Negotiating – When It’s Appropriate and When It’s Offensive

In the service industry, particularly with events, we deal a lot with negotiating rates.  Some vendors I know refuse to negotiate, and I can’t blame them.  They know what they’re worth, and that’s what they charge.  Period.  I even know of one event planner who won’t negotiate on behalf of her clients with other vendors, because the vendors that she frequently works with are worth every penny they charge, and she respects that. Others may LOVE to negotiate, and I say good for them.

And then there are the clients.  Clients usually expect to negotiate.  But why? We don’t go to the GAP and negotiate on the price of the denim shirt. (Well, maybe if there was a little black spot on the hem line, you might get a little tiny discount.) But for some reason, services are viewed as something that can and *should* be negotiated.  We don’t have goods that we are selling you.  We just have our time and knowledge.  So why do so many people think those commodities are worthy of discounting, when no one questions the value of a product? When you ask for a discount you are essentially saying that you don’t value that person’s time or expertise as much as they do. This may or may not bother you.  How much it does or doesn’t bother you will impact your willingness to ask the question to begin with.

There are a handful of situations where it’s easy to negotiate and the request to get the price down isn’t offensive to most vendors.  It’s always okay to ask the blanket question: are there any discounts available?  Sometimes you can’t get them if you don’t ask. Maybe there’s a military discount. Maybe you get a break for being a teacher or a police officer or fire person. Maybe there’s a paid-in-full discount.  These are all things that the vendor may gladly give you, and it doesn’t ruffle their feathers at all.

Another thing that can (isn’t always, but can) be an easy negotiating point is Price Matching. If you’re shopping around, and you find a vendor that you really connect with, or you know they really understand your vision and are able to nail whatever it is you’re looking for, but they’re not the best price when you compare apples-to-apples, you can ask them to match the competitor’s price.  In many cases, they’ll do it.  But be sure to mention that the products and quality of work are the same. A top caterer like The Classic Catering People or Eleven Courses probably won’t be able to price match your aunt’s home cooking, or the deli down the street that does really killer baked beans and sandwiches.

Where it gets a little dicey, and you could definitely ruffle more than a few feathers, is when you ask for discounts that take money directly out of the pocket of the vendor, just because you value the services less than the vendor does. Here are some examples:

I’ve had more prospective brides than I can count come to me with some preconceived, ridiculously low idea of what my services should cost.  I’m pretty sure they’re getting this information from national magazines that don’t consider regional fluctuations in market value, or they are getting outdated information from friends and family members who got married years ago.  If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me to come down in my price by 30%, I’d be able to afford to do it once in a while because I’d have all those dollars! My favorite is when people tell me they have $1000 to spend on wedding coordinating and I think to myself, “I was charging more than that when I was brand new!” Now, I’m not knocking anyone for having a conservative budget.  Everyone should stay within their means, and that might mean you can’t afford certain planners.  It’s a good thing there are always people out there who don’t know the true value of the industry, and they charge pennies on the dollar. The other side of that coin is you get what you pay for! Unfortunately, it’s also dragging down the value of the market and creating a big misunderstanding with consumers about the value, much like the under-priced house for sale on your street that’s going to make it more difficult for you to sell your house anytime in the next 3 years for a decent amount of money. But like I said, certain services aren’t in the budget range for everyone and that’s fine.  I don’t have to be everyone’s wedding planner.  So what confuses me is when people hear my rates and then realize they can’t afford me, so they try to talk me down in price like I’m the only option for them.  I’m flattered that they want ME so badly.  But there are lots of us out there (much to my chagrin sometimes.)

Here are some examples of discounts people ask for that don’t make any sense to me:

