Monday, January 18, 2010

On being flexible

This week I heard two different definitions of being flexible. One method which I am familiar with is flying by the seat of your pants because you haven’t prepared. This seems to be what most people are referring to when they say they are flexible.

A better definition of being flexible is being so over prepared that you are prepared for just about any contingency. This seems to make a lot more sense.

I was at a gig recently when the question of flexibility came up. I said I was flexible. It dawned on me that what I meant was that I had about every piece of equipment I might need, and a few backups, in the car. Not that we would make do with what we had as is sometimes what we mean by being flexible.

Yes, flexibility is a good thing, but only if it means being over-prepared and not under-prepared.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Foul Language and Consistent Pricing

I have inadvertently got caught up in a couple of controversies lately that I didn’t even know were controversial.

The first was a few months ago when I responded to a survey asking whether cursing was ever appropriate in a business setting. I said no and soon found out I was in the minority. Later when I quoted my late father as saying that foul language is a sign of a lack of vocabulary and poor education, I was surprised by the negative response. And when I said that if I ever heard one of my employees cussing a customer, I would show them the door, there was even more negative response. Someone suggested that I was out of touch. Obviously I am because I thought cursing went out of style with smoking. I presume that most of those people have no idea how much business their language has cost them.

Then this last month I commented in a professional photographer’s magazine that photographers should follow the lead of other professions and develop a consistent pricing policy. It turns out many, or maybe most, commercial photographers make up prices as they go based on the clients ability or willingness to pay.

In looking at the history of civilization, one mark of a civilized culture is consistent pricing. Third world street merchants are pretty good at sizing up their customers and extracting as much money as they can from them. In western culture, we rely on prices in stores being well-marked and everybody paying the same price. I know how much my mechanic charges an hour and my dentist will quote a flat rate for teeth cleaning no matter who calls.

In every business I have owned, setting the prices, publishing a rate card, or displaying a menu has been a high priority. Restaurants know that they live or die by their menu. When I decided to get back in the photography business a few years ago, having sold my photo lab in 1996, the first thing I did was decide on my hourly rate. I charge $50 an hour plus expenses, with prints and extra CDs a la carte. If there is any negotiating with a client it is over how much time a project should take, not how much I charge per hour. If I get too busy, I will raise my hourly rate. This is basic Econ 101.

Five thousand years ago Moses cautioned the Israelites in Deuteronomy 25: 13-16, “You must use accurate scales when you weigh out merchandise, and you must use full and honest measures. Yes, always use honest weights and measures, so that you may enjoy a long life in the land the Lord your God is giving you. All who cheat with dishonest weights and measures are detestable to the Lord your God.” The problem Moses faced was merchants using a different set of weights depending upon the customer. In modern terms - treat everybody the same.

I researched some books on business ethics and just about everybody addresses this issue. The most common problem is charging poor people more and wealthier people less without a sound business reason. For example should people with less money pay a higher interest rate than a major corporation; after all, what is the chance of General Motors going bankrupt? (That’s a joke.)

The last time I addressed this issue it concerned the wholesale cost of film. My question was “Is Walmart seeing the same price list as I am?” The answer was yes they were. If I wanted to buy film by the truckload and send my own trucks to Rochester to pick it up, I would get the same price as Walmart.

But the opposite question is, “Is Walmart paying more for their commercial photography just because they have deep pockets.” Apparently they are. Commercial photographers still size up the client, shoot from the hip and charge whatever they think they can get away with. Portrait and wedding photographers usually have printed price list, offer a variety of packages, and let the cutomers know what they are getting for the money, and charge everybody the same.

My dad was in the auction business. An auction is the purest form of letting the market determine the price. The rest of us have to make sound business decisions based on what we think out product or service is worth; and then stick by those decisions until we have a good reason to change our prices.

After five thousand years, it seems most professionals are finally standardizing their rates and charging fair and consistent prices to all of their clients.