The June ethics question attracted some practical responses that reflected the realities of the marketplace.
The question was, simply:
Is it ethical to charge different clients different hourly rates?
"One's first impression is that all clients should be treated alike -- a geologist's hours should be worth the same to anybody, and therefore any variation constitutes taking advantage of somebody," said DPA President Robert Sabaté.
"Yet different geologists with similar skills commonly bill a single client at different rates. If we settled amongst ourselves what we all should charge, we'd run afoul of the U.S. Justice Department, which is why lawyers had to do away with their 'minimum rate' code book.
"Nor are clients alike. A retainer under a long-term contract to monitor production for a landowner is likely to be based on a lower hourly rate than for walk-in business. Similarly, a six-month regional mapping project probably will be negotiated at a rate lower than for an equivalent bag of smaller jobs spread over a longer period. Some companies have a take-it-or-leave-it rate they'll pay. Some governmental agencies require bids.
"A geologist might rely primarily on a small group of regular clients. While he (or she) knows he should accept a little outside work in order to ensure against starvation (should) his main clients abandon him, and to stay in circulation, he is inclined to bump his rate to discourage more outside business than he can handle.
A colleague tells me he quotes outrageous rates for people he really doesn't want to work for. What do you think about that?
Times and rates change (upward, we hope). Should a geologist refuse to collect a new, higher rate from a new client because he chooses to stand pat with an old, loyal one?
A consultant is an independent contractor, and as such is free to ask for whatever he thinks he can get. There is no established rule, other than the market, that determines what a geologist is "worth." He actually may be worth more to a client who needs his imagination than to another who needs only routine work.
So long as he does not reach so high as to take advantage of an unsophisticated client, or so low as to deliberately undercut his colleagues, there is no ethical problem.
Consultant Randy Andrews, of Graham, Texas, said that "to stay out of 'hot water' on this subject, you should set the maximum price you can rightfully charge -- be it a day rate, hourly rate, etc. Then you can reward your 'good' clients who are reliable and pay promptly with a discount."
Charge all others who "tend to ride you and are slow to pay," your normal charges, Andrews continued, "which will include enough extra to compensate for your having to wait 30, 60 or 90 days for a pay check. This way you are rewarding the 'good.' The ones that drag their feet on paying get nothing other than your regular invoice for your work performed.
"Remember, your work effort and performance should not vary according to client ... Put the same effort into everything you do for everyone. Then if you want to say 'thanks' for paying promptly, offer the client a small discount ...
"Bottom line here is give your good clients a break -- they're good to you, you're good to them. Otherwise, everyone else just pays the basic rates ... Never have a basic rate and then charge above that. Have a normal rate and offer discounts."