The Free Consulting Problem
Ironically*, I hope to provide consulting to a consultant soon about a pricing issue. I recently also talked with a friend about a business practice that in my opinion was costing them money with little effect. After discussing it about an hour, initially with an eye toward improving the process, my sage advice could be summarized as “eh, I think I’d stop doing that if I were you.”
And in so doing I committed the cardinal sin of consulting, which is to give away your work for free. But naturally I think it’s more complicated than that.** I believe there are some situations where free consulting is appropriate and some where you’re never going to win by doing it, and wisdom is in knowing the difference. I’ll talk about the main instance here.
When Free Consulting is Appropriate
When you’ve got a good prospect whom you’ve qualified, and it’s a free sample along with a concise statement of how you can work further.
If you have taken a sometimes rambling hour(s)-long conversation and distilled into two or three bullet points, ex. “I think I can help by working with you in these three areas,” you have actually provided free consulting already. Because if your prospect is both smart and diligent, the axiom attributed to Charles Kettering — “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved” applies, and may cost you the engagement.
This made me a little sore the first time it happened to me. And if you’re not careful, it’s prone to happening, because unfortunately, people who are smart and diligent are more prone to seeking out advice than people who are stupid and lazy (c.f. Dunning-Kruger effect).
So what are ways you can help your chances?
Make sure they’re really a good prospect, whom you’ve qualified. They conform to your ideal buyer persona (you do have one, right?) and they have demonstrated some willingness (and ability!) to pay for advice. People you went to high school with, as well as random people you meet in Starbucks, are statistically unlikely to fall in this category. Qualify before you start pontificating, or else view it as something you did for karma or for the lulz***, because you’re not likely to get that time back.
Leave a little something hanging. A speaker at an event recently said that when he had to leave a writing session for the day, he would stop in mid-sentence. He called this “parking downhill,” because the brain would get started again quicker on the work than if he’d closed a sentence, paragraph, or section. He didn’t say so explicitly, but I think the lack of resolution also just keeps his brain working on the problem in the background.
Pull the same trick on your prospects. Get interrupted. Say you’ve got three points where you could help them, articulate two of them clearly, then say “the third one is a bit hazy; I’ll put that one in my proposal to you.”
And on that note, I’ll give you my thoughts on how the proposal should promise resolution and define the methods, NOT be a fleshed-out plan. Next time!
*I am not a pedant on the use of this word, so if I’ve used it incorrectly come at me, bro
** I always think things are more complicated than “that,” where “that” is defined as “wherever a normal person would call it a day;” it’s kind of a weakness of mine.
*** i.e. as a way of finding out about someone whose life is more messed up than yours