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Stop Using This 4 Letter ‘F’ Word in Your Sales Meetings

How do you feel when it comes to each of these three terms: cost, price and fees? Can they be used interchangeably, or should you concentrate on using – or not using – one of them when communicating with your customers? After doing 3,000 in-person sales 401(k) meetings from June 2008 to January 2015, a certain term stood out as the one not to use. In this column you’ll discover which one that is.

The term “cost” is something we all readily comprehend. We grew up knowing that if a pack of baseball cards costs a dollar, that’s how much we needed to save. Nowadays, if we ask, “What does this laptop computer cost?” or “What do a dozen roses cost?,” we can easily find the answer by reading a sign, searching the Web or asking a clerk.

What about the term “price”? Same thing as cost, right? As kids, if we knew the price to play Pac-Man was a quarter, that’s all we’d need to play the game. Who didn’t ask their parents, “Can I please have a quarter?” Today, when we ask, “What’s the price of that television?” or “What is the price for a six-pack of Coke?,” that answer is readily apparent too, via sign, cashier or Google.

Did you know that cost-related and price-related questions are some of the most often searched on Google? Let’s pretend your dog has been leaving presents on neighbors’ lawns, so you decide to bite the bullet and finally install a fence. Can you see yourself sitting down at your computer and typing something like, “What does a wood fence cost?” or “What is the price of a chain link fence?” into Google? Of course. So we know that “cost” or “price” are both okay to use.

What about the term “fees”?

Here’s where the 3,000 sales meetings I mentioned come into play. I worked in the investment industry during this time as a 401(k) wholesaler. What is the industry fraught with? Fees. Management fees. Investment advisory fees. 12b-1 fees. Revenue sharing fees. Add all of them together, and you can start to figure out what something actually costs.

Any time the term “fees” was used in a sales-related presentation, I could see people get a little uncomfortable in their seats. Why? Fees usually occur in bunches. Think about it – do airlines have just one possible fee? Nope. There’s a checked bag fee, carry-on bag fee, overweight bag fee, ticket change fee, extra legroom fee, and on and on. What do bunches of fees require? Math. Customers don’t like math. Why are there a dozen different tip calculator apps? Because people don’t want to do math… just enjoy their meal.

Read more commentary by Spencer X Smith here

Customers can easily understand what something costs (or the price of something), but people really, really don’t like fees. Here are a few quotes from those 3,000 meetings:

  • “The cable television industry ruined the term ‘fees’ for me. All I want to know is the cost for their service. How can I compare options with all the hidden fees? Now that they’re providing my Internet and phone service too, there are a dozen different fees that really add up.”

  • “Once I heard you say ‘fees’ I thought, ‘Uh-oh, we better have our accountants sit in on these meetings so they can actually figure out the costs.’”

  • “When people talk about ‘fees,’ I think to myself, ‘Okay, that means there’s going to be a big asterisk at the end of the contract that says, Fees Subject to Change.’ I just want to know the price.”

Choose either the term “cost” or “price” and only use that one. Then eliminate entirely the use of the word “fees.” Just get rid of it. Customers will appreciate it, and there won’t be the negative implications from the quotes I cited above. Oh, and stop using the term “surcharge” as well. That one might be the worst of all.

After banning the term “fees” in my sales presentations, I found that a dramatic shift had occurred. Instead of discussing fees for 20 minutes, we quoted a cost or price in one minute. We spent the precious meeting time actually discussing the important factors involved in their decision… not doing math. Eliminate the term “fees” from the language you use with your customers, and be prepared to have better and more meaningful conversations.

Spencer X Smith is the founder of, an instructor at the University of Wisconsin, and an Adjunct Faculty member at Rutgers University. He’s a former 401(k) wholesaler, and now teaches financial services professionals how to use social media for business development. He may be reached at