How Offering a Free Consultation Hurts Your Business

Recently I had a client situation that did not have a fairy-tale ending.

free consultation

To Freebie or not to Freebie?

A representative of a non-profit organization, let’s call her Rachel, contacted me and inquired about my WordPress website development services, which were recommended by another client. I responded by telling her my price range, which she said sounded reasonable.

We then had a really great Skype meeting about her needs and expectations for the proposed site. I followed up by doing some research and creating a proposal that itemized all the aspects and features of the site I would build her, including cost breakdown.

Rachel accepted my offer and asked to set up a kickoff Skype meeting.

We made a time and I mentioned to her that I needed to receive a signed scan of our agreement, plus the initial down payment before our kickoff meeting.

She said that she would take care of it right away.

Maybe you can guess what happened next.

Neither the scan of the agreement nor the payment notice from PayPal appeared in my email.

After a few days, I received a formally worded email from Rachel telling that she regrets that she cannot engage my web development services at this time as the board of the organization feel that they shouldn’t spend money on a site right now. They’ve decided to work with a volunteer web developer instead.

Maybe you can can guess how I responded.

I wholeheartedly encouraged her to work with a volunteer, if her budget was tight. We concluded the exchange on the best of terms, with a (rather vague) wish from her that we would work together sometime soon.

If my peaceful reaction surprises you, that’s because I deliberately left out a key part of this story.

The Missing Peace

Way back when Rachel first contacted me, I told her that I’d be happy to meet with her after she paid me a consultation fee in advance.

That means that she paid me fully and in advance for my time consulting, research and writing a proposal.

While I was disappointed that she didn’t hire me to build the actual site, I totally respect her right to do that and I didn’t lose anything by her decision.

That’s not how things used to be for me.

During almost 11 years of running my own business, I’ve countless spent hours meeting with and researching for “potential clients” who never got around to signing the dotted line (or paying me).

I remember once, very early in my WordPress days, someone contacted me about teaching her how to use WordPress. We spent over an hour talking on Skype about WordPress and the hair-brained blogging scheme that she was being hired to implement. Something about selling barbecues and sleeping bags via affiliate marketing. At the end, I asked for $30/hour to teach her WordPress and she agreed.

Soon after that she realized that her new boss was a shady character who she’d rather not get involved with and she never hired me at all.

Another time, someone asked me to help them marketing an innovative sporting product. I must have spent three hours talking to him and researching the market, since I knew nothing about. We even agreed on my fee. But somehow we never got past that point.

My time was entirely wasted.

This time wasting is a very common problem that service providers share.

Some of my associates would put this down as a cost of doing business. You waste a lot of time meeting and quoting to potential clients who never pan out.

That’s just how the business goes, they say.

I agree, up to a certain point.

First of all, if you’re at the stage where you’re struggling to get people to even consider you, let alone hire you, you will end up consulting for free. That’s just how it is.

While you won’t get paid, you will learn a ton about how to deal with potential clients and how to sniff out the serious ones from the word go.

Even established businesses may often offer a “free initial consultation.” If your business doesn’t yet have a steady flow of clients or if your service is high-end, this can be a good way to generate leads. Basically, it’s not really a “free consultation” but a sales pitch. Hopefully not a pushy, manipulative sales pitch, but nevertheless everyone involved is usually aware of your intentions. They are also aware that you are probably holding back on the real goods (and good for you if you are!).

Wouldn’t they rather have a real consultation?

If you do go the freebie route, you should have extremely strict rules. Most importantly, you should screen your leads by having them fill out a form before agreeing to spend time talking to them. The goal of the form is to find out if they are serious and relevant. You should also set a time limit and decide about the kind of advice and research you will give away for free, and where you draw the line.

I know of some successful service providers who are still giving away way too much time for free. These people are true experts. Every word they say on their topic is worth gold, and any individualized advice is worth diamonds. However, they don’t realize that they can and should be charging for initial consultations.

And yet, if they did this one thing, they could immediately increase their earnings while decreasing their frustration.

When to Stop Working For Free

In my opinion, every service provider should be moving towards a place where they do not give free consultations. They can give basic price ranges for their services, but anything beyond that is a consultation, and should be paid for – in advance.

This was made so clear to me in Rachel’s polite “thanks-but-no-thanks” email, which began with:

I want to thank you very much for all of your help and the time you invested in the consultation and proposal. The discussion with you really enabled me to clarify what I needed/expected from the website and how it should be constructed.

In other words, my consultation and proposal gave significant value to Rachel’s organization. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if she just handed my detailed proposal over to her volunteer and told him to implement it (of course, implementation is rarely as straightforward as it appears in a proposal, but that’s her problem, not mine).

But there is no fixed milestone for when you’ve reach the no-more-freebies point. It depends on how you feel about it.

Let’s do an exercise. Imagine that you are me and that Rachel had not paid you in advance.

Remember how she benefited enormously from your valuable time and hard-learned expertise, but then decided you weren’t worth the money.

Would you would feel used, abused, misled, tricked, taken advantage of, frustrated, or  bitter? Would you feel an urge to blame her (or, worse, yourself)?

If so, Mazal Tov! You’ve just received a message from your internal compass that your days of free consulting are at an end.

If giving free advice makes you feel bad, that’s a sign that you should not do it any more. (And feel free to bend that rule in cases where you feel great about giving your services for free, such as to a charity you care about or to a relative.)

How to Ask for Money Upfront

Some people find it tricky to transition into asking for payment for an initial consultation. It’s hard to talk about money right off the bat. Often your potential clients expect a free initial consultation, especially if your competitors are giving them.

Here are a few tips to smooth the process.

1. Create a sales package:

If someone inquires about your services via phone or email, it seems a bit blunt to respond: “I won’t even talk to you till you pay me a hundred bucks.”

