PRICING – PART 1: FOCUSING ON THE PRACTICAL RATHER THAN THE PERSONAL (SETTING AND RAISING YOUR RATES)

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One of the biggest challenges we face in a service business is pricing.  We want to know what we’re charging is fair, both to us and to our customers.

I’ve struggled with pricing ever since I started my business in 1981, and even now, a little voice of self-doubt sometimes nags at me when I talk to a recalcitrant client about rates, because I haven’t completely learned to separate the objective from the subjective.  I still have trouble differentiating between the practical (“I’m running a business to make a living”) and the personal (“What if the customer doesn’t like what I charge, and therefore doesn’t like me?”)

ARE WE NICER TO OUR CLIENTS THAN WE ARE TO OURSELVES?

In order to run successful businesses, we need to base our pricing strategies on:

  • what it costs to complete projects at a rate that will earn us a decent living
  • what benefits and value we’re providing

NOT on:

  • whether clients will like us or not

 My intent is to aim this article toward women business owners, many of whom, raised to be “nice” at all costs, make business decisions on an emotional, rather than a practical, basis.  Women in charge of setting their own rates are often too insecure to charge clients enough to make a good living.  Many of us don’t feel we deserve to make money by charging others directly. I know very few men who go into a business and expect to make less than they would doing the same job as an employee; yet I see women, particularly in the virtual assistance profession, doing it all the time.  One problem is that our industry is undervalued by others; the bigger problem is that we undervalue it ourselves.

BASING RATES ON OVERHEAD VS. COMPETITION

Many women, when trying to determine what to charge, either (a) copy what the competition charges or (b) pluck a price out of the air they think customers may go for.  Years go by and they stick with this rate, afraid to crunch the numbers to see how much they’re actually earning, scared to raise their rates to cover the cost of living.  Since the Consumer Price Index goes up approximately 3-4% annually, those who don’t raise their rates are automatically earning 3-4% LESS each year!

When successful male entrepreneurs start businesses, they tend to spend some time finding out what seasoned business owners in their field are charging, in order to stay aware of the competition.  How­ever, they spend a more significant amount of time figuring out their own overhead.  Self-employed women, on the other hand, are often so worried about being “fair,” so intent on not being considered greedy or selfish, that they think they have to measure themselves against everyone else to make sure they’re not stepping out of line—so much so that they may not even cover their costs.

If, at the end of the year, you count up all the hours and money you’re spending on your business (including time spent reading blogs like this!), subtract it from your gross, and aren’t netting a salary that is at least what someone doing what you do in the outside world (in the case of a virtual assistant, what an executive secretary or office manager in your area is making) you’re probably charging too little.  You need to examine your rates overall. May can be a good time of year to do this, when you’ve recently paid your taxes and seen how much it cost you to do business this past year.

HOW MUCH WOULD YOU BE PAID TO DO THIS AT A COMPANY?

You can find out right this minute what administrative professionals in your area are paid.  Just go to www.salary.com (or AOL Keyword “salary”) and type in your zip code.  You might be in for a surprise!

DISASSOCIATING YOUR PRICES FROM YOUR SELF

I used to raise my rates with a letter to my regulars saying something like, “Due to the [4%] increase in the cost of living index since last year, we have raised our rates to [$55/hr.] as of [April 15].” Explaining that your accountant told you it’s imperative you raise your rates is a good tactic, too—even if your “accountant” is you! (I use the imperial “we” to de-emphasize the personal.  At first I would have to remind myself that “we” included myself, any subcontractors I used, colleagues I used for advice, my bookkeeper, my husband, etc….but now  saying “we” became second nature.) I added a handwritten note to regular clients saying that because they were such good customers, I wasn’t going to raise their rate until [June 1].  Cus­tomers really appreciate being treated specially.

