How Picasso and the Locksmiths’ Paradox show time is not always money

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One warm summer’s day, or so the story goes, Pablo Picasso was sitting quietly in a park when a woman recognised the famous artist, approached him, and insisted he sketch her likeness.

With a smile Picasso is said to have reached for his sketchpad and created her portrait with a single stroke of his pencil.

Taking the paper in her hands the woman expressed astonishment at how he had captured her very essence perfectly. And then she enquired as to the price.

“Five thousand francs,” Picasso replied.

“Why, that’s absurd!” the woman exclaimed. “It took you only seconds to create my portrait.”

“On the contrary,” Picasso replied. “It took my entire life.”

I was reminded of this story after reading about a conversation between the writer Dan Ariely and a locksmith.

The locksmith told Ariely that things had been much simpler at the start of his career.

Back then when people hired him he was inexperienced and took a long time. Sometimes he even broke their lock in the process. But his customers were always grateful for his strenuous efforts, and did not mind paying him for his hard work.

The locksmith found to his surprise that as he gained experience, and discovered how to open almost any lock quickly and without damage, his customers started to resent paying his fees.

How, they asked incredulously, could something that took so little time and apparent effort cost so much?

The locksmiths’ paradox is a problem for many companies. If a customer considers only the length of time a task takes, and not the time invested in learning the skills that make it possible, or the benefit of the end result, they may object to paying very much for the work.

The way for companies to avoid falling into this trap is to communicate their true value to the customer, above and beyond their basic competence.

Successful locksmiths do not sell their ability to quickly open doors, that should be a given, instead they sell their responsiveness and trustworthiness, and their ability to save you from the uncertainty of being locked out on a cold winter’s night.

This article first appeared in the Lancaster Guardian where I write a column.

Pablo Picasso with his sister Lola, 1889

Pablo Picasso with his sister Lola, 1889. You can just tell he was going to do something with his life.

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