Should you offer a free first consultation?

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It’s late Friday afternoon and for the past hour you’ve been sat with a new client referral who’s picking your brain about VAT liabilities and tax savings.

The prospect asks for a ballpark quote before they admit they’re “shopping around”. They may never get in touch again and you wonder: why invest time in a potential client before they’ve given you a penny?

Offering a free initial consultation has become common practice in the accounting industry — but is it really a good use of time and resources? Initial meetings can deliver return on investment if accountants prove that they can offer personalised attention and bespoke advice.

Finding common ground

“The main purpose of an initial consultation is to get an understanding of the prospect’s business and their individual circumstances,” says John Warren, partner at accountancy firm Price Bailey. “This allows us to see if there’s common ground and whether our service offering would be appreciated by them.”

Warren sees consultations as preliminary fact finding missions. A face-to-face meeting is an ideal moment for an accountant to show there’s a friendly and engaging human behind their technical skillset. In turn, a consultation gives the accountant a feel for a potential client’s personality.

“I made a decision years ago that I’m going to work with nice people with nice businesses,” says Russell Smith, director of Russell Smith Chartered Accountants.”I wouldn’t want to build a practice with clients that are negative, whiny and high-maintenance. You can smell that on a client as soon as they walk in the door.”

Some accountants might be concerned that they’re giving prospects something for nothing by providing a free service. This is why firms must define the scope of what they’re willing to offer in a consultation. The idea is to show prospects that your service is worth paying for, therefore it’s important not to give too much away at once.

“Experience shows that if people have a specific question, they won’t come back if they get an answer that’s perceived to have solved the issue,” says Bradley Mcloughlin, managing partner at Braant Accounting. “This is potentially dangerous. We need to be careful we don’t become a free advice consultancy.”

It’s an overstatement to say that people don’t value something as much when it’s free, but some accountants are keen to avoid sharing lots of their expertise right off the bat. If a prospect squeezes some tax planning or cash flow projections out of one consultation, this could reduce the incentive for them to pay for subsequent services.

Vetting your prospects

There are a few strategies accountants can use to streamline preliminaries with a potential client. A phone chat could serve as a pre-qualification filter, allowing accountants to quickly gauge whether the prospect understands that a free consultation involves talking through their needs, not lavishing them with financial tips.

“Before any face-face consultation we will have a call with the prospect to ensure our services and rates are in line with their budgets and expectations,” says Mcloughlin. “This process allows our win-rate from face-face consultation to remain high.”

Accountants who feel too much energy is being lost to ineffective initial consultations might look to an emerging trend in professional coaching and consultancy. Here, it’s become popular for service providers to design free confidence-building webinars that reach multiple potential clients at once. The idea is to ensure each client is prepared to apply for the one-to-one appointment.

“Accountants can learn from this process,” says Ian Brodie, marketing coach at the Rainmaker Academy, a training service that helps consultants win more clients. “They can find some way of establishing deeper credibility and desire with clients without a meeting. They can then focus their meetings on more qualified prospects.”

For now, initial consultations remain an important part of the client onboarding process for accountants. Russell Smith believes that the industry must view the sessions as investments rather than gambles. After all, one hour of your time could turn into a lifelong relationship that benefits both parties. “How long could you keep that client? Five years, 10 years, 20 years? “You’re talking about big money there. So to me you’d never hold back,” Smith says.

Accountants questioning the value of free consultations should look at them as an investment in a future client relationship. After all, it’s not often that a business gets to interview its potential customers. In client onboarding, as in recruitment, the right fit is key to future success.

Jennifer Johnson is associate editor at award-winning UK communications consultancy Flibl. She began her career as a trade journalist specialising in the energy sector, and today works on business and tech editorial for a global client base that includes publications such as The Telegraph and New Statesman, and brands such as Royal Bank of Scotland and Emirates.

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