Do you offer a free consultation on your website?
Whether you call it a free consultation, strategy session, or some other fancy name — the idea is the same. You give away advice for free in the hopes that the prospect will want to hire you as a result.
It’s a compelling idea. But according to Pia Silva, giving away free consultations is a great way to kill your brand, devalue your offering, and attract tire kickers who probably won’t buy from you anyways.
Full disclosure: Pia wrote that article on Forbes at least partially for me. Ever since I engaged her branding firm for a “Brandshrink”, she’s been on my case to stop offering free consultations. And I have stopped since then, albeit with some hesitation.
In this episode, I’ll explain my rationale for dropping the free consultation offer, including what my initial hesitations were. I’ll also share some tips on how to decide if you should offer a free consultation or not.
- My Interview with Pia Silva
- Pia Silva’s Article on Forbes: Free Consultations Are Killing Your Brand
- Pia Silva’s Book: Badass Your Brand
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Hey there folks. Welcome back to the show. I’m your host, Ahmad Munawar, founder and Chief Marketing Officer at Boutique Growth, where we help professional services firms build actionable marketing plans so they can generate more leads and win more business. Today on the show, we’re going to look at the question of whether or not you should offer a free consultation for your services.
A few weeks back, my good friend, Pia Silva, who’s the co-founder of Worstofall Design and author of “Badass Your Brand” and who we’ve had on the show here previously, she wrote an article on Forbes called “Free Consultations Are Killing Your Brand,” and she essentially makes the argument that if you’re offering this free consultation, then you are effectively killing your brand for a few important reasons, which she details in the article and that we’ll get into.
We’re going to look at that. I’m going to offer my perspective on this. I have good reason to believe that the article was at least in part written for me, so I’m going to share some of my personal reflections and talk about how I made this decision in my business, and I’ve done both. I’ve offered a free consultation, and I now don’t. I’m going to walk you through the rationale behind those decisions, and then I’ll give you some parameters that you can use to make this decision for yourself.
Before we get into that, if you haven’t yet joined us inside our free course on lead generation for professional services firms, you’re going to want to check that out. Inside the course, you will get a step by step process to generate new business for your firm. Best of all, the course is 100% free of charge. You can get immediate access at fiveleadgen.com. You can spell out five or use the number. Either one works. That’s fiveleadgen.com.
So Pia’s argument against free consultations is really simple. She makes a few really important points. The first is that people value what they pay for, and you probably know this and understand this from your own experience, that you value the stuff that you pay for. So when you Google something and you read an article, or you listen to a podcast, or you watch a video, it’s nice.
The advice is nice, but you’re not going to take that as seriously as you would if you paid a consultant or an advisor or a coach to give you that same advice. Because you’re putting money on the table for the advice in the latter scenario, you’re much more likely to take it seriously. So Pia’s argument here is look, they’re not taking it seriously anyways, so you’re just wasting your time.
The second point is that it devalues your offering; that when you give away your time for free, it’s effectively telling people that you don’t really value your time. If that one hour conversation is free, then you’re saying one hour to you is really not worth much and you’re willing to give it away. And the argument here is that if you don’t value your time, how can you expect clients, or anyone else for that matter, to value your time.
And the third argument is that it makes you look kind of desperate cause if you had a full roster of clients, then you probably wouldn’t give away your time for free. You’d only start consulting and adding value when clients start paying, and the argument here Pia uses is look at someone like Tony Robbins. Can you picture Tony Robbins offering a free consultation or a free strategy session?
No, because he’s Tony Robbins, right, and his clients probably pay him on day one. Now the argument here is if you want to become like Tony Robbins, you want to become a household name in your industry, or you want to be the Tony Robbins of your space, then start acting like him, and you don’t do that by offering free consultations.
So that’s Pia’s argument in a nutshell, and she goes into a lot more detail in the article, which is definitely a good read and well worth your time and we’ll link to it in the show notes over at forecast.fm. Now I did mention that I have good reason to believe that Pia wrote this article especially for me, or at least partially for me, and when I got the email she said that she had a few people specifically in mind while writing the article and that we would know who we were and I did know who I was.
And I emailed Pia and I said, “Hey, thanks for writing an article on Forbes just for me, but you know a phone call would have sufficed,” and she did confirm that I was one of the people that she was thinking of.
So the story there is that I had hired Pia’s firm for a branding consultation probably about six months ago, and when I was in her office, one of her recommendations to me was you got to get rid of the free consultation. She made all the same arguments.