  • Day of the week – Some companies are happy to give a discount for Friday and Sunday weddings, and an even bigger discount for Monday through Thursday weddings! Venues are particularly good about offering these discounts, because they need to fill their space. Otherwise, they’re paying the electric bill for nothing. But when we are talking about someone who is working with you throughout the whole planning process, my work is the same no matter what day of the week your event is on.  In fact, most of my work is completed during the week anyway. And weekday weddings can even be more difficult for me, because it is harder to find good help on weekdays. Most of my staff has full-time weekday jobs, so they would have to take time off to work as my assistant on a weekday. I never understood why caterers offer discounts for weekdays.  It’s not like they can call their suppliers and say, “Can you give me a price break on that sirloin?  I’m feeding it to people on a Thursday.” And they must have a similar jam with staffing.  Their service staff is typically employed elsewhere during the week and pick up some extra cash working with the caterer.  So staffing a weekday event may involve temp agencies, which are expensive and can be unreliable as far as quality.
  • Time of the year – Same deal! You can get great discounts from lots of venues and vendors by having an off-peak wedding.  In Maryland and the surrounding areas, off-peak would be considered December-March, and July-August, usually.  Just like the days of the week, some folks would rather book the business at a discount to fill the dates that they otherwise wouldn’t likely fill, than to turn the job down.  However, for services like wedding planning, where we are working with you throughout the year, even during busy times, our work is the same no matter what.
  • I’m already doing so much of the work myself – This may be true, and that’s why we offer different levels of packages. We even customize them.  Need full-service help, but you already have your venue contracted?  I know finding a venue is a lot of work for me, so if you’ve already done it, that’s an automatic discount from my full rate. But are you bringing a lot of DIY projects on the day-of?  Automatic extra charge from your coordinator to cover the labor that is necessary to set up things that would otherwise be the responsibility of a florist or another décor contractor. The most common thing that I hear from brides/clients who are looking to get a discount on work they’ve already done is the completion of the wedding day itinerary. “I’ve already figured out the whole schedule of the day, so you don’t need to do that part!”  I hate to break it to you, but your schedule, no matter how detailed, isn’t going to work for me.  First of all, I would need to reformat it into the way my eyes are accustomed to seeing it.  If all my itineraries looked different, customized by each client, I’d spend way too much time looking through the document during pressing moments to find the information I’m looking for.  My itineraries are written they way I need them to be written in order to most effectively and efficiently do my job and serve you well.  Furthermore, I have yet to see a bride’s itinerary that has all the information I put on mine.  The order of the ceremony, every single delivery/arrival time, the list of what happens to everything at the end of the event, and the notes about special things like the Bride & Groom’s beverages of choice throughout the evening.  Just leave it to us, and we’ll get the information we need.  Although, your draft is a huge help (usually) and we thank you for being prepared!
  • The one thing you should never do if you are fortunate enough to negotiate a great deal with one of your vendors is to give them any indication of the other things you’re spending money on at your event.  This is particularly difficult to get away with when it comes to your planner, because we know EVERYTHING.  I’ll tell you about one of my worst “kicking myself” negotiating moments in my entire career.  Several years back, when I was still green enough that I wanted every wedding out there, a mother of the bride called me about a Sunday wedding in June.  She had reached out to me only about 6 weeks before the wedding, and this weekend was the one weekend in June when I wasn’t already booked.  I saw a great opportunity to fill my calendar and make some real money that month.  She asked for a deal because it was a Sunday and it was right around the corner, so I offered to take $100 off.  Then she indicated that she had another proposal from another planner who would do it for $1000.  At the time, this was $345 less than my going rate for wedding day coordination.  She said, “I’m already over-budget on the wedding, and anything that I spend money on now is extra, but I really need a coordinator. This is the last $1000 that I’m willing to spend. If you can match the other planner’s price, we’ll do the deal.”  I was hungry for the work, so I matched the price of what was probably an imaginary planner.  (I mean, if she had a better deal with someone else, why wouldn’t she just take it?) We do the deal and set up our planning meeting.  She hands me all the contracts she has with her vendors and I begin to look over them, right there at the table.  Then, she starts dropping truth bombs on me.  “I just came from [a very high end linen rental company] and placed an order with them.  Here’s the invoice for your files.”  It was for over $1000 worth of linens.  I reply, “You know, your caterer can get you a much better rate for linens.”  She explained, “I know, but these were so much nicer.  I really wanted these.”  Okay, so there was another $1000 that she said she didn’t have for a planner’s going rate, but she was willing to put towards something extra.  She continues, “I think it’s very dark and drab inside the venue.  I’ll need to add lighting.  Can you recommend a good lighting company?”  Flabbergasted, I explain, “Yes, I typically work with [my go-to lighting company] but they start at $500 per job just to make it worthwhile for them to come out.”  She lets me know that is totally fine with her and she’ll call him tomorrow to set up the contract.  So there’s a total of $1500 additional dollars that she spent on other vendors AFTER she told me she didn’t have a dime more than $1000 for me, which was 35% under my going rate, and more than 50% under fair market value for the work I was doing.  And was she an easy client who made it worth the reduction in price?  Of course not!  Was her daughter’s wedding something I could add to my portfolio to boost future business?  Heck no.  Did she ever recommend me to future clients? Nope!  Did she write a great review for the excellent, above-and-beyond work I did for her despite the discount?  No again.  At that point I decided I was never compromising again.  Of course I have worked with people on price since then.  But never just because they say they don’t want to pay my fair price, and never just so I can fill the date.  I’d rather spend time with my family on a lovely weekend than do the hard work for less money.

    Remember, when you ask someone, particularly a self-employed person to reduce their price, you are taking away the equivalent of their benefits.  If you’re employed by a company, you make a salary or wages that are meant to pay most of your bills.  In addition to that, your company is likely contributing to your health insurance, retirement plan, and possibly even your daily transportation/parking.  If you have an assistant, the company pays them separately. Your taxes and social security are cleanly withdrawn from your paycheck and what you bring home is what you get to spend.  Those of us who are self-employed manage our own benefits.  We pay into our savings and retirement funds out of what our clients pay us.  We pay for our own health insurance at much higher than group rates. Social security is taken out through self-employment taxes.  This all adds up to about 30% of the contract rates that we quote you.  If you need help, an assistant’s wages are coming out of the contract amount, too. So when you ask for a coordinator to go from $1300 to $1000, or from $2250 to $1500, you’re telling that professional that they shouldn’t have health insurance, retirement savings, or possibly even be able to set anything aside for their taxes. It may seem like some vendors are charging an exorbitant amount of money for their services.  But if they feel it’s what they are worth, and the quality of their work stands up to it, consider leaving the pricing where it is.  No one comes up to a nurse and asks her to get paid 30% less because they don’t like having a needle stuck in their arm.  No one bats and eyelash at the prices in an upscale clothing boutique.  For those who don’t want to or are unable to pay the high prices, they simply go someplace else that’s within their budget.  You don’t ask Gucci to take the price of the handbag down by 30%. You get a look-alike at Target!If you don’t mind putting a sour taste in a vendor’s mouth, feel free to ask for all the negotiated rates you desire.  But if you want to support small business in a fair manner, shop around and hire the professional who is quoting the rate you can afford from the beginning. They’ll appreciate you for it, and the legitimate professionals will not be offended at all if you go with someone else for a better price. There’s someone out there for everyone.