Q&A: How to present your prices to customers

By Chris Baysden

A growing number of industry pricing experts are urging CPA firms to jettison the billable hour and replace it with a fixed-pricing model, or even the more optimal model of “value pricing.” Few public accounting topics spark as much controversy as this one. Many firms have adopted value pricing in recent years, but others have been reluctant to do so. To give our members additional insight into this important topic, we sat down for a series of Q&A sessions with author and consultant Ron Baker, an unabashed value-pricing champion. These conversations give readers an in-depth look at the reasons a firm should consider switching to value pricing, and the nuts and bolts of how a switch might work. The following Q&A session, the sixth in the series, focuses on how firms can present different pricing options to customers. Previous installments of the series can be found below:

Click here to read part 1: “Should You Dump the Billable Hour?”

Click here to read part 2: “How Can Firms Implement Value Pricing?”

Click here to read part 3: “What You Need to Ask Clients Before Setting a Price”

Click here to read part 4: How to Determine a Client’s Price Sensitivity”

Click here to read part 5:To Boost Revenue, Try Offering These Pricing Options”

One of the hallmarks of value pricing is that firms can offer different pricing options to customers. But how should firms present those options to customers?

Baker: I like handing the client a piece of paper. And if you put the pricing options in a columnar format from left to right, I suggest you start with your most expensive option on the left-hand side and move down to your cheapest on the far right. And that’s to take advantage of the anchoring effect, the fact that your top price makes the cheaper prices look palatable. And putting it in columnar format also is taking advantage of the framing effect: They are comparing you against you.

Ideally, I really like presenting this in person, because you get to read body language. So that gives you clues on what resonates with customers, what they might not like, what they might have questions about, what might not be clear. This will help you revise your options going forward so they become clear and you get better at communicating the value you are providing.

If you can’t have an in-person conversation, the second best way is on the phone. Don’t just send a proposal in via email. Then you’re just stuck, wondering if they have seen the proposal. Instead, get the person on the phone first and then email them the proposal and actually sit there on the phone while they read it. You will learn quite a lot. They will have immediate questions. You’ll probably have a more candid conversation with them.

It’s difficult; none of us like to do it. But it is very, very effective.

How long should the proposal be?

Baker: I would say this is an aspirational goal: Keep your proposal to one page because that really makes you focus on the benefits to the customers. If it has to be a multiple-page proposal, put the prices on the first page. No matter how big your proposal is, people turn to the price page first. So you might as well lead with your price.

Do you have any other suggestions for presenting your price to customers?

Baker: Don’t use the word “fee.” Fee is a terrible word. It conjures up all sorts of negative things. Nobody likes to pay fees. Instead, use the word “price” in all of your proposals. Ideally use “fixed price.” “Price” is a benign word, it’s a neutral word. None of us have any problem saying, “What’s the price?” So it’s got no baggage.

Also, I would use the word “agreement,” not contract. “Contract” conjures up images of lawyers and courts and all sorts of things.

Another tip: Don’t qualify your price. Don’t say “our normal price, our standard price, our regular price.” Because all that does is invite negotiation. And remember, if you do negotiate, then you’re negotiating based on value, not price. So if you’re giving up price, the customer must give up value [such as by paying upfront, or giving the CPA more time to complete the project]. You can’t make a unilateral concession.

I would also suggest that firms place a time limit on their prices. No price should last forever. Things change; capacity in your firm may change. So we like to see proposals that have some type of expiration date. That’s not a tactic to get a client to make a decision sooner—like “this price is only good for today.” Maybe you keep the price open for three weeks or maybe a month or something like that. But I would not let a price last forever. Because if the client comes back in a year and expects that service, things might have changed in your firm dramatically, and you don’t have the capacity. And you would have never given that price at that point.

Also, remember that there are a finite number of price objections. So you should have answers to all of them. And remember that real bargaining, real negotiation takes place between equals. You are an equal to your client; you’re not a supplicant. And you can only negotiate with an equal, so you’ve got to be willing to stand your ground. And I think offering options really helps with the psychology behind that. It really does help you stand your ground.

You suggest that firms use a fixed-price agreement (FPA). What should be included in the FPA, and does that replace the firm’s legal engagement agreement?

Baker: The fixed-price agreement does not replace the engagement agreement that you have and probably have to have because of your malpractice carrier. A lot of insurance companies have a big say in how those engagement letters are written. The only thing that has to be modified in the legal engagement agreement is where it talks about price. All you have to say is the price for this engagement is stipulated in our fixed-price agreement dated such and such.

The fixed-price agreement is a very simple document, usually about two pages, that lays out the scope of work.

It’s also got an unanticipated services clause in it that basically triggers a change request or a change order. So if something comes up during the year that’s not in this fixed-price agreement—like an IRS audit, for instance—then the clause triggers a change request.

I recommend that the fixed-price agreement also have a service guarantee clause that basically says, “Mr. or Mrs. Customer, if you’re not satisfied for whatever reason, only pay for the value that you have received.” That’s another very important way to overcome pricing objections from clients, because a service that’s guaranteed is worth more than a service that’s not.

The fixed-price agreement also lays out the payment terms. So it answers payment questions like these: Are payments monthly? Are they quarterly? Is there a deposit required upfront? Is it going to be authorized on a credit card or an electronic funds transfer? All of those things are spelled out in the payment terms.

And then there are a couple clauses that state that the agreement can be revised in 30 days or 60 days or whatever. It basically says that if things change based upon our mutual experience, we can revise this, we can revisit the price, we can revisit the terms, the scope of work based upon what’s happening. That’s a pretty important clause, particularly for a brand-new client you might not know a lot about.

There’s also a termination clause that says basically this is an at-will agreement and either party can terminate it. Now, obviously, there are professional obligations on the CPA. You can’t just terminate somebody on April 14 and tell them they’re on their own for their tax work. But it is an at-will agreement, so either party can leave it at any time.

(Editor’s note: More resources on pricing and overcoming pricing objections can be found in the AICPA Private Companies Practice Section.)

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