When Do You “Put the Meter Down”?

“My fee, if I select the subject, is $150; if your committee selects the subject, the charge is $250, but in either case the speech is the same.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

When you take a taxi, when do you expect the driver to put the meter down? When you first step into the cab and give him your destination? Or once he pulls away from the curb into traffic and starts driving?

The actual difference in cab fare is negligible. But the difference in the driver’s attitude – and your reaction – can be huge.

In the first scenario, the driver is saying to you: “I want to wring as much money from you as I can. You will pay for every second of my service!”

In the second scenario, the cabbie is telling you, “I want my customers to get fair value for their money. I won’t start charging you until I’m actually moving you toward your destination!”

If you’re in any kind of service business, the decision of when to start charging the customer for your time… when to put the meter down… has a similarly profound impact.

For instance, I recently contacted a major press release distribution service to get a quotation for distributing a press release to hundreds of magazines and newspapers. “We can’t give you a quotation unless you join us as a member,” they told me, even though they are a service and not an association.

The membership fee, by the way, was $150. So, in effect, they were charging me $150 to give me a price quote on a service I wanted to buy from them.

The right time to put the meter down, of course, varies from industry to industry – and even from vendor to vendor.

For some services – such as home remodeling, business consulting, and laser eye surgery – the initial meeting and estimate are typically free. For others, vendors charge from the first second you meet them… and some actually charge more for the first visit (to diagnose your problem) than they do when they actually deliver their service on subsequent visits. Example: psychiatrists and neurologists who treat kids with ADD and other behavioral disorders.

The decision of when to put the meter down and start charging the customer for your time depends on several factors. These include what’s standard in your industry… whether preliminary assessment or diagnosis is necessary to determine fees… and how busy and in demand you are.

If you are desperate and need work, you’ll give a lot of free estimates and see people without charge in the hopes of getting business from them. If you’re busy and in demand, you won’t.

The key is to position whichever tack you take as a competitive advantage.

If you are desperate and need work, don’t tell prospects you are desperate and need work. But do convey the message that you offer a free initial meeting because you care about your clients and you don’t want to charge them anything until you are sure you can help them.

Let’s say you are a consultant billing $1,000 a day. You meet with potential clients for an hour or two in their offices, without charge, to determine whether there’s a good fit – and to convince them to hire you. You give that meeting a value-added name. Instead of calling it a “sales presentation,” you call it a “free consultation.” And you put a dollar value on it. You note that it is a $500 value.

On the other hand, if you really are busy and in demand, by putting the meter down immediately, you convey how busy and in demand you are. And you reinforce that message by making it hard for a prospect to hire you … or even speak to you. For instance, your assistant would never say, “Would you like him to stop by today?” He would say, instead, “Let me see if I have an opening next month or the month after.”

Prospects may object: “Your competitors will come and see me for free. Why can’t you?” A good answer for them is, “Why would you hire someone who is in so little demand they will rush to you at the drop of a hat and not charge you for their time?”

There is an advantage to being busy and unavailable. After all, if you needed brain surgery, which doctor would you be most comfortable with? The experienced, highly recommended neurosurgeon whose waiting room is always filled with patients? Or the neurosurgeon whose schedule – and waiting room – are empty?

But there is also an advantage to being available, flexible, and accommodating.

You can’t be all things to all people. So be what you are. Whatever you are, there are more than enough prospects out there to buy what you are selling, the way you are selling it.

[Ed. Note: Bob Bly is a popular Early to Rise columnist, self-made multi-millionaire, and the author of more than 70 books. He is also the editor of ETR’s Direct Marketing Masters Edition.- a program to help you start your own successful direct-mail business.]