Do I know where to bang the pipe?

2011-02-14 00:00

THERE’S a tale about a plumber who is called out to deal with a blocked pipe. He gets to his client’s house, assesses the problem and then bashes the offending pipe once with his fist. It gurgles into life. “That’ll be R500,” he says to his client.

“R500!” she says in horror. “But you just bashed it.”

“That’s R500 for knowing exactly where to bash it,” he replies.

A friend of mine recently had some business cards made. She was outraged by the layout fee charged by the printer who converted her word document into a business card layout. “It took him two minutes!” she said, indignantly. “It was just text.”

While I felt that the printer could have been more upfront about the associated costs of layout and design, which I agree were fairly minimal activities in this case, I also pointed out to my friend that it wasn’t something that she could have done herself. She wasn’t paying for the 10 minutes of his time, but the years of training he’d had to be able to do it so quickly, like the plumber.

Anyone who works in an industry where they bill for time and expertise rather than a tangible product, runs afoul of this kind of reasoning at some point, just like the layout artist and the plumber. Architects, writers and IT technicians all get squeezed for discounts on their time, while clients willingly cough up for fittings, printer bills and computer equipment.

Aside from the fact that everyone’s out for a discount, people just don’t attribute the same value to services as they do to items. Once you’ve seen a plumber bash a pipe, you reckon you could do it yourself the next time. And you probably could, as long as exactly the same problem presented itself. But when the blockage is somewhere else, you need to call the plumber again.

As a writer, I frequently run into the kind of arrogance that assumes that because a client knows how to start with a capital letter and end with a full stop, my part in the process is irrelevant. Rather than paying me to do the job well, they’ll have the secretary who writes the terribly witty signs for the ladies’ loo edit the annual report. And then, just because they’re a bit anxious about her grammar, they’ll send it to me for a “quick once-over”. Then the trouble really starts.

It’s very difficult to justify the cost of fixing something that a client doesn’t perceive as terribly broken in the first place. They’ve happily inserted reams of text peppered with “thinking out the box”, “going forward” or “cutting-edge solutions”, and think they’ve communicated effectively.

They call in a professional writer because something tells them they should, but they think that I’ll just correct one or two glaring errors and charge them R250 for the job. Try to justify the time and expertise required to create a document that’s consistent, well-written and contains the right messaging, and the client will go blue in the face. In this case, I find that bright, sparkly, red track changes really help.

Photographers often have the same problems. People honestly think that a grainy, badly lit, badly contrasted photograph taken with a cellphone is a perfectly acceptable image for publication. If anyone in the production process complains, they tell their designers to “fix it up in Photoshop” but they don’t want to pay for that, either.

It’s as if the whole world fails to understand that the expertise and quality control that goes into writing a report, building a house, taking a photograph or fixing a computer is the result of years of training and experience. They wouldn’t call us if they could do it themselves, but then they resent the fact that they had to pay for it when we make it look so simple.

So, consumers of services, this is an open request to you to pony up and show some gratitude for a job well done. You should be asking yourselves, “can I do it that well myself?” or “do I know where to bang the pipe?”


• Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. She believes in paying for services, whether they are performed by friends or providers.

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