A smoother way is to prepare a sales page in advance where you explain your services, your experience and what’s included in the consultation. Definitely add some nice juicy testimonials from your satisfied customers.

At the bottom of the sales page, state your fee and terms.

When responding to inquiries, just send people to this sales page and let them understand for themselves why it’s worth their while to pay you for an initial consultation.

2. Offer a discount to promising prospects

If you really want a prospect’s business or if you’re having a slow period, you can tell them that you will offer a special discount to the fee stated on your sales page, just for them. They will feel good that they are getting a discount from the printed price.

3. Credit the Consultation Fee if they Hire You

Let’s say you’re a coach, and your basic package is 3 months of coaching. You can tell a prospect that it’s a $100 for an initial consultation, but if they buy a 3-month package afterwards, you will deduct the $100 from the cost of the package.

This works to reduce the client’s sense of risk and also encourages them to buy your package after the consultation, so that they can claim their $100 discount. This same model can work for many different kinds of businesses.

4. Focus on Serious Prospects

Over time you will develop a sixth sense for weeding out non-serious prospects. The screening form does the trick, though often reading the first line of their email or hearing them talk for 2 mins is enough to tell you whether to lean in or stay away. There will be some who either don’t think you’re worth paying or who can’t afford to pay even if they did. You will avoid uncomfortable situations when you avoid engaging with people who are extremely unlikely to ever become paying clients.

These four tips can ease the discomfort of getting into the “pay-to-play” mindset. If you’re like me, the discomfort might never totally go away. I know that because as I was writing the previous paragraph, some random guy just popped up in my gmail chat and asked if he can call me to discuss a rather involved question about the translation business.

Even though he wasn’t even polite, I still felt uncomfortable saying No.

But I did say No.

I didn’t send him to my sales page either.

My instinct is telling me not to. After 11 years in business it does that, even via gmail chat!

———–

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Comments

  1. says

    I think the problem here is a confusion of terms. A free consultation is when you meet with a prospective client for the first time. They explain what they think they need. You explain how, in general, you can help them solve their problem — and you quote them a price for how much it will cost. (The actual price cost may be sent in a follow-up email.) If they agree, they sign a contract and hopefully make a down payment. Then, and only then, do you do the actual work.

    The free consultation is really to see if there is a rapport between the two of you, which is important if building a long-term relationship is a goal. It allows the client to see if she is being heard, or if the business is just trying to sell her their standard bill of goods. And it allows the business to get a sense if the client is serious, or just fishing. Therefore, if the business refused to even talk to me for free, I’d be suspicious. And if a client kept trying to pump me for detailed information before signing a contract I’d be suspicious, as well.

    So although I agree that it’s important to have a sales page prepared and ready to send out by email, I think it’s reasonable for a client to want to meet the person s/he will be working with, even if it’s just a 30-minute Skype conversation.

    Hatzlacha,
    Libi

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    Hi Libi,
    I have a question for you:
    If that service provider came highly recommended, if they were well known or if you already know that they are the real deal (e.g. let’s say you read their blog on the topic :)), would you still feel the same way?
    It seems to me that you are describing a situation where you don’t know if that person is any good, and you’re scared to make even a small commitment. Perhaps you are looking to hire a web developer and you want to speak to three prospects before deciding because you don’t know if any of them are good to work with.
    I’m talking about a situation where someone is established in their field, has a stream of leads and referrals, and it’s not a question of “does this guy know what he’s talking about” any more.
    But if it’s a borderline case, I’d say an effective sales page and a money-back guarantee should help you overcome your doubts.
    What do you think?

    [Reply]

  2. says

    Thanks for the advice. In your experience does offering things for free decrease the perceived value of your services to potential clients?

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    You’re welcome.
    Since so many people are doing it, I don’t think a short free consultation detracts too much from your perceived value. Though we all know that the really top people do not give their time away for free. So there is that to consider.
    If someones gives away too much time, too easily (without limits or a screening process) they could come across as desperate.

    [Reply]

  3. says

    Sharing your experience in this post is very useful to me right now. It’s possible that free consultations of 15 -30 min in length are more common in some countries or in some professions than in others. Where I live in the USA even lawyers and accountants provide initial consultations free of charge, but they are not very long. As you said, they want to decide whether or not to work with each particular client, so it’s really for their own benefit as much as the client’s.

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    Hi Mia,
    You are so right that this practice is very widespread.
    But it doesn’t mean that a business cannot decide to gradually move away from it, and succeed.
    I always say: it matters less where you are, and more the direction you’re going.

    [Reply]

  4. says

    I offer a free initial consultation and I have success with it 9 out of 10 times. As I was reading your email I was wondering why that might be. And I agree with Libi above – that the initial consultation is mainly about meeting one another and building rapport. I like to meet my prospective clients before enrolling them in one of my coaching programs to see if we are the right fit for each other and to make sure that they are the right fit for my coaching programs. (Not everyone is ready for coaching.) I like to meet them, and more importantly I like for them to meet me so that they can choose whether or not I am the right coach for them. That ‘choice’ is incredibly important for our work together moving forward. I also realized that, as you pointed out in your post Naomi, that I am careful with what I share in that initial consultation. I only share what I am comfortable sharing (e.g. my approach vs. teaching new tools.) It’s about boundaries, in my opinion. And anytime we share more than we are willing or are comfortable with (especially in vulnerable situations) it does not feel good at all. Just as is the case in our personal relationships.

    [Reply]

    Naomi Reply:

    Hi Jenny,
    If you enjoy the consultations and they are working for you as a marketing tool, then you should definitely continue.
    If you ever get to the point where that’s no longer true, you have another option, right?

    [Reply]

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