Those of us in business to offer a service are sometimes challenged by those requiring the service. “I can get it cheaper”, they tell you. My previous post on setting rates addresses this question in excruciating detail for the voice-over business (without going into much numerical detail) and might serve as a resource for those of you who come up against this with your clients. The purpose of my current post is to explore a related problem: how to make sure the question doesn’t come up in the first place. Our own attitudes and convictions will go a long way towards that end.
I used to work as curator of birds at a large midwestern university with a natural history museum. My job responsibilities included 1) advising students and teaching general biology (majors and non-majors courses) and evolutionary biology, 2) research and all that that entails (obtaining government funding and writing papers), and 3) curation of the bird collections (including writing grant proposals for collection infrastructure). We had regular curators’ meetings that included all the departments within the museum – birds, mammals, insects, molluscs and so forth. One of the topics that came up repeatedly was how to defend our existence to the dean of our college, who simply didn’t understand why a natural history museum was important. She did not see its value, so the threat of reduced funding and loss of paid positions was always hanging over us. This could be demoralising. A few years ago I heard George W. Bush on the news referring to the Smithsonian Institution as “the nation’s bug collection” as he slashed funding for its programs. A “bug collection” can be a source of pride – a national treasure – or a derogatory term, depending on how it’s uttered and how it’s perceived.
In contrast, the American Museum of Natural History is a private institution, not subject to the budgetary whims of a president with an agenda that does not include ‘bugs”, nor a dean whose short-sightedness affects their bottom line. The museum has a charismatic leadership that understands the importance of branding and marketing, and that encourages and funds research that regularly makes the news. Some of this research may not directly affect “the human condition”, but it’s snazzy and it grabs the public’s attention. That museum is huge and it’s flourishing. Then there is the much smaller Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks in tiny Tupper Lake, New York. This museum cost millions of dollars to build, and when it opened its doors in July 2006, the Governor of New York and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton were in attendance for the ribbon cutting. The leadership of this museum certainly knew what they were doing – starting out from a position of strength, they hit the ground running with heads held high. No need to defend your existence if you don’t permit it to be called into question in the first place. It’s all about perceptions and posture – attitude.
If someone questions your value and you let such questioning corrode your own perceptions, you can start to feel that you are indeed less valuable than you really are. This sort of situation can be avoided with charismatic leadership. In the case of your business, that leadership is you.
We’ve all seen or received requests to donate our services for non-profit projects or even for producers creating commercials or other assignments “on speculation”. “No pay, but there will be lots of paid work in the future for the person who helps us now”. I’ve heard comparisons of voice-over with other professions such as the plumbing trade, like this: “install this sink for us for free, and we’ll pay you to install other sinks in the future.” Amusing, but not exactly apt. Almost everybody needs a plumber at some point, but not everybody will need a voice-over in the course of their lives. So, do we secretly feel that plumbers’ work is more valuable than our own? Not everybody can install a sink, but anybody can talk, right? Attitude! Anybody can install a sink badly, write badly, or perform a voice-over badly. If Jim Dale were indisposed while recording Harry Potter, would it be okay for one of the audio engineers at Scholastic to fill in for him? Who would be a better choice to voice a commercial for Geico, the CEO of the company, or Jake Wood? To be Bart Simpson – Nancy Cartwright or the kid up the street? Whom would you rather listen to promoting your favorite TV program – your cousin Darrell, or you? You’re not as good as Jim Dale or Jake Wood or Nancy Cartwright, you say? Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t. Maybe you aren’t yet. Read this for more thoughts on that subject. Value comes from quality in many cases, in others it’s marketing, or a combination of both. Gregor Mendel’s research on garden peas was the basis of modern genetics. His work was ignored for years before others were able to appreciate its significance fully and explain its value to the scientific community and to the public, and thus change perceptions.
