Still Offering Free Consultations? Why You Shouldn’t, and What to Do Instead

For the TL;DR crowd: The internet has made the need for free consultations extinct. Free consultations don’t result in good, qualified new clients. They waste time, cost you money, and are, in fact, hurting your image. There are better, more effective, more creative (read: stand out from the crowd) ways to go about obtaining new clients.

Changing Times Means Changing Methods

This article will show you why free consultations aren’t necessary anymore, how they are hurting your income and image, and what you can offer in their place.

You’ll need to:

  • Change your way of thinking about how to approach new prospects
  • Change your “top of funnel” methods for obtaining new clients
  • Up your marketing creativity and content

None of which is difficult, or painful, or very time consuming.

The Internet Killed the Free Consultation

Let’s face it, offering free consultations is sooooooo last century. Today’s internet-literally-at-your-fingertips world has pretty much driven the need for free consultations into extinction. Recent studies on the behaviors of B2B customers prove it.

Time to throw some pretty significant numbers at you:

  • 94% of all customers looking for B2B products or service providers use a web search at some point in their prospect to client/customer journey
  • Nearly two-thirds start with a web search
  • The average buyer reviews 12 search results before ever engaging with any specific potential provider
  • 70% of buyers only engage with a potential provider at the conclusion of their web research

All of which means that buyers are over halfway through the buying process by the time they get around to actually wanting to talk to anyone about their needs or their potential purchase.

By offering a free consultation first, you are offering them something they neither want, are ready for, nor need.

Free Consultations Are Killing Your Image and Your Income

Consider this….you are looking for a new dog walker for your best pal and new pup, Scooter. You find one on the web who offers “free consultations”.

They say, sure, you can schedule your consultation at any time.

During the consult, they

  • tell you about their best routes for “going walkies”
  • talk at length about their lead-training techniques, to turn lil Scoots into the perfect well-behaved pooch
  • even discuss their schedule of times and days, so you can choose when you want Scooter to get his much-needed exercise.

 In the end, you’ve gotten lots of information from them. Spent an hour or so listening to them and getting some answers to your questions. And then….what?

If you are the average buyer, you don’t choose the first dog walker you come across, or even consult with. You go looking elsewhere. If you’re like most, you head back to the internet.

Your next potential pal for Scoots has a website and social media presence brimming with valuable information. You can

  • download maps of his walkie routes and favorite dog parks
  • review his lead training videos on his website
  • read his ebook on appropriate amounts of exercise for each stage of a dog’s life
  • get answers to your questions from his various blog and LinkedIn articles
  • use his scheduling app to find an opening (not many left!) for a preliminary “meet and greet”

And all that before you ever pick up the phone or fill out a “contact us” form. Which dog walker do you think is making better use of his time, his resources, and his expertise?

Does the internet make your business look bad?

The first guy might be a really great guy, but he isn’t the smartest business person on the planet. He’s giving up his time – the only thing he can trade for money – for nothing. He’s also making himself look pretty unsavvy.

What does his lack of available information say? That he’s too cheap or too uncreative or too old fashioned to offer digital resources? 

He may be an award-winning dog trainer and the best dog walker in town, but if the only access you have to his expertise is from a one-on-one, it’s doesn’t say much for his communication methods or skills, does it? Or how he values his time?

Now, imagine he’s a lawyer, a tax accountant, or a financial planner, instead….


The Bad Psychology of Free Consultations

Most prospects are like you and your dog. They have a specific need and a specific desire to see that need met. All they are looking for is the “right” person to meet that need.

Free consultations can often backfire. The need is met through the information you’ve provided them, so they have no reason to hire you.

OR

They don’t bother to show up at all, leaving you to wonder why, and whether or not they will reschedule.

OR

You advise them of a “next step” which they don’t bother to take because, well, psychology.

Two psychological factors inherent in nearly every human on the planet work against the effectiveness of offering free consultations: value perception and behavioral inertia.

Value is in the eye of the beholder

Value perception is the act of attaching a value – a worth – to something based on how it is viewed by the receiver.

Diamonds are neither rare nor costly to bring to market, but a well-crafted marketing campaign decades ago made them seem that way. Now, they are viewed as the ultimate in gems and carry hefty price tags to match the public perception of them as being that “ultimate” purchase, even though other gems are  more rare and nearly impossible to procure.

What value does a “free” anything portray to the public? We get free samples – small, hardly worth anything most of the time. We get free advice – often unwanted and uninformed – which we seldom bother to consider.

