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When Your Consulting Firm Should Give Free Advice

Jo Uppalnite, CEO of Cocoa Roasters, calls you in search of advice because she’s mired in a challenge. Jo’s smart to call you because: 1) your consulting firm specializes in Jo’s issue; 2) you’ve spent your consulting career developing skills in this area; and, 3) she’s too amped up on roasted cocoa to make decisions without supervision.

While Jo’s problem perplexes her, your consulting firm has untied her tangle many times at many clients. You could point her in the right direction during your short chat.

Should you?

You run a consulting firm, and isn’t being paid for your consulting firm’s specialized knowledge and capabilities the point of your years of effort?

How much free consulting advice is fair to give away to Jo, and where should you draw the line?

Dancing around your head is the old story of the expert mechanic who restarted a production line in 30 seconds by twisting a particular bolt. His bill: $5 for labor; $4,995 for knowing which bolt to turn.

You know which bolt Jo needs to turn. The mere fact that you could solve Jo’s problem in half an hour shouldn’t matter. Yet, somehow, you know it does matter.

Your conundrum may feel particularly vexing if your consulting firm (wisely) bases your fees on value rather than labor time.

Actually, though, this dilemma isn’t much tougher than tasting the difference between dark-roasted Ecuadorian cocoa beans and lightly roasted tennis balls.

There are generally two types of problems: wrinkles your consulting firm can smooth in one or two, short conversations, and rocky ruins that require your consulting firm’s help and intervention over time.

Not many problems demand the middle ground of three or four, short chats.

Jo has the first type of problem. A wrinkle. Give her good advice and send her on her way.

The fact is, if you can tell a consulting prospect which bolt to twist and he can just scamper off and rotate it himself, you’re not in the running for a high-ticket consulting gig.

As a rule of thumb, a problem that can be solved in one, reasonably short conversation, is a freebie. Give that away.

Never falsely overstate the magnitude of a prospect’s challenge so that you can win a consulting project or inflate an engagement.

Fortunately, consulting prospects who call you with wrinkles often confront the chasm between knowing the solution and confidently implementing it.

That’s when you hear, “Sure, turning that bolt makes sense, but I can’t wield a wrench. What would it cost to have you come in and do it?” Now, you’re off to the races on a consulting project.

And, of course, the next time Jo’s in a cocoa pickle, resolving her predicament may require investigation, diagnosis and/or extensive input. That’s your opportunity to secure a lucrative consulting engagement.

When someone calls you with a problem, how much advice do you give away for free?


22 Comments
  1. John Ennis
    December 18, 2019 at 6:00 am Reply

    An idea we used at my previous consulting firm is to have a “question of the month.” Then, when you answer a question like this, you can feature the question as a question of the month and write a blog post about it.

    • David A. Fields
      December 18, 2019 at 7:41 am Reply

      That’s a good idea, John, and a good reminder of one of the best sources of topics for your IP: questions from your target market. Thanks for bringing that up!

  2. Richard Middaugh
    December 18, 2019 at 8:05 am Reply

    A half hour phone call is free, and I don’t withhold advice in it. I figure that enhances my reputation.

    • David A. Fields
      December 18, 2019 at 8:13 am Reply

      A half hour of free advice seems like a very fair rule. And, as you imply, no matter how much advice you pack into that 30 minutes, the net impression you’ll be giving is that you know (and can help) a ton more.

      I appreciate you sharing how you handle the short calls, Richard

      • Felix P. Nater, CSC
        December 18, 2019 at 9:55 am Reply

        I believe the “managed” freebie is a great investment in one’s consulting practice so, I find your implication of time and value spot on.

        • David A. Fields
          December 18, 2019 at 12:11 pm

          Any investment into your clients and prospects that builds trust and equity is worth making. We’re in total agreement, Felix. Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Derek Fields
    December 18, 2019 at 8:38 am Reply

    For what I do, I can often “turn the wrench” while I am on the phone with the client or within minutes of reading their email. In that case, I do it right then and we are done. My client is happy because their immediate problem is fixed. The second or third time we do that, I let them know that for a small monthly fee, I can prevent that phone call in the first place by proactively turning the wrench

    • David A. Fields
      December 18, 2019 at 11:59 am Reply

      Outstanding example, Derek. I love how you reframe the repeated requests into an opportunity to be proactive (and win/expand a project).

      Thank you for sharing your excellent practice.

  4. Carol Williams
    December 18, 2019 at 8:47 am Reply

    Love this article, David! Very timely and appropriate for my field. My rule of thumb has been if I can answer it in a 30 sec-1 minute email or a 5 minute conversation, then fine. If it will take multiple back-and-forths or involves the review of documents or the like, then we are delving deeper into a situation that would be better suited to an engagement because there is something bigger going on behind the scenes.

    Of course, that mindset was developed because of your previous advice, and it has served me well. Thanks for all you do, David!

    • David A. Fields
      December 18, 2019 at 12:03 pm Reply

      Nice work setting a rule that works for you and your clients. There’s a real win from knowing what to do in these situations rather than stressing about them. You’ve done that perfectly.

      I’m glad you shared your successes, Carol.

  5. John Foster
    December 18, 2019 at 9:32 am Reply

    David,
    You offered similar advice a few years ago when I was first building my consulting practice. It hit home then as I was struggling with this exact issue. I now firmly believe, especially for my market and client base, following this advice has proven to be one of the fundamental reasons for my success. It establishes a level of professionalism and credibility that you simply can not buy in any form of advertising. At the same time, it is a great foundation for establishing a trusting relationship. Thank you for sharing it again. Happy Holidays.

    • David A. Fields
      December 18, 2019 at 12:08 pm Reply

      Congratulations on your success, John, and thank you for sharing your progress. Very inspiring.

      It sounds like you’ve made the absolute most of this approach by applying it with a strong, Right-Side Up, client-first orientation. Terrific case study, and I truly appreciate your posting it.

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