Are Hourly Rates Justifiable: A Debate with an Australian Consultant

On my recent trip to Australia, I met Colin Jasper, Director of Jasper Consulting.

An actuary by education, Colin was an incredibly interesting person with whom to discuss the merits of Value Pricing versus hourly rates.

We agree, as Colin suggests, on 95% of the issues. We have an enormous disagreement over whether there are instances where hourly rates still make economic sense.

This debate was launched again when Colin sent me an article he had written, with Libby Maynard, for the September, 2009 Asia-Pacific Professional Services Marketing Association’s Journal.

Colin and Libby have kindly granted me permission to post the article, and our subsequent debate surrounding its contents.

It may seem odd that I am engaging in a debate with someone who agrees with 95% of what we stand for, but I do so because economics is concerned with marginal activity—that is, the next unit of production, spending, etc.

Thought experiment: you have an incredibly large bag of straws and a camel. You begin placing individual straws on the camel’s back, one after the other. At some point, the proverbial camel’s back will break.

If straws could think and talk, they would shout: “Hey, everything was fine until that last straw got here—he broke the camel’s back.”

The arenas where Colin is arguing that hourly rates are still appropriate is when firms are at the top of the Value Curve—at the margin, where using hourly rates is obviously the most sub-optimal.

I find his reasoning unconvincing, but I thought you might like to read the debate, draw your own conclusions, and hopefully, join in.

Here was my initial response to Colin’s article:

Hi Colin,

It was great to meet you as well and have a robust discussion on pricing.

I read your article with great interest. As you can imagine, I have many disagreements with its premise.

Here are just some:

  1. Page 9, you say “few practitioners have sought to truly master the concept of alternative pricing structures…” This may be true as a percentage of firms overall (we estimate somewhere between 5-7% are doing real Value Pricing), but that overlooks that there are thousands of firms across all professional sectors—advertising, accounting, IT, consulting, and law—around the world that have adopted Value Pricing. Some advertising agencies are doing 100% Value Pricing and no timesheets, such as Crispin Porter and Anomaly, and Coca-Coca and P&G have their own Value Pricing compensation models with their thousands of agencies. Neither look at timesheets. These are significant numbers that are hard to dismiss, and they have proven that alternatives to the billable hour exist for all sorts of complex engagements.
  2. On page 10, you say both client and firm should be involved in exploring and choosing the pricing approach. Yet this is not the way most industries have changed pricing strategies. Did the airlines or hotels consult their customers and ask if they could adopt Yield Management? Sellers change pricing strategies, and competition insures that customers get value. I have no problem with firms discussing alternatives with clients, but the onus is on firms to bring innovative ideas to the table, not their clients. General counsel have their own businesses to run, and don’t sit around and think about the economics of their law firms. Nor should they, anymore than you and I should be innovating the next Apple iPod or its replacement. Firms have used this very logic as an excuse to do nothing, since clients have not driven this change to date (though there are exceptions like Cisco, Pfizer, etc.).
  3. You also state that using the wrong pricing structure can destroy value and damage relationships, and that is certainly what hourly billing has done, with its misalignment of interests, and considering it’s the wrong theory of value. The alternatives you list on page 10 are simply the billable hour in drag, and in no way are they alternative pricing structures. A price is given up-front, hourly billing is done in arrears. I assure you customers want a price, not a bill after the fact—this is basic economics. And these alternatives are still measuring value in terms of time, which is the wrong economic theory of value—and that is irrefutable, as my books and many others make clear.
  4. On page 12 you say hourly rates are criticized because they encourage and reward inefficiencies. But that’s certainly not my major argument against them. My argument is the whole idea is based on the discredited and falsified Marxist Labor Theory of Value. Eradicating the “we sell time” mentality does lead to greater value creation, because it’s a different theory. This has been proven again and again, as all of our Trailblazer Case Studies prove. You can just read a few and see how the entire mentality of a firm is transformed to an obsession with value and results, rather than hours, inputs and costs.

