How & why to sell accountability?

Published by Nela Dunato on in Business, Thoughts

Even though I know how healthy exercise is, and I can feel my body complain when I sit too much and don’t stretch myself enough, I still can’t make myself do it.

I have everything I need to do yoga at home. I have lots of floor room. I have a mat. I’m already wearing comfy clothes most days so I don’t even need to change. I know several different salute sequences by heart, I could repeat an entire 90 minute class without looking anything up, and I have access to thousands of free videos on YouTube. I have enough free time.

During the time my yoga studio was closed, I did not practice at all. Not once.

How & why to sell accountability?

Thankfully, my yoga teacher started online classes last week so now I’m practicing again. Yay!

It’s not that I miss community—I don’t go to yoga class for the community. I just need someone to tell me when and where to show up, and I show up and do the work. After the session, I’m glad that I did. But that still won’t make me do it on my own on a day when we don’t have the session.

I don’t know why that is. I’m trying to work it out, but until I do, I have my 2 weekly sessions via Zoom, and hopefully once this is all over, back in the yoga studio.

If you’re wondering why I’m talking about yoga now… it’s just one example of how people are not doing something they know they need to do, and maybe even know how to do.

Sometimes what people really need is not your expertise or your superior knowledge—all they need is someone to hold the time and space for them to show up.

I’ve been the person who bought online art courses not because I wanted to learn how to draw better or some interesting mixed media techniques, I just needed a container to show up at a time when it was hard for me to do it on my own.

I’ve seen people offer “virtual coworking hours” so that folks can work alongside each other while connected through online conferencing, because working from home is full of distractions. Naomi Dunford formerly of IttyBiz had a book writing course that did the same thing—everyone met online daily to work on their book. Hali Karla has weekly creative practice sessions for her Patreon patrons. She’s not teaching—she’s showing up to do her practice while others are doing their own thing alongside her.

Mastermind groups work the same way. Sure, the group mind can help find better solutions to any one’s problems and that’s a valuable thing to have, but the key is accountability.

Many coaches are basically paid accountability buddies. And it works! Even if they had no other skill to help people, telling someone what you’re going to do and then having to show up for another appointment to tell then whether you’ve done it or not is valuable.

If you’re struggling with what to offer to your clients at this time, think about what “accountability” might look like for them.

Sure, expertise matters. Maybe you’re used to selling your expertise and skill, but maybe at the moment it’s not selling well because…

  • You’re not allowed to meet your clients in person.
  • You’re not allowed to access spaces where you need to do the skilled work.
  • Your services are not in demand now (anything relating to events, for example).
  • Your clients have financial troubles and can’t pay you for your typical work.

It’s a tricky situation for many business owners, and many need to pivot and change things up. Not forever, but maybe for the next few months until we’re all allowed to do our normal thing again.

Why accountability now?

Since many of us are under lockdown, prevented from doing our normal thing, people find themselves with extra time on their hands. (Not people with small kids though, you folks are screwed.) This extra time could be used for many useful things:

  • Learning a new language.
  • Indulging in your favorite creative hobby.
  • Studying a topic that interests you.
  • Exercise!
  • DIY home renovation.
  • Cooking and baking.
  • Reading that pile of books.
  • Reading that pile of PDF freebies you’ve downloaded over the years.
  • Following a free class on one of the popular e-learning platforms.
  • Writing your observations in a journal.
  • Writing letters to your friends (emails or regular mail).
  • Thinking about new business ideas.
  • Creating blog posts, videos, podcasts, talks, presentations, etc. for now or for later.
  • Rewriting the content of your website.
  • Working on your brand maybe?

The list goes on. Instead, it’s mostly used for watching Netflix and YouTube, and posting corona memes. It’s not that all these people are not interested in doing something “more useful”, maybe they just need a little nudge.

Give them that nudge.

Before I launched my pay-what-you-can brand strategy consulting, I talked about the idea to my friend Višnja. I explained that before the session people need to fill out their Human Centered Brand workbook, and then together we’ll see where they’re stuck and think of more ideas they could use. She challenged this idea, saying that some people book consulting with her just so they could fill out the workbook together.

It’s not that they wouldn’t know how to fill out the workbook on their own—they just prefer to have someone with them while they’re doing it to bounce ideas off of. I found that a tiny bit odd, but when you think about it, it’s the same thing as my yoga. Sometimes we just need someone to tell us when and where to show up.

What can your clients do on their own right now, and how can you hold the space for them to show up?

