sliding scale can of worms

Charging on a Sliding Scale Just Creates a Can of Worms

Most advocates and care managers I know have huge hearts. They want to help everyone who needs help! They truly dislike having to charge money for their services (because many have done this work for free for friends and loved ones for a lifetime). Further, in many cases, they don’t give themselves credit for being as capable as they are.

So they struggle. They ask themselves how on earth they are going to ask for money from these (possibly desperate) people who contact them, especially when:

  • They are new, and haven’t worked in private practice for very long (if at all).
  • They are unsure of their pricing, having taken a wild guess as to what they should charge.
  • They have previously done care management only as a volunteer, never having charged for advocacy services before.
  • They don’t know how long their work will take, so can’t figure out what to charge anyway.
  • They hate asking for money.

All of the above or at least some of the above…. is that you?

So then they they declare – I know! I’ll just charge people on a sliding scale! That way they will only pay me what they can afford, but – they will pay me! And that’s a start.

Whew! What a relief. Right?

No. That’s a decision similar to the advocate who declares she will start a practice as a non-profit. It’s probably not going to solve what you hope it will solve.

Instead, the decision to charge clients on a sliding scale simply opens a can of worms you just don’t want to open.

Follow along with me….

Let’s say you get a call from a potential client, and they ask you how much you charge.

“I charge on a sliding scale!” you tell them. But that doesn’t answer the question because they still have no idea how much you’ll charge them!

You are no closer to a new client. Further now, in their brains, they are thinking “Ding ding ding! I can get a discount!”

You’ll understand this better by attempting to answer these questions:

1. How will you set up the sliding scale? Do you base your rates on their income? Or on their age? Or their savings? or – that’s the question – what will you base the “slide” on?

Will you ask them how much money they have? or for copies of their tax returns? Or a paycheck stub? How will they prove to you how much money they have or make?

Or – maybe you plan to just take their word for it… Then what? It’s naive to think you’ll be given a truthful answer.

What if you think they haven’t been entirely truthful? Won’t it bother you, as you are working for them, to know (or at least think) they lied?

Maybe you can begin to see that can of worms you’re opening…

Now suppose they have answered you with something like “I am an Uber driver and I make $480 a week”… OK – now what? That says nothing about how much rent they pay, or what their medical bills already look like, or what their school loans look like… So are you going to ask them for their monthly budget?

Can you see where I’m going with all this? Unless you have a very specific way to figure out “where” on the scale they belong, how will you know what to charge?

Another can of worms question:

2. How will I charge another client differently on the sliding scale without upsetting other clients?

Say you’ve worked with a client for several weeks, that you somehow figured out what to charge them. Now that client tells a friend to hire you, singing your praises and sharing “She only charged me $xxx for all that work!”? So now that referral calls you and based on your sliding scale, you must charge her more. How do you respond to, “But my friend said you charged him much less than that!”

Further, she then returns to share that information with the friend who referred her, very upset that it cost her MORE. Now your current client begins to question your privacy terms because, of course, discussing and researching a sliding scale would, of course, require you to promise privacy.

A can of worms! Because now, even if you have figured out what and how to charge, you’ve got a client who is questioning your privacy promise, and a potential client who is upset with you and may not hire you. All because – back to where you started – you are uncomfortable asking for the money you are worth.

3. Then there is the can of worms called “value” where I ask you – if you owned a 2010 Chevy and you owned a 2010 Cadillac, which one would you consider had more value?

Most would reply that their Cadillac was more valuable because… well… it cost more and it’s worth more. Therefore they value it more highly, they take better care of it, they even trust it more for taking long trips.

Professional services are regarded the same way. No matter whether it’s true or not, people think a lawyer who charges a higher hourly rate is a better lawyer, or the hairdresser who charges more for a cut ‘n curl makes them look better.

Granted, YOU might not think that’s true, but what YOU think does not matter. It’s about what a potential client thinks.

If your services are LESS expensive, they will think LESS of your services. So if you decide to reduce your fees for them, then, sadly, they might think much less of you, too, as in You Get What You Pay For. That’s human. It’s just the way it is.

sliding scale

If you’ve been thinking about charging based on a sliding scale, I suggest you give it a second thought – or more – until you don’t think about it any more.*

Do not open that can of worms.


*An exception to the sliding scale would be for a non-profit organization which has deep pockets and has been well-funded. That’s not to suggest you start a non-profit… That’s a different discussion on a different post.

1 thought on “Charging on a Sliding Scale Just Creates a Can of Worms”

  1. I do use a sliding scale and it has not come back to bite me. I observe their situation, what kind of insurance they have and lots of information about their financial situation comes up during our initial meeting. I am an Advocate and work part time so I am able to operate without getting top dollar.

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