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Why customers need to stop valuing services by time taken

Diane Hall


Man fixing car engine

I’ve seen it in a few industries, particularly creative ones. An expert provides a service, and because it’s not taken them long to complete the work, the customer believes they should pay less than the going rate.

There’s a great example of this, about a ship repair man. The owner of said (broken) ship approached various experts to fix the problem, but to no avail. Eventually, an older man was recommended, who had worked on ships all his life. He came out to the ship and spent a few minutes looking over the engine.

He then took a hammer from the tool bag he carried and tapped a component of the engine. It instantly roared into life. The client happy, he returned home.

Days later, the ship’s owner received an invoice for $10,000 from the elderly repair man. He was indignant, insisting that the amount was far too much when, in his words, ‘the man hardly did anything’. He insisted on an itemised bill for the job.

The elderly repair man’s response was as follows:

  • Tap with hammer = $2

  • Knowing where to tap = $9,998

Had any of the other ‘experts’ taken the ship into their shipyard and spent a good few months investigating the issue (assuming they were even able to mend the stricken ship), the owner would likely have paid an invoice amounting to the same $10,000, believing it to represent good value. 

Though the elderly repair man achieved the required result, the length of time he spent on the job became an issue, despite the fact the owner could enjoy using his ship for the few months it would otherwise have been moored in someone else’s shipyard.

The desired outcome was achieved without any inconvenience or waiting around on the owner’s part, yet they failed to see this as a benefit.

Elderly handyman

Elderly handyman

The elderly repair man had spent his whole lifetime gathering skills and knowledge. It was this compounded expertise that enabled him to walk up to the engine and almost instantly diagnose the fault, as well as understand what was needed to repair it. Had his competitors gained the same knowledge, they would have been able to carry out the task…but they hadn’t.

The ship’s owner, i.e. the client, was paying the elderly man for a shortcut—for the time it saved him learning about the inner workings of his ship’s engine and how to find faults, as well as the time to understand all the different tools a ship repair man uses and what each one does. The elderly repair man saved the owner from learning how much pressure to apply with a hammer to fix the problem, once diagnosed—because too much could have caused an even bigger problem.

The customer could have spent much, much more than the $10,000 charged and a staggering amount of time to do the same as the elderly repair man did; after all, even experts with half the elderly man’s knowledge and experience couldn’t mend the engine. That’s what the customer was invoiced for: an instant answer. That’s what he was paying for, and also what he received. Why he undervalued it, and equated the elderly man’s intervention as a simple tap of a hammer that anyone could apply, baffles me.

Of course, few people own ships, and probably even fewer know how to repair them. The analogy of valuing time over expertise, however, plays out on a daily basis, all over the country.

My areas of expertise—marketing, writing and editing—are often undervalued. Just like in the fable above, most customers simply don’t understand the time, knowledge and experience that goes into any of the services or solutions I provide. Because they can physically write or tap away at a keyboard, they don’t see what I do as special—yet, even from a time perspective, if they were that adept at producing written content on behalf of their businesses, why would they have engaged me in the first place?

I can physically hold a loaded paintbrush and could stroke it against some paper on an easel. But could I reproduce a Monet? Or mimic Picasso’s greatest works? Of course not…I’d need hours and hours of tuition (and, even then, I probably still wouldn’t be able to do it). By all means, if you believe you can do what an expert does, in a field you’re not familiar with, you crack on.

Clients that value your work and appreciate your worth do exist, but sometimes you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find them. It would help if more was done in the public domain to value the end result and outcome reached, whatever the journey to get there. Whether it takes ten minutes or ten hours, an expert will still produce something you couldn’t achieve without a hell of a lot of time and support. And that is what you pay for.

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