Giving Free Advice… Yes or No?

To share, or not to share – that is the question. (With my apologies to William Shakespeare.)

Two schools of thought. One says YES, the other NO. (You say tom-A-to, I say tom-AH-to.) Who is right? Well, it depends — on you and your overall objectives.

  • NO to free advice. As Abraham Lincoln said, “A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.” Many lawyers today still follow this advice. Thus, the often annoying “six minute” charge for a phone call.
  • YES to free advice. As Desert Pete said, ” You’ve got to give of yourself, before you’re worthy to receive… Leave the bottle full for others. Thank you kindly, Desert Pete.” Click here for the Kingston Trio version.

Maybe because I live in Arizona, I prefer Desert Pete. It also better fits my business model. Most of my engineering consultations range from a 1-10 days or more. Thus, charging someone for a quick answer isn’t worth the effort to track the time, prepare an invoice, etc.

Not only that, is can be seen as “nickel and dimeing.” I’m not pursuing five minute jobs — I’m after five day jobs (or more.) So I just chalk up the free advice to marketing.

If my advice helps, I’ll be considered when the customer has a bigger job. That customer is also more likely to pass my name along to others.

Thus, at Kimmel Gerke Associates it has long been our business policy NOT to charge for short phone call inquiries. We’ve always encouraged our class attendees (10,000+) to call/e-mail us with quick questions. Ditto consulting clients.

To date, no one has abused that policy. Well, I did have one. After answering several questions, I finally suggested he needed to get someone on site to dig into his problem. That in itself was good advice, as I had already run out the string on simple solutions. The calls stopped, but apparently he was not going to spend money anyway.

If it looks like it might take more than a few minutes (research, design reviews, written memos) we’ll provide a budgetary estimate. We also guarantee we won’t exceed the estimate without prior approval. This protects both parties. If the scope increases, we’re not stuck with a fixed fee. At the same time, there are no surprises for the client.

This policy might not work for everyone. For example, if you are an accountant or a lawyer, your short answer may be very valuable. And, it may have taken you years of study and experience to get to the point where you can quickly answer the question.

In that case, charging for short questions makes sense. Here are some options to consider:

  • Flat fee for questions. ($75-100  for up to 15 minutes or so.) You make a few $$$, and still serve your client. Charge it to their credit card, which eliminates the paperwork. Most companies now prefer to pay small amounts by credit card.
  • We belong to a technical answering service that operates this way. Their clients sign up for the service, and when we (as an expert) get a call, we get paid to respond. We don’t make a lot, but it does provide occasional beer money.
  • Offer a retainer. Popular with lawyers and business consultants. For a fixed amount per month, you agree to be available to answer questions. You may need to bound this (up to 4 hours per month — phone calls only — no onsite work — no writing reports — etc.)  Get paid in advance, and don’t refund unused time.
  • Prepaid coupons for short blocks of time. Once again, charge a premium, get paid in advance, and set an expiration date — perhaps a year. This seems to be quite popular in the personal coaching business.

A closing anecdote. A few years after we started, I ran across a reference to our company on a forum. When asked for a consulting recommendation, the responder said, “Call Kimmel Gerke Associates. Not only are they good at what they do, but they are easy to work with. And they won’t nickel and dime you…”

It was then I realized our policies were working — you simply can not buy that type of advertising. Sharing quick advice is right for us, and we still do so today.

The consulting business is one of relationships, not just expertise. Clients buy services from those they know, like, and trust. Be that person!

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