  • If you’re an interior designer and your gigs have dried up, can you do a weekly group call for the DIY-ers with show and tell and critiques?
  • If you’re a business consultant whose clients can’t afford your full engagement right now, is there a way for a small segment of your work to be turned into templates and paired with a short consulting call where you help them fill in the blanks?
  • If you’re an artist, can you inspire those less experienced to create more through “create with me” live streams?
  • If you’re a writer or a developer or any other kind of creator, can you facilitate coworking calls?
  • If you’re a language instructor, instead of full-on-lessons, can you host calls where people can practice talking to someone at their level? (You can use Slack or Zoom to divide the group into pairs and let them have separate conversations.)
  • If you’re a nonfiction book author, could you host a weekly book discussion group so people can read through the chapters at the same pace and talk about how what they’ve read can apply to their own life or business? (Hm, maybe I should do that. What do you think?)

There’s so many different models you can try. If the first one didn’t work, keep iterating!

If you’re doing one-on-one accountability, the short time of the engagement makes it more affordable and attractive for those who might otherwise take a pass because your full service offering is out of their budget.

If you’re doing group calls, you can make it even more affordable, or donation based, or tie it with a monthly membership. (Many folks use Patreon for this, but you can also set up a recurring payment through different payment systems).

Don’t get attached to the idea of “teaching”

Many people who are looking to digitize their business have issues with teaching online, and what if what they do can’t be taught over video?

Instead of thinking about it as teaching, think of it as holding the space for people who are already in the learning process to show up. My yoga teacher is not accepting new members now—she’s only holding classes for her current groups, and she won’t be teaching any new asanas (positions) that we haven’t done in person.

Focus on people who are able to do the work on their own, but need a bit of encouragement and motivation. Gather them all in one place or hold their hand individually, whatever works better for your case.

Selling accountability

It’s easy to sell accountability to people who wanted to do something for a long time, but they procrastinate on it or quit soon after trying. Those people are well aware of how hard it is to go it alone. When you offer something to that kind of person, they say “Yes please!” and thank you for offering it in the first place.

When Lisa Sonora offered a special on her class Creative+Practice (basically a creative accountability class) at a time when I was struggling to find time and energy for my personal art, I jumped on it. It was a no brainer. When my yoga teacher said she’s launching an online class, I said yes without thinking.

It was easy for me to say yes because prior to being offered a solution, I’ve been beating myself up for not practicing these things on my own. It was a huge source of frustration.

If someone is not struggling with follow through and did not experience frustration with not doing the thing they really want to do, those people are not likely to see the value of your offer. When Naomi offered her book writing class, I was already about 70% done with my manuscript, and I didn’t see the point in paying someone so I can keep doing what I’ve been doing successfully on my own. I never joined a virtual coworking meeting because I’m productive enough as is, and I don’t want to wash my hair just so I could be working alongside some internet people.

If I was doing yoga every day anyway, would I be paying my teacher for the privilege of hanging out on Zoom? I’m not so sure that I would.

The promise you’re making is that your client will be doing more of the thing they want to be doing with your help than they’re doing on their own. If they’re already doing it at their full capacity at a time when they’re already comfortable, you’re not offering them a compelling enough reason to join you.

I’m highlighting this distinction so you can recognize if this is what your community needs right now.

Maybe your community is full of self-starters, and they don’t need to hang out in virtual spaces to do their work. In that case, you’re better off selling knowledge that they don’t yet have, so they can get even better results.

But if you already offer a lot of useful knowledge for free or cheap (through your blog, videos, podcast, free classes, books…) and you keep hearing from your audience:

“I love your work, but I haven’t yet tried the methods you recommended / read the full book / filled out the worksheets…”

…then you know there is a good chance your people just need a reason to do it now, instead of later. Pouring even more knowledge into their heads won’t help them, because they haven’t been implementing what they already know. They’re probably sick of courses and ebooks, and don’t want or need more.

How can you be sure which is true about your people?

Ask your community what they’re struggling with, and hear them say it in their own words. It’s important to ask an open-ended question, because maybe they’ll give you an even better idea than what you could think of. We tend to think that something we find easy is easy for everyone else, too. And it’s totally not. So ask your people what’s hard for them, and listen.

How to ask? Send them a newsletter, post a question on social media, or send a personal note to a handful of people you know that follow your work. It’s not hard to do, but I admit that it can feel a bit terrifying. But once the answers start pouring in, you’ll feel it was worth it.

Accountability is not always the right thing to sell… but sometimes it is, and if you give it a try, you might be surprised with the results.


Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon or Jackson's Art Supplies. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

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