    You say that a tradesman complaining that his saw won’t drill a hole in the wall, etc. But hourly billing the wrong tool. It’s plunging a ruler in the oven to determine its temperature, and you’ll never get the right answer with it, period. This is why it’s universally hated in the professions, and it’s also why NO OTHER BUSINESS ON THE PLANET PRICES THIS WAY. There’s a reason for this. It simply is not a measure of value. You are arguing that Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine is valuable to the extent of the time it took him to develop, and that is economically illiterate. Period. This was settled by the Marginalist Revolution of 1871, and is well understood by economists.

  5. You then argue that since a firm can’t define a scope, hourly rates are appropriate. This is nonsense on stilts. A scope of what the firm does know can always be done, as Chris Marston of Exemplar, Mark Chinn, Fred Bartlit (Bartlit Beck, which has never billed an hour for large clients) and Jay Shepherd, have proved in complex litigation cases. Marston’s concentric circles are the answer, as is phasing. To say that every job is a complete black hole with no “known knowns” defies reality. It also makes me, as a customer, question the expertise of my firm. As Jay Shepherd has written on his blog (The Client Revolution), there’s only one question you need to ask your law firm to determine if they are experts: “What is the price?” If they can’t answer that, they are not experts. He’s right.

You cite the Johnson and Kaplan book, which was the launch of Activity Based Costing. Have you read the book that Johnson wrote after that one? Profit Beyond Measure. It shows how Toyota doesn’t use a standard cost accounting system, and how firms should not let cost accountants drive strategic decision making. It’s a seminal book, and I have discussed it in great detail in my Firm of the Future, Pricing on Purpose and Measure What Matter to Customers books.

Hourly billing rests on the wrong theory of value, that’s our major case against it. If you begin with the wrong theory, I don’t care how efficient a firm is in implementation, it will be suboptimal. There is no right way to implement a wrong idea. Cost-plus pricing—of which hourly billing is a cousin—is dying in industries around the world, as part of the pricing revolution.

VeraSage has destroyed every single argument for hourly billing. We haven’t heard a new argument in over a decade, and your article is no exception. There are answers to every one of your defenses, and they are being done in firms around the world. You can find many examples all over our web site.

All that said, I still enjoy our dialogues and hope we will keep in touch.

Thanks Colin, enjoying the debate!


Here’s Colin’s reply to mine:

Hi Ron,

I appreciate your thoughtful response and I too enjoy the dialogue. I have spoken to the article’s coauthor and we are both happy for you to publish it on your website.

With regards your specific comments:

  1. I think we both agree that all professionals and their firms can benefit from building their value-pricing capabilities. Jasper Consulting was established with the purpose of helping professional service firms create value for their clients and capture a fair share of the value for themselves.
  2. I take your point that firms should the lead the change. I do see differences however in consumer pricing (e.g. Apple iPod) and B2B pricing (e.g. Legal services to corporates and governments). If a consumer does not like a price their only option is to vote with their feet—or wallet. In a B2B environment, particularly at the big end of town, clients negotiate. They do not simply negotiate the price level but also the price structure. The challenge is how to overcome client buying behaviour. Most large organisations have legal panels with multiple firms on these panels. To get on a panel they put out tenders, largely based on hourly rates. If a firm says they do not provide hourly rates, in all likelihood they will not win a spot on the panel. No large firm can afford to be excluded from all of these large panels. Hence I see a role in educating clients as well as firms.
  3. Firstly I don’t understand why you think the pricing structures listed are ‘simply the billable hours in drag.’ Do you not advocate that a value-based price be a fixed fee?

    Secondly, with regards to providing a price up-front, I believe this is exactly why some clients seek hourly rates. In the panel example, they don’t know what the work will be in 2-3 years but they want embedded relationships rather than a range of quotes for each individual transaction. The only way they can be sure that the relationship price is fair is to agree a mechanism for charging up front. On a separate example, a law firm has just been awarded the first stage of an extremely large, one-off major infrastructure project in Australia. This first stage might be between 2-5% of the entire project. The client’s preference is for a single firm to serve them throughout the project but as the full requirements of the project can’t yet be scoped (i.e. the project could take an almost infinite number of directions) how other than hourly rates can the client agree a price that is fair up front?

  4. You misrepresent me when you say that I’m arguing the polio vaccine is valuable to the extent of the time it took to develop it. I agree that in most circumstances hourly rates should be avoided. The only point we disagree on is that you believe their is no role for hourly rates and I believe there are some occasions when it is the most appropriate pricing structure (as indicated above).

