Understanding Consumer Willingness to Pay for Professional Services

December 1, 2011

By Nada Nasr Bechwati, DBA

When it comes to utilizing professional services, consumers have a choice: perform the service for themselves or outsource the job to a service professional. The purpose of this research is to propose a model for understanding consumers' willingness to pay for professional services, including lawn and garden services, plumbing, vehicle maintenance, apparel cleaning and alteration, tax return preparations, financial services (including investment/retirement planning), and real estate transactions. Such professional services present an interesting challenge to service providers. Consumers' perception of the value of a service may have particular importance in pricing, especially related to professional services where consumers have the option of performing the service themselves. For instance, a consumer wanting to sell her house can hire a real estate agent or she can elect to sell the house on her own ("For Sale by Owner" or FSBO). While previous researchers have studied demographic and economic variables, I argue for a key role for behavioral variables in determining whether or not consumers are willing to pay for professional services. The outcomes of this research have important marketing implications for the professional services industry, with particular relevance for real estate agents wanting to create greater impact.

Why Would I Pay? Developing a Framework for the Study

As illustrated in Table 1, consumers' willingness to pay for professional services is mainly driven by two broad determinants: (1) the consumers' ability to either do the work themselves or pay for it, and (2) the consumers' readiness to pay. A consumer's ability to do the work or pay for the service is represented by two dimensions. The first dimension relates to skill availability, i.e., consumers' perceptions of whether or not they can do the work themselves. Skill is driven by a consumer's subjective knowledge (confidence that she can perform a job comparable to a service provider) and the perception of a difference in quality of the outcomes between her work and that of a service provider. Both of these variables are expected to affect willingness to pay. The second dimension relates to the financial ability or availability of monetary resources to employ a service provider. Financial ability is driven by job security (or financial anxiety expected to affect financial ability) and the financial costs associated with performing services on your own. These variables are expected to positively influence consumers' willingness to pay for professional services. For instance, the cost of advertising (e.g. web-based ads, newspaper ads, physical "For Sale" signs, etc.) that would typically be wrapped into an agent's commission would all need to be paid separately by the consumer if she chooses to sell the house on her own.

Table 1 - Drivers of Willingness To Pay for Professional Services

Determinants of
Dimensions Variables in Model Code
Ability to Work or Pay Availability of Skill Subjective Knowledge KNOWLEDGE
    Difference in Quality of Outcome DIFFERENCE
  Availability of Money Job Security JOB ANXIETY
    Cost of Performing Services On Own COST
Readiness to Pay Opportunity Cost Opportunity of Extra Income EXTRA INCOME
    Appreciation of Leisure LEISURE
    Value of Time TIME
  Fun Effort EFFORT
    Effort Saved EFFORT SAVED
    Enjoyment JOY
  Interpersonal Influence Reference Group REF GROUP

A consumer's readiness to pay is mainly influenced by what else he can do with his time (opportunity costs) and by his interests and preferences. Instead of spending his time performing the service on his own, a consumer can (1) work or (2) enjoy leisure activities. Individuals have different levels of capacity and appreciation for work and leisure time. With this in mind, the consumers' valuation of time is expected to influence his readiness to pay for professional services. Moreover, a consumer's perception of the effort needed to do the work on his own (and the fun associated with the task, or lack thereof) is expected to influence his willingness to pay for professional services. Research in consumer decision-making provides strong support for consumers' attempts to minimize the effort they put into tasks. Additionally, other personal preferences and interests are expected to influence one's readiness to pay for professional services. For instance, a consumer may enjoy performing a particular professional service that could otherwise be outsourced (such as landscaping) on his own. Such enjoyment is expected to negatively affect consumers' readiness to pay to outsource professional services. Moreover, research on interpersonal influence lends support to the influence of others, e.g., friends and colleagues, on one's behavior. Accordingly, consumers' readiness to pay is expected to be contingent on the behavior of their reference groups.

