Captain’s log, stardate 20200605
Sent by Jonathan Stark on June 5th, 2020
In 2005, I was managing a boutique software development firm that built custom workgroup software. We had ten developers and we billed for our work on an hourly basis.
At a certain point, I recognized that my business life had become consumed with thinking about hours instead things like building better software or supporting our employees or satisfying our clients.
I went looking for an alternative to hourly billing and stumbled across a book called Value-Based Fees by Alan Weiss. It described an approach to pricing professional services that flipped the hourly billing model on its head. It was the hourly billing antidote that I was looking for. Eureka!
With VBF under my arm, I left the boutique firm to start my own solo software consultancy and practice value-based pricing. It went great, right away. The difference was astounding.
Value-Based Fees became my bible. I probably read it ten times in the first couple years. Every time I re-read it, I would find some new nugget of genius that I had previously overlooked. Probably half of the pages in my copy are dogeared and highlighted.
But Value-Based Fees contains more than just pricing information. There’s also quite a bit of advice in there about how to market a consultancy, and how to interact with clients.
In VBF, the marketing and client service advice has a sort of an 80’s Gordon Gekko “Greed is good” vibe to it, There are quotes like: “Nobody wants a humble consultant” and “If you don’t blow your own horn, there is no music” and so on. It advises consultants to buy expensive watches and flashy pens and expensive cars and so forth.
The author is a legitimate genius about many things, but this “be flashy” worldview never felt right to me. Did I really have to roll up to a client meeting in a Bentley wearing a Yacht-Master and twirling a Montblanc to be a successful consultant?
I didn’t know for sure. VBF was basically my business bible, and I knew for a fact that Weiss was correct about value-pricing. So... maybe he was also right about acting like a baller? Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I followed his advice to an extent... I insisted on staying at four star hotels, I flew first class often, I took town cars instead of cabs, etc.
(I never did buy a Rolex. I’m more into Japanese brands like Seiko and Casio. Probably because my first watch ever was this sexy beast)
Playing status games can certainly be effective in many areas of life, and it seemed to work fine for me (or at least it didn’t NOT work). But something about it felt fundamentally wrong.
I don’t mean that it felt wrong in the shallow “I’m better than you” way that was so creepily portrayed in American Psycho. I mean that something felt wrong about this posturing at a foundational level. It wasn’t just that I didn’t enjoy playing status games... it felt like something much deeper than that, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
A few years later, I read Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port and the answer jumped off the page when I got to this passage (bold mine):
I don’t want to try to sell them these online and phone-based coaching courses until they’ve had the opportunity to read one of my books. I want them to be excited about meeting me and my team and know that we can serve them before they sign up for a coaching course. That one factor, knowing that we can serve them, will give our participants better results, and that’s our goal—to help our clients get the results they want.
This was it!!! I had always known that I was in the business of providing professional services to my clients, but I never connected “providing professional services” to the concept of “serving my clients” WUT? mind blown!
The fact that I didn’t connect the two words “service” and “serve” probably sounds impossible, but it’s true. The fundamental disconnect I had felt when I was acting like a baller was that that behavior wasn’t serving my clients.
Playing status games with your buyer can absolutely get you more money but it doesn’t help the client get better results!
This was a game changer for me. On the spot, I dropped any arrogant posturing BS I had been doing and poured all that energy into figuring out how to better serve my clients.
Again, this might seem head-slappingly obvious, but it was a welcome revelation to me at the time.
Imagine the feeling you would have if not one of your precious brain cells was wasted on deciding “which watch should I wear to the meeting today?” so you could instead devote your entire mind to answering the question:
“Who can I help today?”
Here’s the thing...
If you have chosen a service business, your job is to serve.
That’s it. Full stop.
This means helping them first and thinking of yourself second. If you’re not comfortable with this arrangement, you might want to consider a different profession.
NOTE: I did not say NEVER think of yourself. I said think of yourself second.
Pretty much every action I take these days is predicated by asking myself, “How will this help the people it is for?” If the answer is “It won’t,” - or more specifically, “it’s to help me, not them” - then I just don’t do it. Why would i?
To be clear...
I’m not saying you can’t have boundaries, and I’m not saying you have to do whatever your clients ask. And I definitely don’t want you to play the martyr or be a doormat.
What I am saying is that your priority as a service provider is to improve your client’s condition. To help them.
If you can do that one thing, day after day, then you’ll never worry about making money.