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    Credit: Brian Chrissan

In any service profession, the goal is to gain new customers and win the job.

To that end, knowing when and how to charge for an estimate is the question in today’s economy.

My answer is to remember that we are consumers too. Think about this: Would you hire someone or go to work for a company without agreeing on a pay rate first? Of course not!

The question of whether to charge for an estimate must be looked at in a few different ways.

Let’s start with a homeowner who is on our route for weekly cleaning service. Mrs. Smith calls and says that her heater is broken, and of course, it needs to be working by the birthday party this weekend. The first thing to consider is when her regular service day falls in relation to this call. 

Mrs. Smith’s day may be coming up, or it may have been yesterday, and you have no reason to be in her area again all week. What do you do?

In these situations, my policy is that if the pool is scheduled for regular service before the party, I will diagnose and repair it with their authorization after providing an estimate. I remind the customer that they get 15 minutes of free diagnosing and after that, the hourly rate begins. Most heater problems can be spotted within 15 minutes. I also indicate on the invoice the amount of what would have been the hourly cost and write “WAIVED PER OWNER.” This lets them know of the freebie. 

Conversely, if Mrs. Smith’s pool was just serviced yesterday and I wasn’t planning to be in the area, I charge an hourly rate. It’s tough, I know. Charging a good customer is never easy, but I hold fast to my expertise. I let Mrs. Smith know that calling an outside source can cost more money and the job may not be done right.

This is a business. I remind my customers that by having me come out, they are getting an honest company, one that has already shown its trustworthiness. It’s hard to not give people a deal, but your service should be worth it.

When to charge for a service/estimate call is pretty well defined at our office. If we have to take tools out of a truck to “look” at anything, we charge the customer our standard rate. This defines all of the different free estimates that people are looking for. Period.

Many customers want Nordstrom’s service at Kmart prices and then complain about the quality.

On the other hand, it’s fine to provide a free estimate when bidding on a green pool or weekly cleaning service. You’re not trouble-shooting anything, instead it’s more like a professional submitting a bid to paint your home. In that case, he is there to look at the house and win the job.

But when providing a customer with your expertise, you should charge for that knowledge. Nowadays, with the internet and YouTube, people can attempt to fix anything on their own after having you come out to point them in the right direction. But for that service, they should be charged a fee. Keep in mind that federal law mandates that if Mrs. Smith’s boss calls her in on a day off to have her help with a problem, then she must be paid a minimum of four hours regardless of how much time she spent working. You are just asking for one hour!

In closing, remember, word of mouth is the strongest advertisement. Customers will take you more seriously when you charge a service fee. And this way, you set yourself above the rest. Anyone can go work for free. I would rather not do the job and not get paid, than do the job and not get paid.

Finally, at all times, in every situation, maintain three policies. Be honest. Be consistent. Be fair.