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Quote Unquote

June 25, 2009 | by Riva Pomerantz

The job took three times as long as expected. Can I suddenly double the price?

We've all encountered the following situation and every time it stings anew. I call it the "Quote Unquote Phenomenon." It goes something like this:

Him: (Toothy grin) "Hello, Mrs. Pomerantz! I'm Dan the Man and I'll be happy to fix your toilet if you'll just lead the way to the bathroom..."

Me: (Wary grin back) "Uh, sure, Mr. Man, if you'll, uh, just give me a quote on how much it'll take to snake out the half-package of diapers my baby stuffed down there..."

Him: (Bigger grin) "No problem. Glad you asked. It'll be $150, even, plus tax. Okay?"

Me: (Waning grin): "Uh, okay. This way, please."

So Dan the Man does his thing, amid plenty of grunting and growling, and as he emerges he flashes me a weary smile and wipes his brow.

"Mrs. Pomerantz," he says with a sad wink, "Y'know, I gotta tell you. It was a lot more work than I thought. I mean, your toilet is really narrow at the base, and those diapers were wedged in pretty tight." Pause. "I'm gonna need to charge you an extra 50 bucks for that. It'll be $200, even, plus tax."

And that, my friends, is the "Quote Unquote." You get a quote and then it gets unquoted in a sort of one-upmanship that isn't really very sportsmanlike. Being a veteran of many such encounters, I was shocked one day to find myself shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Dan the Man and his ilk, poised uncertainly at the edge of a perilous moral precipice.

The job seemed like a piece of cake. Birthday cake, actually. As a birthday gift, a client wanted to commission me to write up the story of her friendship with the birthday girl. No problem. I thought for a few minutes, made a quick calculation, and gave her a price which we both agreed was fair.

Could I really spin the same Dan the Man technique on my hapless client?

Well sometimes cakes flop, and this one turned out to be a royal disaster. The job took three times as long as expected, with revisions, glitches, and two all-nighters to finish it off. When it came time for payment, I wearily contemplated my dilemma. I'd quoted her a ridiculously low price, based on an incomplete picture of what was truly required. I'd delivered a much higher quality product than she'd expected and deserved to be paid double. I took a deep breath. It wasn't pleasant, but I knew what needed to be done. I'd just have to tell her that the quote had been underestimated. Sorry about that. These things happen.


"Quote Unquote" buzzers rang in my mind; images of Dan the Man coaxing out the last of the soggy diapers flashed before my eyes. Could I really spin the same technique on my hapless client? She'd gone ahead with the project thinking it would cost her one hundred and fifty dollars. Could I suddenly double the price?

My head was full of opinions, clamoring to be heard.

You worked hard; don't sell yourself short!
You stayed up till 3:30 in the morning doing that piece -- don't tell me you're gonna give in on this!
She can afford it!
If you'd done it for anyone else you would have been paid what you're worth!
You gave her much more than she bargained for!

In all the cacophony, it was easy to miss that tiny, faint cry from the very back of my thoughts. In fact, it didn't seem to be coming from my mind at all; it was emanating from my heart.

It's not right, urged this gentle voice. You wouldn't want anyone doing that to you!

Hillel, one of our greatest Sages, was approached by a gentile with an odd and audacious request. "Teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot," he demanded. Hillel was unfazed. He complied immediately. "Whatever you dislike, do not do to your friend," he told the man. "This is the entire Torah."

It's so simple. Not easy, but simple. Whatever you dislike, don't do to your friends. That was exactly the answer to my inner dilemma. Visions of Dan the Man surged inside me. There was that flush of resentment as he upped the price, that cynical glance I tossed him as he smugly wrote out a receipt. Did I like it? Not a bit! Could I then do it to a friend?

I waved goodbye to Dan and quickly told my client that I'd stick to my original quote. No song-and-dance about the amount of time and effort the piece had taken me -- that would just be a passive-aggressive masquerade for asking for more money.

Profit can sometimes be measured in morals and sense.

A call to my rabbi not only confirmed my suspicions but also showed me how I'd been treading on thin ice in the Torah department. In most cases, the rabbi told me, Jewish law* actually prohibits practices like those of our friend Dan the Plumber. A quote given is binding and cannot be changed after the job is completed even if the quote-giver failed to take into consideration certain aspects of the project. In order to protect oneself, a contractor can give a client an hourly rate, or in my case, a per-word rate, to avoid under-quoting, but once a figure is given there's no backsies!

After my client dropped off payment, I thought for a long time.

It is easy to measure profit in dollars and cents. But there is a growing awareness in my mind that profit can sometimes be measured in morals and sense. Especially in our turbulent economic times, money and its importance has been cast in an entirely different light and many of our beliefs around finances and worth are being challenged. Today, I came face-to-face with this conundrum. I raked in considerably less financial profit than I'd hoped for, even as I pocketed a king's ransom in spiritual gain.

And there's definitely a bright side that glitters much more than gold. I mean, how often do I get a chance to keep the entire Torah while standing on one foot?

*(See Pischei Choshen, Sechirus, Chapter 8, note 2 and note 40)


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