Later, I decided not to formally announce price increases at all.  In most businesses “prices are subject to change without notice”—and many clients won’t notice!  If anyone asked (rarely), I’d say, casually, “Oh, yes, our prices increased the first of the month.”  People aren’t really surprised by price increases; they realize it’s part of the cost of being in business.  Does the average supermarket customer go storming to the manager when the price of Cream of Mushroom soup goes from $1.09 to $1.39? No—and yet that’s a 30% increase!  True, sometimes people grouse to a cashier, but the clerk’s response is usually to sympathize with them, not charge them less!  A complaint can be an opportunity to reinforce to your client that you’re both on the same side:  “Yes, isn’t it amazing how the cost of everything keeps going up?”  This reminds them that your business is subject to price increases, too—that’s one of the reasons you had to raise your rates.

VALUING YOUR WORTH

I’m not advocating that every woman raise her rates.  I’m appealing to those who are already providing excellent service to their clients and who behave in a professional manner; keep appointments; stay up all night to meet deadlines; maintain clear records; return phone calls; help their clients look and sound good on paper; and stay abreast of business, technology, and production skills.  In other words, those who serve their clients the best they can—yet still hesitate to charge what this behavior is worth.

From my experience, clients who truly value your service already know you’re worth it and won’t object to a price increase.  Occasionally one might grumble, but, when met with wise silence or detached sympathy, will go no further.  Clients who object vehemently probably don’t know—or believe in—the value of what they’ve been getting and are unlikely to be convinced otherwise.  It might be time to replace them with others who do understand how much you’re doing for them.  A price increase might be just the thing to weed out the chronically dissatisfied without having to “fire” them.

PROFIT VS. SALARY

Many people believe that what’s left at the end of the year after you subtract your expenses is your “profit.” Profit is money you make over and above your cost of operations and your salary.  Standard & Poor’s average profit for corporate businesses is 27 percent; for small businesses, 10 percent.  How many of us charge enough to allow a 10 percent margin of profit after we pay ourselves a good salary?  If not, can we really consider ourselves “in business”? 

IS IT YOUR LOCATION OR YOUR PERCEIVED VALUE?

I frequently hear the objection, “There’s no way I can get customers to pay more than $X/hr. in my area!  Other services can charge more than I do only because the cost of living in their area is higher and people expect to pay more.” 

Certainly, standards of living in different geographical areas are a factor. However, VA clients can be anywhere. Despite what people are earning in your area or elsewhere, what our customers “expect” to pay is what we’ve taught them to expect.  We may need to re-train them! 

According to annual surveys published in Brenner Information Group’s Pricing Tables for Desktop Services (http://www.brennerbooks.com/) , rates charged for office support services around the country range from $30-$60/hr.   Variances in what business owners charge are more likely to be based on their level of professional­ism, their experience, how pro-actively they promote their business, and what clientele they choose to serve than on what people in general are “willing” to pay in their area. 

Recently I spoke with two different virtual assistants who have been providing similar services to the public for over 10 years.  Both happened to be located in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most expensive places to live in the country. One is charging her customers $25-$28/hr. and is still having trouble getting clients. The other raised her rates last month to $60/hr.  The $60/hr. business (the owner/operator and a part-time employee) has billed over 80 hrs./wk. for the past three weeks, and they can barely keep up with the amount of work that is coming in.

What you can charge may have a lot more to do with your credibility than where you live. To a great extent, the economy of the place you’re located dictates the rate you can charge only if you’re trying to get work from every single person who calls.  To be able to charge a top rate, you need to go after the clients you want, not just wait for the phone to ring.  

One of the reasons some VAs have more clients than they can handle while charging as much as they choose is that they give their customers  the sense that they know what they’re talking about, they know the work services they provide are valuable, and they’re prepared to help clients get the results they desire. If you can present yourself as someone who is an authority in your field and is happy to help, you just might be able to ask for what you’re worth and find people will pay it with a smile.

For a free worksheet to help VA’s calculate your billing rate, see  http://www.ninafeldman.com/resources.htm

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