m still working out my own “best practices”. My experience so far, however, has been similar to what Julie described, usually involving a phone or email conversation with the giver, during which we talk about the situation, what they had in mind, and whether the intended recipient is ready to get organized or not. Almost always, we come to the conclusion together that an organizing g.c. probably isn’t the best way to get started. Even with the best intentions, a g.c. can create or exacerbate feelings of guilt and shame, and that’s the last thing we want to do!

    I’ve not yet had a donated gift certificate be redeemed. I did donate a certificate for an organizational plan to a silent auction this holiday season. It was purchased and I’m in the process of scheduling the work with the client. This was a person buying something for themselves, so I think it will work out well.

    There’s so much desire to help, and most of us have a family member or friend (or several!) who needs some help. Partly because of shows like Hoarders that raise awareness of the problems clutter causes, more people than ever feel a great sense of urgency to “get help” for their loved ones and to not let things get really bad. I’m glad to be a resource to turn to for advice, and I always try to keep everyone’s best interests in mind, even though that often means turning away work (but not really, because in all probability it wouldn’t have worked out well anyway).

    So, I think we have to keep all these things in mind when advertising gift certificates, knowing that most of the response will result in us giving away advice rather than booking clients. But occasionally it does work out, and that’s a win-win for everyone!

  11. Avatar Janet Barclay on December 15, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Julie and Naomi, your recommendation is excellent, as it:

    (a) avoids the potential pitfalls mentioned in my post and previous comments;

    (b) increases the likelihood that when a gift certificate is purchased, the recipient is ready to get organized and that they are someone you’re prepared to work with;

    (c) provides an opportunity for you to educate someone about what you do, whether it leads to a sale or not. (If not, it might open up other doors in the future!)

    Thank you both for contributing to the discussion.

  12. Avatar Jacki Hollywood Brown on December 16, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    I completely agree with you. When people ask me about gift certificates, their eyes glaze over when I explain to them all the caveats and in the end, they just say no thanks. – and I say “thank goodness!”

    This may explain why I’ve never actually “sold” a gift certificate yet….too complicated!

  13. Avatar Janet Barclay on December 17, 2009 at 7:48 am

    All this interesting discussion has brought another thought to mind: the woman I mentioned, who took nearly a year to use her gift certificate, was actually one of the last organizing clients I had. If you decide to sell someone a gift certificate, you’d better be certain that you’ll still be offering that specific service, and in that same geographic location, for a long time, in case the recipient doesn’t use it right away!

    I know a lot of organizers who have moved for one reason or another (not always known far in advance) or who have decided to specialize in a certain area or discontinue a service they really don’t enjoy, and those decisions are often made fairly quickly, once the business reaches a level where they can comfortably do that. Probably not the most likely thing to happen, but another possibility that should be considered.

  14. Avatar Julie Bavington on December 18, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    My sentiments exactly! I have heard from several adult children wishing to purchase my services as a gift for their parents this Christmas. We usually have lengthy phone conversations so that we can make sure we are on the same page. While I am more than willing to work with them, I do tell them to talk it over with their parents and make sure that is something THEY really want. I usually don’t hear back after that.

  15. Avatar Janet Barclay on December 19, 2009 at 7:17 am

    Julie, in my post I described three situations where I sold gift certificates, but most cases turned out just like yours.

    It’s hard to say whether they raised the topic and were met with resistance, or whether they didn’t want to spoil the surprise by discussing it in advance, but the outcome is the same either way.

  16. Avatar Peter Williams on October 15, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    I always thought Gift certificates were a good thing, Especially since big brands like Amazon are offering these. Your post lets me put on the thinking cap on this topic. Selling services via Gift Certificates. Another thing I learned from Julie’s comment.

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on October 16, 2012 at 7:08 am

      If you offer a wide range of products, like Amazon, gift certificates are usually a good option, because the recipient will probably have no trouble choosing something they like and can use. It’s when you provide a service – especially a highly personal one like organizing – that it becomes a little dicey.

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