You’ve got a full roster of clients who love you. They pay you good money. They’re really happy with what you do. You’re really good at what you do. You need to stop giving away your time for free and start charging for that first interaction with new clients.
Now she had other recommendations as well, things like developing a core offering and a lead product for my sales process. Many of the things that you’ll actually read about in Pia’s book “Badass Your Brand” were things that came up in our conversation together, and in the six to eight months or so since we’ve had that conversation, I’ve actually implemented many of those changes and I’m working on implementing the other ones. But the free consultation, to be honest, was probably the last one to go.
If you go to my website now, there’s still a way to have a conversation with me. I haven’t gotten rid of that, but it’s not a free consultation, and it’s not positioned as a conversation where I’m adding value. And let me explain to you now what my hesitation was in getting rid of that free consultation, first and foremost, and then I’ll tell you why I ultimately did pull the trigger.
So my initial hesitation in getting rid of the free consultation was really very simple. That was my process to win business. Plain and simple, and it worked like a charm. Somebody came to my website, they read my blog, they listened to my podcast, whatever it may be, and they went on my website and they asked for a free consultation, and then we got on the phone and we would talk for about an hour. We’d talk about their business.
I’d ask them questions about their marketing, and we would then both collectively determine if we were a good fit to work together, and by the end of it, we both knew whether or not there was an opportunity here. So to get rid of that free consultation would be like getting rid of effectively my entire sales process, and that was really the only way that I knew how to close new business, and because at the time my offering was a little bit more vague and unstructured than it is now, I really didn’t see a way to win new clients without doing that free consultation.
Now I think it’s really important to understand the full scope of what Pia is recommending here. I have a good grasp of that because I paid for the consultation and I read the book, so I really understand what she’s saying, but that could easily be taken for granted if you don’t have a full appreciation for the scope of what she’s suggesting.
It’s not just getting rid of the free consultation. It’s also having a really clear and specific offering that speaks to a specific customer segment. So if you offer something that your ideal customers desperately need and desperately want, and you show them the process, and you make it easy for them to get started, then the argument is that you don’t need a free consultation, but instead of giving away your time for free, charge a nominal amount to help clients get started, help them take the first step in your process, and this is what Pia calls a lead product.
The idea there is to get clients to pay for a value from the beginning. So instead of a free consultation, you have a lead product that delivers value and gives them an easy way to begin a relationship with you, but the important part is they’re paying money so they’re more invested in the process, they’re more likely to act on your advice, and they’re going to take it more seriously because they’re paying money.
But then you also really need a good process of delivering results for your clients and you need to talk about that process. You need to be the expert and show clients how you’re going to get results for them. When you do all of that, then the conversation changes a little bit.
See, when you offer free consultations, the conversation is about how can I help you, and you’re asking questions, and you’re discovering what the prospect’s challenges are and how you can position what you do and the services you provide to help solve those problems, but when you have a really clear offering and a strong process and you’re positioned as an expert, then the conversation is more like hey are you the right person for this, is this process going to help you, are you the right person for this kind of a deliverable or engagement, and having that kind of conversation has a few very important benefits. First of all, it’s typically a shorter conversation.
You can figure out if somebody is the right fit for your product or your service in really 15, 30 minutes, and then you can make them an offer to get started and leave the ball in their court.
The second benefit is it does position you as an expert. So you’re not out having to justify or explain why you do things a certain way because you have a process, you’re confident in that process, you’ve articulated the benefits of that process on your website, and you just want to know if the prospect is the right person for that process.
Are they the right fit? Yes or no. If they’re not, that’s fine. You go your separate ways, but if they are, then you make them an offer. The third benefit is that it cuts through sales resistance because it’s non-confrontational. You’re not trying to pitch anything. You’re not trying to sell anything. You’re not trying to force anybody into any particular offering. You’re just trying to get the buyer to self-identify as the right person for what you’re offering.
And the fourth benefit of this is that it leaves them wanting more. I remember often at the end of my free consultations, we’d spent an hour together, and to be honest quite often we’d go over an hour. If I didn’t have anything coming up, I would let the conversations go, and part of that is because I used to love doing it. I still love doing those consultations. It’s part of what makes my job interesting is meeting new people, getting a sense of what their challenges are, helping them troubleshoot, and overcome those challenges. I mean I’m wired for that, right. So often what would happen is that at the end of these conversations, they had everything they needed. It’s not like there wasn’t more value that I couldn’t provide, but I’d given them the next step to take.
