Thursday, April 9, 2015

Advice: We Usually Get What We Pay For

There’s an old story; I can’t remember when I first heard it, so I have no way to give it proper attribution. But I think it is helpful, so here it goes.

A landlord had an old, downtown building. It had charm so the tenants overlooked the lack of modern amenities, even the antiquated boiler system for heat… that is until it stopped working. The landlord couldn’t get it going, and the usual vendors were no help either. Someone told the landlord about Old Pete, saying “if anyone can get this thing going again, it is Old Pete.”

Old Pete came out, looking like he came straight from central casting… grubby overalls, grime stained hands, tools hanging from a tool belt. He wasn’t a particularly pleasant fellow, not mean or unpleasant, just seemingly not all that concerned with landing a powerful first impression.

He looked things over for about 15 minutes, approached the boiler, pulled a well-worn pipe wrench from his belt, made a few simple adjustments and the boiler fired up. Good as new.

The landlord was thrilled… until he got the bill in the mail: $20,000. He was immediately as hot as his boiler. He got Old Pete on the phone to deliver a few choice words. “Are you kidding me? You were here for less than an hour. You didn’t even break a sweat. It wasn’t even Sunday or a holiday! I expected to pay you for an hour; are you trying to tell me that a few cranks with your wrench is worth $20,000?”

“No sir,” replied Pete. “Turning the wrench is worth a plumber’s rate of around $100 an hour. Knowing what to do with the wrench, on your boiler, that’s worth $20,000.” The landlord couldn’t argue that… and paid the bill.

We don’t always get what we pay for… but we almost never get more than what we pay for. I think that may be especially true when what we are really buying is expertise. We all pay for expertise from time to time; lawyers, doctors, consultants, financial advisors and such. I’ve spent a lot of my own money for expertise, and way more of someone else’s money on behalf of the various organizations I’ve served. Sometimes it hasn’t been worth it, but usually it is. Looking back, my regrets are mostly associated with not seeking and paying for good advice, rather than regrets about the times I paid for advice that didn’t prove to be all that valuable.

Now when I say “pay for” I think of that in pretty broad terms. Of course the most pure transactions involve invoices and checks, or payroll. But sometimes the payment is a matter of relationship. For example, I work with a lot of volunteer boards. Their advice is worth a lot; their “payment” is transacted in the relationship with the organization and cause.

There are also subtle ways of getting paid. Take a blog for example. I monetized this blog a few days ago. I doubt anyone noticed or cared that I made some space for ads. It took me a while to get qualified, but now Google has some space on my blog to post ads. If you click on an ad, I get paid (so if you want to reward your favorite bloggers, click on an ad from their pages every once in a while… just seeing the ad isn’t enough, you have to click it).

Maybe you think I sold out, and would prefer to not have ads flashing on these blog pages, but consider this. There are plenty of times when I’ve sought out free advice. Here’s what I’ve found: free advice is often worth precisely what we pay. Thus, ad-free blogs are worth less than blogs with an economic engine (oversimplified, I know… but there is some truth in it).

I do a bit of consulting through my company (Greatifiers)… so I occasionally get paid for my expert advice. I’m not ashamed to admit it, the advice I get paid for is worth more than the advice I give away for free. When it comes to the paid advice, I work harder at it; I’m more thorough and thoughtful. And when it comes to the free advice… well, I don’t give the best stuff away.

So when it comes to advice, whether it is active advice in consultation with a pro, or passive advice we might get from a blog, I’d say two things:
  1. Be glad to pay for good advice, and 
  2. Be suspect of the real value of that which seems free.
Oh... and be sure to click an ad before you go :-) 

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