It’s interesting psychology. Most people (budget allowing) will pay whatever is on the price tag for a cup of coffee, a doormat, a dinner plate, a phone or a bottle of perfume. Sometimes we wait for sales, but in the end we’re not inclined to walk up to the nearest cashier at a retail location, ask for the manager and start questioning the store’s pricing policy and why the darn sweater is so expensive.
But the same people who will cough up four bucks for a cup of coffee or a hundred for a sweater (likely produced in a third-world country by child labor for 32ȼ) will balk at the idea of paying me to write, manage, consult or otherwise engage in a brain-powered activity.
In a culture that has moved decidedly away from manufacturing and more and more into service industries, we haven’t seemed to be able to budge our perspective on cost. We’re eager to pay for “stuff” but not so willing to pay for time.
But in the end, time and my brain are all I’ve got – and all a lot of us have, whatever the service industry. Whether you’re designing a landscape or a pool, planning a retirement package or a vacation, writing a legal contract, setting up a computer network or steaming a carpet, most of your investment is in the form of time and expertise.
So why is it so hard for consumers to pay for the intangibles? Why is “buy carpet” easier to accept as a financial investment than “clean carpet”? If I knew the answer, I’d be rich instead of writing this, but I’d like to offer some thoughts for those of you in service industries who know the drill – and for those of you not in service industries who could use a little education.
It’s Not Open Heart Surgery. But It’s A Skill.
Not everyone can perform a quadruple bypass on a patient who lives to tell the story. That’s why we pay surgeons (and doctors) a lot of money to care for us. We don’t buy “stuff” from them but we buy, perhaps, a new lease on life, better health or just peace of mind knowing our cholesterol is under control.
We complain about the cost of healthcare and our last doctor visit but we know the people we pay have spent years learning and practicing and that their skill isn’t something we can repeat in our basements with a steak knife and a sewing needle.
What I do isn’t a matter of life and death but it’s similar in concept. I spent years learning and practicing, as most service professionals have done. I work on my craft and my skill every day. I invest time, I invest energy and sometimes even money into training, resources and hardware to do what I do.
You can’t build a successful website or run a successful marketing program any more than you can perform heart surgery, if that’s not your area of expertise.
Oh sure, some people think they can (build a website that is) but a couple of DIY tools and a few marketing blogs don’t make you a marketing expert. Neither does putting together a bulleted list of your company’s services make you a copywriter.
When you hire me as your project manager, consultant or writer, you’re paying for my time and my expertise and it’s probably a way better deal than the sweater you shelled out a hundred bucks for.
When Is A Skill Not A Skill?
There are plenty of things that aren’t super specialties that we can do on our own and get by. We probably don’t always call the plumber for a leaky faucet or the landscaper when we want to plant a rosebush. Likewise, not everybody calls in a developer when they need a website.
Most people have enough knowledge to be a little bit dangerous with common tasks but the mistake is thinking “enough” knowledge is enough. Can you get by? Sure. But probably not as well as you could have if you’d called in a professional.
My motto has always been “call the man”. When a room needs to be painted? Call the man. When the tax returns need to be filed? Call the man. When the computer makes “that funny noise”? Call the man. (Hey, we’re marketers, not technicians!)
I’m not a DIY type of person because I believe completely in the power of expertise. Can I paint a room? Sure. But it’s not a pretty sight; it takes me ten times as long, causes twelve times the mess and doesn’t look half as good as when the man does it.
Hence the point: just because you can doesn’t mean you should. And that’s why you pay me. Because I’ve spent the time to become the expert that will mean the difference between a job well done and job just… done.
Because I Have A Mortgage, Too.
Do you know what happens when I consult with you for free? Or make that “one little tweak” to your website or copy for free? The same thing that would happen to you if you steamed someone’s carpet for free or ran their electrical wires for free… nothing. And in this case, nothing is bad. Nothing = no billable event = no money = no mortgage payment = no business.