    I agree with you that the mindset must be first and foremost on creating value. Where firms do this really, really well—they can justify charging a higher rate (Ron—I can sense your response to this statement from 8,000 miles away).

  5. It’s not about the firm not defining the scope, it’s about the client not being able to define the scope of their requirements. Back to the panel example. If the client wants you to work with them for the next 4 years they are not going to know what their legal needs will be, nor which of this work they will want your firm to do. They don’t want to enter a relationship where for each individual matter that seek competitive bids to ensure your price is fair. From an economics perspective perhaps hourly rates are appropriate where a) the cost of scoping is enormous relative to the amount of work to be done and b) switching costs are high.

I think we both agree firms must focus first and foremost on value (creating value).

I think we both agree that firms should develop their value-based pricing capabilities (capturing value).

I think we both agree hourly rates are over-used in the profession.

The only area I think we disagree on is that I believe there are occasions where time-based billing is the fairest structure for both clients and firms.

Kind regards

Finally, a short reply to Colin, as this post is already too long:

Thanks for letting us publish this on our Website.

I still find your arguments unconvincing.

I don’t think there’s much of a difference between B2C and B2B. Economics is economics, and only humans buy things—there’s nobody here but us people as economist Herbert Stein used to say. This is why IBM’s slogan of “No one ever got fired for buying IBM” was so effective.

I heard stories while in Australia from both firms and general counsel that firms that only offer fixed prices, and no hourly rates, were put on the panels of some very large companies. It seems to me that if a firm is able to differentiate itself effectively, then clients will work with them no matter how they price. Firms such as Advent, Optim, Marque in Australia, and Bartlit Beck, Wachtel Lipton among others in the USA prove this point.

If the only way a firm can get on a panel is to have hourly rates, that’s a very uninspiring reason to hire a law firm. This is a purpose, strategy and positioning issue, not a pricing issue.

The alternatives you suggest are the billable hour in drag because firms are still comparing the rates to an hourly rate. Even though a fixed price is quoted, the firm is measuring value by time. If Jasper Consulting wants to help law firms create and capture more value, why are you still letting Marx’s labor theory of value drive your thinking?

I don’t buy your argument that clients will only put firms on panels if they commit to an hourly rate. A fixed price is a mechanism for agreeing to price up-front. This actually is far more transparent than hourly rates, and can easily be shopped.

And an hourly rate is not a price. How can a client know what a price is by getting an hourly rate? This reminds me of the communist obsession with inputs over outputs.

Why would you want to use the hourly rate in complex jobs. It is precisely these jobs where firms are adding the most value and need to move away from hourly rates. For the life of me, this makes no sense. You’re telling firms such as those that defended Bill Gate’s Microsoft against anti-trust violations to use the hourly rate because the job cannot be scoped? Any firm that did this would find its pricing to be incredibly sub-optimal.

Alright, enough from me, let our readers join the debate.

Thanks again Colin, feel free to post a reply.


  1. Colin,

    Pleasure to meet you even from a distance. Ron has spoken highly of you. OK, enough with the assuagement, now onto the destruction of your argument.

    You have repeated several times that “I believe there are occasions where time-based billing is the fairest structure for both clients and firms.”

    To me those “occasions” are the heart of the issue. You are correct in you assessment that the professional and the customer are unsure as to the effort needed, but effort needed does not define value. If the value is unclear then it is unethical for the professional to proceed.

    Now if a conversation can be had which defines the value, at least to the extent of the initial part of the engagement, then a price can be quoted for this piece of the engagement.

    I just did a post on this on this site entitled Consulting Rule #3. Lawyers are consultants of the law and legal system and therefore this rule applies to them. If the customer won’t let you diagnose, you cannot ethically prescribe.

    From an economic standpoint you example is akin to saying that on certain occasions when we don’t know the size of the diamond, digging through the lumps of coal has the same value as finding the diamond. This is clearly untrue. If you don’t know the size of the diamond, then just price the digging.

  2. Colin

    As you might guess, I’m with Ron and Ed on this one. “Occasions” is the problem!