Even the language around value perception shows how little worth we place on free offerings. We “take advantage” of free trial offers. We “gobble up” free samples. We “try” something for free, from which we can “cancel at any time”.

“Free” is seldom seen as worthwhile. Free consultations make you and your business look less than worthwhile. Any advice or instructions you give is seldom, if ever, taken seriously, because we simply don’t value what we get for nothing.

We play when we pay

Psychological inertia is something altogether different, and yet has just as large an impact on us as value perception.

At its core, behavioral inertia says we won’t change or take action unless we are compelled to by some emotional or psychological trigger.

How many free consults never show up? How many never return? How many, like our freebie seekers, never do what you suggest or instruct them to do?

How many, because of behavioral inertia, waste your time, your efforts, and your resources?

Simply put, human nature places a higher worth and emotional investment in things that carry a price. We take things much more seriously when we have to pay for them.

(I know what you’re thinking…..doesn’t that mean the free information we provide is just as worthless? Perhaps. You will find many readers and viewers never engage with you, never hire you. The key is – their inaction doesn’t hurt you in any way. They haven’t wasted your time – merely their own.)

Free Consultations, Your Clients, and Your Competition

Chew on this for a moment: What does your offer of free consultations say to your existing clients and customers? How much value are you placing on them, by offering your time and advice for free, when they are paying for your services?

By giving away information your clients are paying you for, you are sending the message that you really don’t care about them and their problems. Or at least it can seem that way.

By giving away time, you are sending the message that you aren’t spending as much time on your clients’ paid work as you could be. Your diverting your attention away from their concerns and placing it willingly on others’, and yourself.

By offering the possibility of working with you to anyone and everyone, how can you make your existing stable of clients and customers feel like they are anything special? After all, there’s no exclusivity or selectivity in your prospecting methods.

Not exactly a good image to be projecting, is it?

Are your outstanding in your field?

Now, something else to consider – how does your offer of free consultations stack up against your competitors in the field?

If you’re like our first dog walker dude, you don’t look so hot, do you? The other guys are running rings around you in the client acquisition game because they are meeting the current buyer culture’s needs and wants. You’re left in the dust, wondering why the calendar and the bank account have so much empty space.

If you’re “just like everyone else”, just one more free consultation in a sea of free consult offers, how can you hope to stand out?

Free consultation offers provide no way to display your creativity, uniqueness, or expertise. They leave you being just another face in the crowd.

 They hide your true abilities and potential from the very people who need to see them in living color. They do nothing to set you apart.

As a form of brand awareness, they suck. As a form of customer acquisition, they suck. And they may actually harm customer retention.

Better Alternatives to Free Consultations

Now that we’ve established just how useless and potentially harmful free consultations can be, let’s look at a couple of ways to improve on your top of funnel methods.

There are two ways to go about this, and in all openness and honesty, you’d be better off to combine the two. They are:

  • A firmly established and ever-growing content marketing and social marketing effort
  • Paid initial consultations

Meeting them where they already are – content and social marketing

We looked at the latest numbers (and since they are from 2017, it’s a good bet they’re even higher now), and have seen that most of our potential buyers and clients are hitting the internet at some point in their pre-purchase searching.

They are checking out social profiles, YouTube and Vimeo channels, websites, free ebooks and “special reports”, even signing up for email lists to gain access to some of this information.

Wouldn’t the smarter alternative to free consultations be to meet them where they are? Give them some of the info they crave?

It’s not advisable to try to “do it all”, at least not at first, but you’ve got to be offering them something in the “search for information” phase that meets their needs. Here’s some ideas that nearly any business could provide:

  • Video testimonials about your product or service featuring real, actual customers
  • A short ebook describing the ideal uses or users of your product or service
  • A social media profile with posts that educate, entertain or encourage your potential customer (NOTE: Posts that “entice your potential customer to buy your stuff” need not be included nearly as often as you think they do)
  • A website that offers insightful information into the way you do what you do
  • An FAQ sheet that answers most of a potential buyer’s initial questions

 Choose one or two. Spend a few months and produce them all. However you do it, and how much you do, it should replace the old, ineffective, time wasting free consultations.

But what if…?

What if yours is the type of business that almost can’t function without a one-on-one with the prospect first?

Maybe you’re a designer or contractor, who needs to see the space and hear their ideas before you can even begin to put together a proposal. Or a consultant who needs detailed, private information before you can decide if you can help or not.