As much as my wonderfully kind, caring nature would love to work for you at half of whatever it is I told you I’d work for yesterday, the reality is that I run a business. And unless it’s a profitable business, it won’t be a business for long. So if I’m working for you for free or for less than I should be, then I’m not working for someone else who will pay.
If I could call the electric company and nicely explain that I can’t pay their bill anymore because I’m extending the courtesy of a reduced rate/free service to my clients, then heck, I’d extend a reduced rate/free service. But I doubt the electric company would appreciate my charity.
They want to get paid for their services. So do I. So do you. And so the world turns.
I Don’t Make This Sh** Up.
As a service provider, I don’t arbitrarily make up rates and costs any more than a retailer does. It’s just easier for us to understand cost when it comes to “stuff” because we can imagine the cost of the raw materials that went into making our lovely Victorian coffee table, and the cost of the factory to manufacture it and the cost of the truck to ship it and we fully expect the retailer to make a profit.
But we just as readily assume that our service providers – from attorneys to electricians – invent their rates because they’re out to gouge us or make as much money as they can off our naiveté.
Every cost is “made up” to some extent. Who decided that a coffee table is worth $1000? Who decided the tree that was cut down to build it is worth $50? And who decided that an engagement ring is worth two months’ salary?? (A very clever diamond retailer with a terrific marketing campaign, that’s who!)
It all boils down to the same principles of perceived value, market forces, competition, return on investment and plain old good business sense. So even though the “stuff” I deliver to you is cerebral and not tangible, I deliver something of value that’s better than what you can get by doing it yourself or hiring the cheap guy and helps you see a return on your investment.
Even if you boil it down to its most basic, bare-boned reality, I invest my time so you don’t have to. And that’s not free.
Time Is Of The Essence.
It drives me nuts when people assume that I can do something for them because “all it costs is a little time”. It’s not like I’m putting money out of pocket, right? You’re not asking me to buy you something.
Trust me, I’d rather buy you a nice steak dinner than give away an hour of my time. It takes time to learn and to do.
It takes time to work and to figure out how to work smarter so I can save some of that time for the part of my life that’s not-work. If there’s one thing we’re perpetually short of as a society, other than money, it’s time. That’s why I pay people for their time, even for things I can do myself.
Because my time is valuable and I can put it to use in more ways than… well, than I have time for.
So when I give you my time, it’s a big deal.
I’m giving you the best thing that I have to offer (other than my sheer brilliance, of course). And I’m devoting it to you and to your business exclusively. It’s how I get along in the world and even though I love what I do, I wouldn’t get very far without getting paid for it.
And I get paid for it because (see various soapbox points above) I’m good at it!
I Do What I Do And That’s All That I Do.
Do you want your service professionals running around doing the odd job here and there to pick up extra cash to pay the bills, or do you want them focused wholly on the service they are providing to you? Do you want them to be proficient at what they do, or do it just to make a couple of bucks so they can scoot off to make the next couple of bucks in their spare time?
I don’t know about you, but when there’s a guy under my sink and the only thing standing between me and the third flood in my house is his wrench… I want that guy focused on my sink and not on the fact that he’s got to get to his second job, probably the one he has as a web designer.
This is my job. Not my second job or my side job or my hobby. I’m not thinking about something else or running off to do anything else. I don’t work at a bank during the day and knock out your web copy at night from a laptop in my bedroom.
You’ve got my full attention and the expectation of my full professionalism and expertise. And that’s worth paying for.
The bottom line is that buying a “service” is just as valuable as, if not arguably more valuable than, buying “stuff”. Are there professionals who charge too much, do too little and prove to be less than stellar at their jobs? Sure, but that’s no different than buying an expensive fashionable thingy that falls apart in two weeks.
There’s good and there’s bad. But don’t dismiss the cost and value of professional services, even if what you’re paying for is “only time”.
What do you think? If you’re a service provider I’d love to hear your thoughts!