    Undoubtedly there will be occasions where the full scope of the project to find the final solution cannot be defined at the outset. So, if “find the final solution” is too vague for either party’s comfort, what is wrong with an initial project whose scope is to investigate further – towards defining the scope more fully? This can be scoped, its value can be articulated and a fixed, value-based price agreed.

    Who then can be better placed than the original Consultant to take on the follow-on work.


  3. In my heart, I know you are right, and I have been very happy with my few attempts at value billing. However, in every case I have under-priced my services if one considers the amount of effort on my part(although I know I shouldn’t keep track of hours). Any thoughts about how to price adequately and make a decent profit while providing value to the client?

  4. Hi Andrea,

    Thank you for your comment. The majority of pricing mistakes are from under-pricing, not over-pricing, your work, so your experience is very common.

    Just a few things to keep in mind:

    You can’t Value Price the wrong customer. You have to work with customers who appreciate and are willing to pay for your expertise.

    Most pricing mistakes result from too low of an initial price, usually due to a poor understanding of customer expectations, value drivers, perception of value, and poor scoping of the work.

    Another major area of pricing mistakes is scope creep–not issuing Change Orders when initial scope changes.

    Not communicating value to the customer in an effective manner is another reason firms underprice. One strategy you may find helpful for this is to read my article in the Journal of Accountancy and offer options to your customers–like American Express, Green, Gold, Platinum, and Black level services. This is in incredibly effective strategy, especially for lawyers. Here’s the article link:

    I just returned from speaking to a group of tax attorneys who have been implementing the options strategy for one year and they report much higher pricing, more profits with the same level of work and less customers. Most of their customers have picked the Gold level service, as very few want to buy the cheapest offering.

    Another HUGE reason for under-pricing is, quite simply, lack of self-esteem. You’ll never get paid more than you think you are worth, and if you don’t think you’re worth a premium why would your customers? This letter I received from a CPA, Diane Green, is published in my books, but I think it’s so profound it’s worth putting here:

    Dear Ron,
    Finally (and I may have told you this before) the biggest change in all of this has been to my self-esteem. About 10 years ago, not long after beginning my solo practice, my mother-in-law, who is an attorney, said to me, “Diane, just remember, men are in business to make money and women are in business to take care of people. Get over it!” What she meant was that the female attitude of “I’ll take care of you” will give you little satisfaction and make you no money. If you are going to be taken away from your family, you might as well make a hell of a lot of money and feel really good about it. But that is easier said than done. I fell into the trap of helping my clients and forgetting myself. Was I popular? Did my clients love me? Yes! But I didn’t feel the same. Only when I took my practice seriously and began placing a value on my services by Pricing On Purpose did I begin to feel successful. If you feel successful, you are successful and then the money follows. When you reduce your value to an hourly rate it feels lousy, no matter how high the billing rate.

    Good luck, and keep up the good work! Keep in touch.
    Diane Green

    I hope that helps Andrea. Don’t fret too much about pricing, you’ll never feel comfortable with it, and I wouldn’t want you to. What we do know is that like tennis or golf, pricing is a skill: the more you do it, the better you’ll get. The fact that you aren’t happy with your pricing tells me you have the motivation to improve–and you will. It’s a journey, not a destination.

    I hope that helps. I’d be happy to chat more with you anytime.

  5. Colin Jasper says:

    Hi David,

    I agree with your comments, particularly the point regarding who better placed to take on the follow-on work than the original consultant. Provided the original consultant does a good job, the client would want to continue working with them. And that’s the problem!

    Imagine you are the client and you want to choose a provider and a key criterion (although not the only criterion) is cost-effectiveness. Obtaining a price for stage one is meaningless as all firms would submit a loss leading bid to win the first stage.

    I’m sure you would agree that good pricing should be fair to the client and fair to the firm. So as the client, how would you ensure the fees you were charged for the subsequent stages are cost-effective?


  6. Colin

    I believe that if your route to quoting a fee for the initial project is based on helping the (prospective) client understand for themselves the true and full value of getting to the end of that project, and then your fee is based on that value, you will have equipped that prospect with the ability to see through any ‘loss leading’ tactics possibly used by any of your competitors.

    They will now know the questions to ask the competitors, and they can make their decisions. If the prospect eventually decides to go with the loss-leading quote, are they the sort of client you want to be dealing with?