That’s where the idea of a paid consultation comes onto the scene.

There are several choices to go about charging for it and not feeling guilty for doing so. Just pick the one that looks best to you. 

You can “refund” the fee by taking it off the service or product price when invoicing the buyer.

You can “discount” the consultation by only charging a portion of your regular hourly or service fees.

You can even only charge the client if they don’t show up.

No matter how you do it, the fee puts a value on the time and advice you otherwise freely offer. And as we’ve seen, those fees mean a great deal more to your buyers and prospective buyers than simply giving away the same time and information.

You’ll see fewer cancelations. You’ll see more action on the advice you give. You’ll see more serious contacts more likely to buy or hire. You’ll see more respect for who you are and what you offer. And you’ll see more income in the long run.

Your Thoughts?

This seems to be a bit of a controversial topic – with some even going so far as to say they could never do business without the free consultations coming first.

What do you say? Has this article changed your mind, or at least given you something to think about?

If so, let us know in the comments, please!

What Next?

One of the aims of this article is, obviously, to get you to change your “top of funnel” methods. Expel free consultations by either using content marketing or by charging for those initial client meetings somehow.

If you choose to go the content marketing route, contact us. We specialize in long-form content just like this article.

If you need someone to bounce ideas off of to help you decide, we can do that, too, as part of our consulting services. Again, contact us. We’ll be happy to help you change your marketing to something more effective and profitable.

For now, have a pleasant and productive day. Until next time…..

When Business Gets Personal

One of my marketing heroes, Chris Brogan, has announced that mental health in the workplace is going to be a focus for him and his company moving forward. I applaud him for this effort because not only are more conversations about mental health needed in our society, but mental health is one of the leading factors of job loss and time loss.

Another hero of mine, Andrew Gurza, started a hashtag on Twitter that I just adore. #DisabledPeopleAreHot debuted a couple of weeks ago and has now been featured on the BBC, the CBC, the Washington Post, and other major media outlets. It’s all about how disabled people can be sexy and attractive and well, hot. How we can have the same drives and desires and “doing it” as anybody else. Why? Because we really ARE like anybody else. We just end to come with accessories.

And then there’s Bryan Kramer, who said we need to be thinking H2H – human to human – and not so much B2C or B2B or business at all. For doing that, he’s a hero, too.

Our world seems a harsh, cruel place most of the time. We see tragedies unfold in real time thanks to 24/7 news outlets. Our political atmosphere is charged with division and derision. We see corruption and heartbreak, natural disasters and man-made catastrophes, and it seems that you get snarled at more than smiled at most days.

Is it any wonder we want to make positive connections? Is there any doubt as to why we crave happy human interactions? So many people in today’s world feel marginalized, invisible, unloved.

And yet, we still have businesses that don’t want to come down from their ivory towers and touch the unwashed masses at their feet. They prefer to stay up above, as if their attitude of superiority makes them somehow less human than the rest of us.

I call BS. We WANT you to be human. We want you to treat US as humans. Come down from your lofty perches and join the party. Don’t be so afraid of letting us see your bad hair days, your off moments, the times when things just don’t. go. as. planned.

You see, we want to relate. To feel as though we are a member of the family, not just another number or name or piece of your bottom line. We need to feel as though we belong with you and you with us. We aren’t your customers or clients anymore. We are your business PARTNERS in this together with you. You can’t make it without us, and we can’t make it without you.

We aren’t perfect, in fact we are far from it. We have issues and problems and we make mistakes and we sometimes even fail. We come to you for your service or product because we have a need. Something we can’t do on our own. Far from perfect, yet close enough to you and your business so as to be a partner. Together, remember? We need you. You need us. Put er there, partner….

Partners aren’t perfect. Partners are people. Right here in the trenches with us. So show us your foibles and follies. Show us your failures and falls. Show us, too, your celebrations. Those moments when everything goes right. Or when some little thing makes a mighty big difference. Help us help you make a difference by getting to know your causes. Your needs. Your dreams and desires. Let us in. There’s no need for the “man behind the curtain” anymore, Wizard.

Personalizing your business is good for your business. You can form relationships with your customers and clients. You can stand out from the crowd. You can even get to be heroic and use your business for the good of all. But you have to let go of the idea that you are just a faceless bit of cold, unfeeling perfection hiding behind the curtain of “professionalism”.

Let your business get personal. Be a hero. Be a human. You have nothing to lose, and an entire planet of people to gain.