Perceptions change with changing values. What’s one of the cheapest things you can buy at the grocery store? Salt. Where did the word “salt” come from? From the Latin, sal. And the word salary is rooted in the word for salt. Why? Because in ancient Rome, salt was used as payment. For a while we used gold. The paper money that represented the gold doesn’t have much value by itself. Neither, actually, does the gold. It was merely the standard. Create a need, and the thing that’s needed has value. Create value, and you’ve enhanced the need.
Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to eliminate tuition for Massachusetts community colleges recently received a thoughtful response from the president of Greenfield Community College, Robert Pura.
“We want to really deeply explore what the word ‘free’ means and conjures up” before we implement such a proposal, Pura said, suggesting that increasing financial aid might be a better way to make college more affordable.
The effective cost might be the same for state residents with both proposals, but “free tuition” might encourage “a wave of students who take their education lightly, over-enroll and drop classes without much thought,” Pura told the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Beefing up financial aid communicates responsibility rather than entitlement and may encourage a more serious approach to education.
Likewise, business coach Mark Silver says an acupuncturist he worked with found her patients getting well faster when she raised her fees. It seemed that patients were more likely to do as she suggested between sessions, to get their money’s worth, when they were paying more.
Because prices influence perceived value, prices also affect client behavior and their results. Marcia Yudkin, The Marketing Minute (quoted with permission).
My friend and fellow voice talent Dan Nachtrab tells a story about perceived value that remains one of my favorite voice-over anecdotes. He has given me permission to quote it:
A while back, I answered an ad for a narration. A few days go by and I get a call from the producer, who keeps going on that she really has “heard my voice before” and how she would love to have me voice her project. Unfortunately, someone else had answered the ad and said they would do it for FREE, just so they could pad their resume. This is when the sales comes in. The challenge is: How do I not only get the gig, but get her to pay me? The answer: Create value. The hook was baited when she visted my site, read the opening introduction sentence and listened to my demos. (To save you some time, it says “Most likely you have heard his voice.”) She truly believed she knew who I was and that I was an established talent. (I can’t verify the first, but, hey, how can I argue with the second?) Next, I had to remove the credibilty and perceived value of the talent giving away his services. So, I ventured to tell her “I already have a resume filled with many companies in your same field.” Then I related a quick story of one such company, very closely related to hers. This proved I had intimate knowledge of her industry and could provide the service she desired. Now I have VALUE in her eyes. She bit the hook and asked my price. She paid full rate. Remember, we are also in sales. Even though Wal-Mart offers cheaper prices, people are still shopping at Saks.
That last line should be cross-stitched and hung over the door to all voice-over booths. Dan’s got it right – he offers great value, but he also knows how to convey the perception of value – he knows how to sell.
It’s a rule in voice-over that the clients who are paying the least are demanding the most. You get a few of those and you learn to avoid them like the plague. If you’re a professional voice talent, quoting low prices to get the job undervalues the service you’re offering, in the eyes of your customers and, eventually, in your own. Offering a service cheaply may eventually result in loss of quality as well, as you become demoralised and fail to deliver your best work. It is not possible to perform well when you or your customers expect a $50 performance for a $300 job. Much better to give a $350 performance when you’re being paid $300. The next time you’re tempted to quote low, ask yourself why you are undercutting your own services. In effect, you’re on the road to putting yourself out of business. So I ask you – are you offering a valuable service or aren’t you? If so, charge a respectable fee – a fee that shows you recognise and respect what you are offering – if you expect other people to value it as well.
Whether you’re a voice talent, or a college graduate applying for a job, or a manager negotiating a raise or a corporate executive trying to win a big account, take a lesson from Dan Nachtrab, who was so (rightly) comfortable with the value of his services that he convinced a producer to hire him over the guy who offered to do the job for nothing. Or from the leadership of the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks, who had the guts to open an expensive institution in a little town in upstate New York in a climate of “the nation’s bug collection”. Because of their justifiable conviction of their own value, they had the entire state of New York behind them.
Now, go out and get your clients behind you.