Here’s another illustration of the consultants’ ongoing issue of where to draw the line between free and paid.
A company approached me about doing a consulting job in social media. I was one of several they were talking to, they told me. We talked by phone. They told me how they needed help to get started, and that they wanted a full day of on-site consulting. A jump start, of sorts. Sounded good to me.
I provided some ideas via email. We talked some more. They asked for more details. I gave a more specific outline of the strategies I proposed.
They asked for a more detail: a report on how much time we would spend discussing each tool (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, blogging, and other resources I’d recommend), and the tactics they should use with each one. This was needed for submission to the CEO, to consider whether to hire me, they said.
That is where I drew the line. I declined to develop that kind of customized plan for them, without compensation.
What’s your opinion: did I stop too soon, or at the right place? What’s your basic rule for drawing the line between free and paid?
Update: I’ve created a toolkit that can help, called How to Draw the Line Between Free and Paid.
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I think that the “specific outline” is probably the last thing you should do for free (other than a formal pitch). After that point, you are giving away the content you’re in business to sell.
In order to fulfill their request, you would have had to do some research on the company, its products / services, the image it projects, and what it seeks to achieve with social media. By this point, you’re already in the hole. It isn’t likely that a client that needed that much persuasion is going to be willing to compensate you adequately for the time you would have invested.
In short, you did the right thing. And if the client did find someone else to take the job, the other person won’t make any money on the gig.
Grant Griffiths says
Becky – I say you drew the line just in time. People, small businesses and corporation need to be aware consulting is not something they get for free. If they want our advice and our services, they have to pay for it.
Great post as always. You insight is priceless. Remember that.
Ari Herzog says
Like others commented, what’s the point of being a consultant if you don’t consult? If they’re asking you questions that you wouldn’t answer if you weren’t consulting, then you shouldn’t answer.
Short answer: you did well!
Becky McCray says
Thanks for the further insights, folks. Ari, I especially like your way of evaluating the questions.
Any other guidelines you all use to decide where to draw the line in your business?
Barbara Winter says
In a way, the Internet has gotten people used to thinking information, advice and expertise should be free. So, bravo, Becky, for putting a stop to that nonsense. You absolutely did the right thing.
I think you did the right thing. (I would have not gone that far) I agree with Barbara, we have gotten used to everything should be free via the Internet. However, free doesn’t always equal correct.
I wondered as I read this post the first time if the people you were talking to really had any idea what social media entails. Also, did they know you are a business consultant, not only a friendly woman that blogs, twitters, etc. I have learned many things via your blog and tweets. Enough to know you are a business expert who I’d gladly contract with if I had a need.
Lastly, wondered if they read your blog.
Becky McCray says
Thank you, Barbara. This is a topic we come back to over and over.
Miss Dazey, I’m not sure how much they really know about social media. I believe they have some basic ideas. They know it can be an effective part of an overall marketing plan. Your next question, did they know I am a professional: yes, that was very clear throughout. And you last question, do they read my blog? I don’t believe so, but out of respect for their privacy I have left out any details which might identify them. My intention is to stir discussion about how to draw the line, how to be generous ideas but still know how to get paid.
Mary McRae says
If I had an established business as you do, and depending on what my calendar looked like at the time, I probably would have stopped after the first round; as a newcomer to this particular area – or with some open spots – I would go the extra mile as you did and then draw the line.
You could point them to some of your posts and those of others you respect and tell them if they’re unable to get funding they might find that information helpful – at least get started. If they would like further help you’d be happy to work with them at your normal rates.
I wonder if they really were talking to other people or it was just a ploy to either get more information for free or a lower bid. Unfortunately I’ve seen that game played many times; it’s better to walk away than to work for less than you deserve.
Eric Peterson says
As everyone has already said, I agree with the point you stopped at. As a fellow consultant, I understand how important it is give information to help the sales process, but they reached the fine line of asking for free information that should have been paid for. Great job.
Lisa D. Jenkins says
This brings to mind a blog post, from Direct Marketing Observations, that I read a while back. The title, “Social Media Is Free, But I’m Not”, says it all.
You did the right thing. For all of us.
Garry Arasmith says
Becky, great question! I’m sure you gave this company great content which gave them an idea of your knowledge. And I’m sure you gave them excellent case studies which gave them proof of the results. What’s next?
I’d suggest what’s next is “skin in the game”. I’m sure you’re selective about clients you work with because a client does not build our business nearly as much as a successful case study.
We all want to work with clients that don’t just have us in for a “day of ideas” but actually initiate and follow-thru on those ideas. The follow-through is where we get our case studies which is our life blood. The client needs to know that!
At the point you said “enough”, which I applaud you for doing, would it have benefited you (and your prospect) to have asked for “skin in the game” from them?