I’d clarified their next steps and the road ahead of them such that they were ready to go, and yeah, they come back and they have more questions and if they want more conversations, and some of those have turned into clients obviously, but in a lot of times it was like hey thanks for that. That was amazing. Now I’m going to go and do this, and that was good for them, but it didn’t really make for a very solid business development process for me.
So to make a long story short, I did ultimately drop the free consultation, but only after I had sorted out what my core offering was. When I had that offering in place, I had it on my website. This is the marketing playbook that you can take a look at boutiquegrowth.com/playbook. Once I’d articulated how it works, who it’s for, and what you’ll get, and I started delivering it, that’s when I took down my free consultation. But then I didn’t stop having conversations, and that’s an important point, and that’s something that Pia has made clear to me time and time again. The point here is that you don’t stop talking to people.
That’s not the goal. You can still have conversations, but you’re going to reframe the conversation from here’s some free advice to something more like hey are you the right person for this, are we the right fit to work together, could this work, and for me that cut the conversation down from 60 minutes, sometimes more, down to something more like 30 minutes and made them much more focused.
Now let’s talk about what all of this means for you. Clearly I’ve taken Pia’s advice to heart, and I do agree with the thrust of her argument, but I don’t necessarily think it works for everyone all the time. So I want to give you some parameters here to think through whether or not you should offer a free consultation. So let’s start with when you should not offer a free consultation. You should not offer a free consultation if you have a really clear offering that’s dialed into the needs of a specific customer segment.
You’re explaining how that offering works on your website, and it’s really clear what clients are getting, and you have a steady flow of leads coming in the door. You’re spending a good amount of time doing free consultations that could otherwise be spent elsewhere if you weren’t doing them. If that’s where you are, you’ve got a clear offering, people know what they’re getting, it’s really, really plain and simple, and you’re having a lot of these free consultations, and I would argue you should stop doing them. You should drop the consultation.
Don’t stop having conversations, but reframe those conversations from giving away free advice to figuring out if you’re the right fit for my product, service, solution offering process. Then try to scale up those conversations, so instead of doing 10 free consultations a week that are an hour each, try doing maybe 20, 30 intro calls per week that are shorter.
I’d rather you have more conversations that are shorter than fewer conversations that are longer if you have a really clear and specific offering that’s dialed in and what you offer is really clear to perspective buyers.
Now if you’re in that situation, I also want you to start producing content, because one of the big benefits of the free consultation model is it’s your opportunity to deliver value. So if someone doesn’t know you, if a prospect hasn’t met you before or talked to you before, then the free consultation’s a great way for you to get into consulting mode and show them what you can do. But there are other ways to show them what you can do like through content, right, like through podcasts like this or articles or videos or webinars or whatever it may be. Create some kind of content that’s scalable, right, so now you can release that content to 50, 60, 100, 150 people.
Any number of people can consume that content, and it’s not taking any more of your time for them to do so, and you’re still getting the benefit of delivering value, and when they consume your content, they begin to visualize what it might be like to work with you, how you could actually offer value for them specifically. So essentially the benefits of having a free consultation, a lot of those can be achieved through content.
Okay, now let’s look at why you should keep your free consultation, and I want you to keep your free consultation if first of all, you don’t really have that clear and specific offering, your offering’s not really dialed in. I think you should definitely work to fix that, but that’s another discussion altogether. If you’re not quite there yet, if you’re still in generalist mode, or if you haven’t really packaged a specific service offering with a really clear beginning and end and process, then I think you’re going to have to keep doing the free consultations because otherwise it’s very difficult for people to figure out how you can help them.
And this is what I did in the beginning is I would have these free consultations, and I didn’t really have a clear offering on my website. I would just positioned in a certain way, but the way that I work with different clients was always different, and it wasn’t until we had that free consultation, we had that conversation, that I discovered their needs and I then positioned myself for a particular type of engagement and I pitched that engagement, but you wouldn’t see that on my website because it was a little bit different every time I had the conversation.
So if you’re still in that space, then I wouldn’t get rid of the free consultation because if somebody comes to your website and they can’t quite figure out how you can help them, then they’re not going to do anything, and then you’re going to lose business. So I’d still keep doing the free consultations but I would work towards fixing that problem.
Come up with a really clear and specific offering, a solution, a service, and it can be more than one. You can have a number of them. Put those on your website. Make it really clear to people without having to have a conversation with you what you do, how you can help, and what they’re going to get in the end, and give them an easy way to get started, and then you drop the free consultation.