    Tara Joyce has written a great blog entry about trying Value-Based billing It does contain some profanities but that’s just her!


  7. Colin

    Addressing your question to me, if I as client had been guided through understanding for myself the true and full value (to me) of fixing any of my problems, and if I’d been given various value options to choose from – all of which solved the problem – and a fixed fee for a fixed scope was attached to each, then I think I would be able to judge for myself which was the best investment to make, given the RoI and my ability to source the investment (fee).

    Sorry for the long sentences. I appear to have run low on full stops and capital letters this morning!


  8. Colin Jasper says:

    David and Ron,

    I think the fundamental difference we have is the role of inputs other than value into pricing. While I believe value is the most important input, I don’t believe you can ignore inputs such as competition or costs.

    Smaller organisations may well be able to create their own market and therefore have to worry less about competitors. In these situations it may be as simple as demonstrating that the value delivered is greater than the fee to be paid.

    However with larger organisations, working in highly competitive markets, where large clients spend big dollars and yield their power to ensure they obtain a highly competitive price from a range of competent providers, firms must not only demonstrate the value of what they deliver but also that they are competitively priced.

    I absolutely believe firms need to think about, pursue and deliver value to clients. I just don’t believe that’s enough to win in the biggest most competitive markets.


  9. Colin,

    I have never argued that you can ignore competition or costs. I argue that your costs need to be known up-front, not after the fact, in line with price-led costing.

    I argue that you need to be different than your competition to command premium prices.

    The “smaller organization” argument doesn’t hold water. IBM commands a huge premium price, and last time I checked they sell to large companies. The slogan “No one ever got fired for buying IBM” was said by customers, not IBM.

    No doubt large companies have buying power, but your job as professional pricing consultant is to help your clients push back on that buying power. The only way to push back effectively is with value.

    I sometimes wonder which side you’re working on. You’re repeating the platitudes of professional buyers. Damn right they want law firms to think they are all commodities, all the same, etc. They are fantastic poker players, and some of them, quite frankly, lie.

    But this “commodity” line is nonsense, as their actions don’t support what they say. Look at any elasticity study on law firm buyers, and you will see they are relatively inelastic. Law firms have more market power than you seem to think.

    It’s your job as a pricer to help them use that power; otherwise what good are you doing?

    Are you a procurement officer or a pricer? Pricers work with sellers, not against them.

  10. Colin Jasper says:

    Ron, Ron, Ron,

    As much as a firm might try to communicate they are the only ones who can add superior value, sophisticated buyers recognise multiple firms are capable of delivering a quality outcome.

    In trying to help firms with pricing I believe you need to not only assist them with understanding, communicating and delivering value, but also assist them with understanding their competitive position and the implications of this for their pricing.

    Then you are in a position to assist sellers justify the value (both absolute and relative) that they are delivering. Otherwise what good are you doing?

  11. “Then you are in a position to assist sellers justify the value that they are delivering.”

    Colin, Colin, Colin, you do not get it. This thinking is backward. I suggest you reread some of Ron’s work. The value chain is:
    Customer –> Value –> Price –> Cost

    When you suggest seller should justify their value, you are inverting it to be:
    Cost –> Price –> Value –> Customer

    This thinking hopelessly confuses cause and effect.

  12. Colin,

    Again, you are stating the obvious. My point you ignored.

    If you really believe all clients look solely at price, then you have bought into the buying tricks and poker playing of procurement. Economists don’t listen to what people say, they watch what they do.

    Look at elasticity studies on law firms. You’ll find that client’s are nowhere near as price sensitive as you suggest, especially if a firm can prove its value.

  13. Colin Jasper says:


    I’m in full agreement that value is purely in the eyes of the client. I didn’t mention cost.

    But the seller needs to play an active role in explaining the value to the client rather than allowing the client to work it out for themselves.


  14. Colin Jasper says:


    I absolutely agree with you that most clients don’t look solely at price. Some pay scant attention to price. But most include price in the decision making criteria and many seek competitive bids.

    So unless your clients are working in a utopian market where clients don’t consider alternatives, an assessment of relative value is needed. Hence, its not just about the absolute value you are creating for clients, but how this value compares to what competitors can offer.


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