The Study

To test the factors outlined in Table 1, I conducted online surveys focused on two industries with contrasting usage frequencies: apparel cleaning and tax form preparation. Apparel cleaning was chosen to represent services that consumers might use with some regularity, while tax form preparation was chosen to represent services that consumers might use infrequently. Real estate services, while not directly examined in the study, would fall into the infrequent use category. The data collected from the tax form preparation survey is relevant and implications can extend to the real estate industry and other industries with similar usages frequencies. Data were collected from a random sample of 488 consumers for the apparel cleaning survey and 480 consumers for the tax forms preparation survey. In the survey, respondents were first asked to indicate their willingness to pay for the focal service. Other questions included the consumers' perceptions of (1) subjective knowledge of performing the service, (2) difference in quality of outcome between professional service provider and personally completing the service, (3) job security, (4) costs of personally completing the service, (5) opportunities available to earn extra income, (6) appreciation of leisure, (7) value of time, (8) effort, (9) enjoyment, and (10) reference group. The last section was devoted to demographic questions including age, income, education and family size.

Understanding Behavioral Variables - Implications for Real Estate Agents

The results of the study lend support to the importance of behavioral variables as predictors of consumers' willingness to pay for professional services. Perceptions of subjective knowledge of how to perform the service and enjoyment of performing the service were the most significant variables in both of the studies. Interestingly, the inclusion of the traditionally studied demographic variables did not result in better models. In addition, for each of the data sets, another type of analysis with usage of the service (users vs. non-users) as the grouping variable revealed that users and non-users of both professional apparel cleaning and tax preparation services differed primarily on behavioral variables such as enjoyment and reference group behavior. The specific implications of this research for the real estate industry (as well as for other professional service firms) can help agents achieve stronger results through behavior-specific marketing efforts. By identifying the most important behavioral variables that influence the decision whether or not to use a professional service provider in a particular industry, promotional messages can be tailored to have the greatest impact in local markets. Consider this example from the real estate industry: The 2010 National Association of REALTORS Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers revealed interesting results with respect to homes sold by owners ("For Sale By Owners" or FSBOs). In 2010, 9% of all home sales were FSBOs. Additionally, FSBO sellers noted that the most difficult tasks experienced when selling a house on their own were: getting the price right (23%), preparing/fixing up the home for sale (18%), having enough time to devote to all tasks of the sale (13%), and understanding and performing paperwork associated with the sale (10%). Each of the tasks that FSBO sellers considered most difficult appear to relate to the behavioral categories of subjective knowledge and enjoyment of performing the service. Knowing that these specific behavioral variables are present as FBSO sellers (and likely most other home owners) consider whether or not to list a home on their own, agents might consider framing their promotional messages around the benefits associated with outsourcing home selling services: "List with me - my ___ years of experience will help you get the most value out of your home." Or, "Worried about the time and effort it will take to sell your home on your own? Leave the work to us and make the most of the time you have with your family." Tapping into the FSBO market (while only 9% nationally) can have significant impact on an agent's sales, which could lead to an even stronger network of referrals and more substantial local market share. This is only one example of how leveraging behavioral variables in a particular industry can create impact. In all professional service industries, understanding behavioral variables that most accurately predict willingness to pay for professional services can help marketers tailor messages to have even greater impact on prospective clients (gaining new business) and with current clients (fostering loyalty and repeat business). Consider how approaching a specific market through the lens of behavioral variables can shift the way you might market your services - and ultimately, how focusing the marketing approach can lead to more sales.

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Nasr Bechwati, Nada (2011), "Willingness to Pay for Professional Services," Journal of Product and Brand Management, 20(1), 75-83. National Association of REALTORS (2010). The 2010 NAR Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers. Retrieved from https://issuu.com/varealtor/docs/2010_nar_homebuyers_and_sellers.

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About the Author

Nada Nasr Bechwati, DBA
Associate Professor in the Department of Marketing, Bentley University

Nada Nasr Bechwati holds a DBA in Marketing from Boston University. She previously taught at the American University of Beirut, Boston University and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include studying the link between consumers' purchase process and their post-purchase, and examining behavioral pricing. Her current research interests focus on transformative consumer research. Her consulting experience has been mainly in designing systems to capture and measure customer lifetime value. Dr. Nasr Bechwati has published, among other scholarly journals, in Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Consumer Psychology, Journal of Interactive Marketing, Journal of Business Research, Journal of Business Venture, and the American Statistician. She serves on the editorial board of Journal of Services Research and Industrial Marketing Management. Dr. Nasr Bechwati is recipient of several academic awards and is an international fellow of the American Association for University Women.