The other reason that you should keep having free consultations is if you don’t yet have a strong lead flow. So look, if you’re already struggling to get free consultations, and get those free conversations, then I don’t think you should get rid of it. I do think there’s an argument here that maybe people aren’t taking you up on the offer as much because of the low perceived value.
If I come to your website and I don’t know you, maybe there’s not a lot of content, I can’t hear you speak or talk, or I can’t read your writing very much, and I can’t get a sense of what it’s like to do business with you, I’m not that likely to want to jump on a 60 minute call with you because why you? You haven’t done the hard work of convincing me that you’re worth a conversation, and that’s really only when my free consultations started taking off is when I really got my content game together and I was writing articles, and I was doing podcasts, and then people knew that 60 minutes worth me was worth a ton and they started biting on it, but before that, it wasn’t as popular.
But that said, if you don’t have strong lead flow yet, then I don’t think you should add more barriers to working with you. I think you want to make it as easy as possible and all things considered, offering a free consultation does make it easy for a buyer to begin a conversation with you. So I think you should stick with that at least until you’ve got enough leads coming through and you’re spending a good amount of time on that free consultation such that your time is probably better spent elsewhere, and you make that judgment call how you see fit.
Now finally my last reason to offer a free consultation is that in some industries this is just not going to fly, right. I’m thinking of some of my clients that sell to larger enterprise or corporate clients or to the government, or even some more transactional operations like accounting or some kinds of law firms. In many of those industries or those verticals, the free consultation or the first meeting or whatever you call it, it’s just how business is done. That’s how people expect things to work.
So they expect to come into your office. They expect to get you on the phone. They expect that first conversation to be free, and quite often that’s not in your hands. You don’t manage those expectations. Those are the expectations of an industry, and you need to work within the confines of those expectations to win business.
So I think in many of those cases, it doesn’t quite work. It still could work. I’m not saying it’s impossible. That could be one way that you differentiate yourself by putting a walled garden around your time and saying, “Look, I don’t have these kind of just never ending free consultation meetings. I only work with clients who are serious and here’s how to determine if you’re serious and if you qualify, and if you fit the bill I’m more than happy to talk to you. Here’s how it works, and here’s how you pay.”
I think you could definitely stand out in some industries with that kind of offer, but if you find that it’s just you’re not really getting traction with that kind of an approach, and people are expecting to have that first conversation with you for free, then I think you do what you’ve got to do.
However, even in that instance, and certainly to everybody else who wants to keep offering the free consultation, I would definitely reframe the conversation. The issue here is not only giving away your time, but it’s also the way that you position that interaction. A free consultation is like saying, “I’m going to deliver the goods for free. I’m going to give you the stuff that my clients get, and I’m going to do it for free,” and that does devalue your offering.
So if you decide to keep your free consultation for any one of the good reasons that I mentioned, I would still reframe it. Instead of a free consultation, instead of a free strategy session, I would make it an introductory meeting or a discovery call or a scoping session, and yeah, you might say, “Well, people don’t really want those things,” and that may be true, but the positioning is important, right, because if you’re telling people I can give you for free what I’m giving my clients, then I’m not really going to take you seriously, but if you tell them hey let’s get on the phone. Let’s talk. Let’s see if I can help you, that’s a very different kind of conversation that I would encourage you to have.
So look, that’s my take on the topic. By no means is the final word. I’m still very much thinking through my take on the subject, and I’ve thought it through for myself. I’ve made some decisions, and those decisions are going to continue to evolve. Right now if you go to my website, you’re not going to see a free consultation offer, but you will see a button that says “Let’s Talk”, and you will see an introductory call, and right now that intro call is about 30 minutes and I’m planning on reducing that down to 15 minutes in some cases, and eventually that call might disappear. Once as my business evolves, I may decide to completely remove that call from the website.
Doesn’t mean I won’t have conversations with people. It just means that it won’t be readily available on my website. So it’s always evolving for me, and it’s always going to evolve for you. There’s no hard and fast rule here. You really got to think through what makes the most sense for you and your business where you are right now, and then take it step by step.
If you want to grab the show notes to this episode, you can head over to forecast.fm/free. Before I let you go, if you haven’t yet subscribed to the show on iTunes, do us both a favor. Head over to forecast.fm/itunes, click on the show, hit subscribe, and while you’re at it, leave us a rating and a review because it helps more people discover the show, and I would be forever grateful. Thank you so much for listening.