The politics of pricing

The fear of "difficult conversations with clients".

As anyone in business knows, working out how much to charge for your goods or services is a perpetual conundrum. Charge too much and you risk losing customers; charge too little and you might not break even. It’s a difficult balance to strike at the best of times, but the present economic climate makes the challenge even harder. Deciding what the price of your services should be – and how you charge for those services – is one of the most important decisions that you can make when you run your own practice. So you need to do your utmost to get it right.

Charging per hour has long been the tried-and-tested billing model for the accountancy profession, and with good reason. The principle is that the fairest and most transparent way to recompense someone is by paying them for their time – hence the model is also used by a range of other professionals from lawyers through to IT contractors.

Traditionally, the hourly rates charged by accountancy firms tended to be calculated on the basis that a third of the fee would cover salary costs (hence it would vary according to the seniority and expertise of the staff member), a third would cover overheads and third would be profit. While this breakdown does not necessarily hold true now – the percentage of the fee needed to cover labour has increased, for example – it helps to explain why the charge-out rates of some Big Four partners are more than £1,000 an hour.

So far, so good. Except that from the client’s point of view, charging per hour does not necessarily seem that transparent. After all, they are not sitting in your office, watching over your staff while the work gets done, so they don’t know how efficient or otherwise your practice is. There is also the risk that they will be presented with a bill that is far larger than they expected at the end of the job, which is a sure-fire way to lose their business.

This piece first appeared here.

Photograph: Getty Images

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.