We’ve had great success sending a prospect at this point in the process a questionnaire – a detailed questionnaire about the client’s goals, mission, vision, past marketing successes and failures, current time/payroll committed to this project. It’s all information we need AND, most importantly, we get “skin in the game” from the prospect.
This usually leads to one of two responses:
1. No response = no deal. Great! Next!
2. Questionnaire completed and returned. We have a 100% success rate converting a prospect into a client with a completed questionnaire. AND, I now have great information which allows me to come to our intensive day miles ahead….
It’s all about skin in the game. I am not just looking for “clients” – I am always looking for “case studies”.
Daria Steigman says
I think you did the right thing. In my experience, organizations that expect something for free don’t value the product or service. And that’s not the beginning of a beautiful business relationship.
Charlene Burke says
This is my first visit to your blog, having found it listed in Technorati, and I’m impressed – you drew the line exactly where I draw it. I’m happy to provide a potential client a general outline of services that I will provide them with expected/forecasted results. If they push for details I ask this question: do you want the details of why I know this will work? OR do you want the details of how I will actually do the work? The first is a nominal cost, the last is a higher cost because if I provide that level of detail, it is possible that someone else will be hired to do the work – either in house or contracted elsewhere.
Jay Ehret says
From your description, Becky, I doubt the company was really intending to hire a consultant. Sounds to me like they were just trying to get the plan for free.
Becky McCray says
More great insights. Thank you, all, for contributing. This is a key question all consultants and professionals must answer for themselves.
Garry has a great point about asking the right questions. I want to redevelop my question asking skills. (I feel a new post coming on….)
Ben Shute says
Hey Becky, great post. I don’t think you stopped too soon at all.
To me, the line is where you begin the conversation about THEIR business. I’m happy to have conversations at length about platforms like Twitter, how to create engagement, what not to do, best practices etc (hence why I blog), but once I get asked “how do I apply that to my business specifically”, that becomes consulting.
Chris Brogan wrote a great post about how we should never be afraid to charge for our expertise, just as if we were a plumber or a carpenter. I think if you are at the point where they are asking for more detail on specifics for recommendations to a CEO, they have pretty much already made up their mind.
Judy Dunn says
This is a tricky issue, Becky, and one that I still struggle with from time to time.
On the one hand, you want to provide enough information so they see that you know your stuff (with your talents and track record, they’d have to be a fool not to see that). On the other hand, there are some people (very few in my experience) who are takers. They just want free stuff.
Intuitively, I have learned to ask if they are getting several “bids” because, for some reason, prospects don’t seem to be as committed when they are talking to lots of other people.
Another red flag is, “I use this other person because she is very affordable’.” Oh, and as a writer, if I hear them say, “I just need editing, a ‘polish.'” (I have learned to define up front what “editing” is and what “copywriting” is.
For me, there are so many variables. I am a little more detailed when I am preparing a project quote for someone (goal of project, deliverables, short bullet points on process), but I don’t usually agree to a long, drawn out telephone conversation that only serves to help them figure out what it is they really want. (Sometimes they don’t even know!)
I think I would have stopped where you did.
Fred Patterson - The SBIR Coach says
The tipping point on what you provide for free and what you insist on being engaged to provide is when the discussion moves from qualifying your competence to speak authoritatively on the subject and defining what you’re going to do and how much you’re going to be compensated for doing it to providing information on what they should do with the information you provide.
So when your client asked for specific time for discussing each tool (indicating applicability to their situation) and the tactics for applying and utilizing it, it was time to “turn on the meter”.
I find that taxi metaphor quite useful in keeping the client’s perspective on your relationship on track. The trick becomes in being able to remind them that you make your living providing such information without alienating them.
Are they using your expertise? Are they using your resources? Are they a non-profit organization you believe in? Do you consult as a hobby or as part of self-employment? Do you have any experience or credentials?
It sounds like you are undervaluing yourself. I own a small business that focuses directly on providing social media services for main street communities and I know that there is a need for our services. I understand if it is for a non-profit organization, but a for profit organization expects the expense and there are even many technology grants out there for them to apply for!
Do not sell yourself our our industry short!
2nd response: Wow! Just cleaned the lenses of my glasses and reread the post and I sure got that last paragraph wrong!
Good for you for drawing the line. Consulting IS use of your expertise. It comes down to basic economics: What is the business WILLING and ABLE to pay for your services?
Thank you for not devaluing our industry! :) Apologies for first misinterpretation.
Becky McCray says
Ben, I like your dividing line of when you shift to specific application. That was a key point in this instance.
Judy, thanks for adding your own “red flag” experiences.
Fred, the taxi metaphor is useful for a whole range of different consultants. Thanks.
Autonomous, thanks for jumping in. I’m glad you gave it a second read, and appreciate your added comment. Come back soon!