Fees need to stay in line with the economy. Certainly genealogists need to earn enough to cover all those little incidentals, like coffee to keep us sharp at the library. But, we also need to charge a fee clients can afford on a tighter budget.
It is difficult for a client to justify a $1,000 research fee while waiting to hear if their mortgage is going to be saved by the government, or if their job is going to be phased out when the factory closes.
Nevertheless, there are clients and they are probably even less likely to conduct their own on-site searches when the price of gas, lodging, food, and everything else is just as expensive for them. Maybe more so, if you receive membership discounts at research centers or travel discounts at hotels that are unavailable to your clients.
But how you can a genealogist charge a lesser fee without losing money? A tight economy calls for a new business plan.
Business-minded genealogists are already charging a discounted rate for research they have completed for other clients. Discounted information is not as detailed or complete as a full-service search. But, if you can find a client willing to pay a lesser fee for a partial search you have already completed, it can help you as well as the client. Some genealogists are charging as little as half the original search cost, making it clear to clients that the research was performed – and paid for – by a previous client. Working smarter is what it's all about.
Genealogy is all about details. Be detailed about your expenses. Track how much time it costs to perform each piece of research, how much it cost to park that day, a fee or a "recommended donation" to use the research library, and how much it cost to make copies of data at that facility. That way you will know how to calculate a discounted fee for information requested. You could even advertise what discounted research you have ready to pop in the mail today.
Stay organized. As you collect those details, like the cost of making copies or renting computer time – yes, some facilities do charge! – keep a database of that information. Use a business technique of tracking costs over time. You can use those trends to estimate what your costs may be over the next year, which can help you project when you might anticipate the next increase in your costs, which would lead to an increase in fees you charge.
It is no longer enough to merely be aware that research means going to a courthouse, a library, or a genealogical society. Work more efficiently: know as precisely as possible what you are going to find at each location.
When you visit a local Family History Center, you will find a variety of data on site. Always ask for a detailed tour of the facility. When a patron at an FHC library rent a film, he or she can renew that rental two times. Upon that third rental, the film becomes property of the local FHC. There is no fee to you if you use that film on site: the previous patron already paid for it. My local FHC keeps a special drawer where those films are stored and encourage me to review them, in case they were films I might be interested in renting.
Most genealogical and historical societies and libraries maintain a list of materials they have for sale. Even if you don't plan to purchase them, keep a copy of those lists. Often, there is no other directory identifying cemetery inscription books and other local resources. If the list isn't electronic, type it up yourself. Keep a copy on your PDA or your own website. That way, when you do need that information you won't have to rack your brain trying to find it. Your PDA can remember instantly.
Having said that, the reverse is also true. Some genealogical libraries do list their holdings in online databases. My favorite is Worldcat.org. The McLean County Genealogical Society (MCGS) in Bloomington, Illinois, has its holdings online at Worldcat. It is a huge time-saver. Worldcat makes it possible to create a list of the call numbers for the items you want to use in the library. On-street parking at this particular library is limited to two hours; parking in a garage is fee-based and requires carrying my laptop and research tools a couple of blocks. I do my searches ahead of time so that my time at the MCGS library is devoted solely to researching – rather than searching.
Your research savvy has always been your toolbox. But, now you need to fill that toolbox with precision instruments. A precision instrument varies from your typical screwdriver and wrench because it has specific uses for unique purposes. If you haven't specialized, this would be a perfect time to do that so you can focus your searches on fewer resources that you know intimately.
Societies encourage genealogists to specialize. Their websites often list some of the specializations they know clients are likely to utilize. Instead of advertising that you have been involved with genealogy for 12 years, considering stating that you have conducted research among Cajun families. If that focus has included the Acadians still in Canada, make a note of that.
Most people have at least attempted to do their own research before they hire a genealogist. If they have reached to a point where they need to begin research in Canada, but need help, they probably would choose a genealogist with Canadian Acadian experience.
Be sure to treat your genealogy as a business. Document what you expect clients to provide you as a starting point. Clients often already have some data. Some of it needs to be verified – or even dismissed – but it does provide a starting point aside from just a name.
Clarify what the client expects. It might seem odd to clients that you would ask them what kind of information they are looking for. But, the possibilities are literally endless as the human family continues to change on a daily basis.
Is their real goal to find out if they are genetically in line for an inheritance due to a pending class action lawsuit over great-great-grandpa's farm? Do they want to know if a certain person died of a specific illness? Are they looking for DNA information? Are they trying to determine if their child qualifies for college assistance for minorities, requiring that the child be 1/16th of a certain race? Or do they just want to know what Uncle Chick's real name was?
Staying in business in tough times is certainly possible. Many of the techniques that genealogists develop now are likely to make their businesses even stronger in the future.
Genealogy has been called the number one past time of Americans and is popular around the globe. By working smarter, it can continue to be regardless of the economy.