Asking for Fees and Root Canals

When my coaching client Craig returned from the dentist following his unexpected root canal, he didn’t complain about the pain. It was the sign in the reception area that got him: “Payment Expected at the Time Services are Provided.”

“I was wondering why the dentist doesn’t have any trouble insisting I pay him now,” he told me. What he didn’t understand is why some lawyers and consultants, including him, feel they have to tip-toe around the issue of discussing and collecting fees.

There are plenty of other professionals who don’t have trouble asking for fees. Think about those in medicine, and people like the snow plower, your car mechanic, real estate broker, plumber and your electrician.

What’s So Hard About Asking?

Why is it that lawyers, consultants and others often have so much difficulty talking about fees? Why is it that with us, we act like we’d rather get a root canal than discuss fees? Clients expect us to be assertive when helping them – so why do we dance around when it comes to talking about fees?

How To Make it Easier

Here are three tips that just might help you ask for and collect client fees:

  • Believe in yourself. Acknowledge that you are good at what you do, and that your fees reflect the value of your work in the marketplace in which you are working. If they are not, you’ll find out soon enough. And if you want some ideas on pricing your services, here’s a great compendium of short articles, thanks to Rain Today via Michael McLaughlin.
  • Deal with the topic sooner rather than later. Transparency helps. Don’t hesitate early on in the conversation to discuss your fees with a prospective client. Waiting too long may appear as if you’re hiding something, and certainly makes it more awkward. Try saying something like: “I’m delighted to talk more about this. Let me give you an idea of costs so we’re on the same page.”
  • Get personal. When you send a bill, don’t hide behind your firm’s invoicing systems. If the bill seems higher than expected, let the client know in a separate note or call – that reduces surprises and increases your reliability. If it’s lower than expected, that’s worth a call as well. Good news is appreciated. And, the personal touch will go a long way toward growing trust in the relationship.

Meanwhile, Back in the Dentist’s Chair

We all need to take our cue from those who don’t mind asking for fees. As for Craig, he’ll get another lesson when his dentist, without hesitation, tells him the cost for the cap to cover that root canal.

7 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Thanks for this Stewart. Part of my initial exploratory session with a client focuses on payment (how, when…). I lay it out there – clear and concise, at the start.

    I state explicitly, in the context of the overall coaching discussion, that once we understand the payment process, I never want to have to ask the client to (remember to) pay. Why? Because money interferes with the energy of the relationship…it throws cold water on an otherwise warm connection or alliance which we have begun to create or have created. Money reduces the “humanity” of the relationship, etc., etc. and morphs it into a transaction – cold, a calculation. And I stress the importance of the relationship – safety, trust, and the like and that money just upsets that bond.

    They get it and over the years I can recall having to remind a client to pay but twice.

  2. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:

    Stewart, your three tips are priceless. Thank you! I wonder how much of the difference is the pain – at the dentist the pain form a sore tooth is acute and desperate, while the pain or urge for something better, things dealt with by consultants and counselors, is more diffused.

    From Rain Today, a good article on asking for premium prices.

  3. Sam Bloomfield
    Sam Bloomfield says:

    Stewart: A remarkable piece really. You have hit the tap-root here and I think it is as much a cultural issue as anything. Our American culture does not like to discuss money, in a professional context. But our culture also prizes monetary success and we have to learn to assert what is our right, in a way that is harmonious with our values and does its best to make everyone feel good. You have given your readers permission to do face up to the reality.

  4. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    In thinking about this a bit more, a couple of things occur to me:

    “It was the sign in the reception area that got him: “Payment Expected at the Time Services are Provided.”

    Technically, the dentist is not asking him to pay; the sign is asking. Related to Sam’s point, if the dentist finished up and then had to ask, right then and right there, for payment, I bet the dentist, or some dentists (accountants, attorneys…) might have felt a bit uncomfortable. Thus, the sign.

    Not unrelated, many entrepreneurs have issues with self-worth. Yes, they know their stuff; yes, they’re experts in their field, etc. But, when it comes to their own “value,” many feel value-less, and thus they probably shouldn’t charge what they do and this feeling of deficiency shows up in their reticence to ask for money.

  5. Stewart HIrsch
    Stewart HIrsch says:

    Peter – two great comments – thanks! Your suggestion of putting the elephant, price, front and center, and telling your client why you’re doing it is a terrific way to be transparent, and reduce unecessary friction – your own and between you and the client, later on.

    And I agree on the self-worth issue you raise, and I don’t think it’s limited to entrepreneurs. Makes me wonder from where that emanates. My own theory (for some at least) is that newly minted professionals who are billed at $200-350 an hour have doubts about whether their professional knowledge and skill are really worth that amount at that early stage in their career, and some continue to carry that feeling through their careers as their rate rises, even when their experience catches up. Any therapists want to weigh in?

    Sam – good point about the dichotomy we face in American culture. So, now I’m curious about how professionals address fees in other cultures….

    And Sandy – I do agree with you that it’s often harder to pinpoint the value of consulting and legal services. There may be more than one way to do things, and sometimes the real value isn’t even directly correlated to a result – “diffused” is a perfect word for that! This is truly unlike a root canal where the pain stops quickly, or when a snowplow comes and one moment the snow blocks our way, and the next, it’s gone!

  6. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:


    “…the self-worth issue you raise, and I don’t think it’s limited to entrepreneurs. Makes me wonder from where that emanates. My own theory (for some at least) is that (they) have doubts about whether their professional knowledge and skill are really worth that amount…and continue to carry that feeling through their careers…” (Stewart)

    This self-image (based on feelings of lack and deficiency) begins early on in childhood when, in myriad ways, shapes and forms, the child is told (and made to feel), first by primary caregivers or parents, then family, relatives, teachers, clergy, etc., implicitly or explicitly, that “you’re not good enough.”

    Substitutes for “good” are: tall, intelligent, handsome, religious, quiet, outgoing, friendly, loving, thin, creative,quick, patient, caring and on and on and on. The child reifies, calcifies these negative critiques and judgments about him/her self into beliefs that s/he takes with him/herself throughout adolescence into adulthood (most often unconsciously).

    This is one of the ways that these beliefs and this “child” (in adult clothes and in an adult body) show up. One has to work on the self-images and move through and metabolize these limiting and self-sabotaging images and beliefs to show up as an emotionally-mature adult with the will and self-confidence of an adult.

    Hiding or denying the deficient self-images through being fake and phony or using “fake it ’til you make it”-type strategies don’t work….the underlying feelings of insecurity are always there. Why? When we bury negative feelings and emotions, we bury them alive and they always come back to rear their ugly head. Your dentist scenario is one of the ways this psycho-emotional dynamic plays out.

  7. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    Great post and great comments…one issue I believe not mentioned so far is the difference between paying for a product or proceedure and time. I believe a great deal of the discomfort that people who charge for their time tend to have relates to relative value. It is an issue for both providers and clients and is quite hard to get past. Relating the time spent by the provider to the value received by the client gets quite tricky and often leads to less than full satisfaction on either side. The greater the transparency about expected total cost and expected value to be gained the more positive the outcome of the relationship.


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