Should you offer a free meeting, consultation or advice?

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I am amazed by the number of accountant and bookkeepers’ websites that offer free advice to strangers who may or may not become prospective or actual clients.

Unless you are very careful, giving away free advice to non-clients undermines your credibility. It can also result in new clients undervaluing the advice you offer them after they agree to become clients. And what about those people who just want some free advice and have no intention of becoming clients. How effective are your screening procedures to ensure you only offer free advice to serious prospects?

Almost all accountants and bookkeepers offer ‘no obligation free initial consultations’. I see no problem with this as long as you’re aware that this need not extend to giving free advice during such meetings, before someone has agreed to become a client, and that you are satisfied that they can and will pay your fees.

I have seen accountant and bookkeepers’ websites that offer such free meetings claiming there are “no catches and there is no obligation on your part”. There is no reference to what I hope is their ‘pre-qualification’ questioning before agreeing to meet with new prospective clients. Unless you have loads of time on your hands I’d suggest that this is an important pre-requisite.

Before you agree to meet a stranger I’d encourage you to find out what’s on their mind. Why do they think they want an accountant or a bookkeeper? What do they want and will they be prepared to pay what you consider to be a fair fee for any advice you provide?

Lawyers typically seem to work on the premise that they will be required to provide (valuable) advice during an initial meeting. They typically also charge fees in such cases so as to avoid timewasters. So why don’t most accountants and bookkeepers?

I think it comes down to the fact that lawyers tend to ensure they have clarified what type of meeting the prospect expects. Thus lawyers may agree to a free initial consultation when it is clear that a more long-term service will be required. As a result no on-the-spot advice is provided beyond whether the prospect has a ‘case’.

How often do you clarify with a prospect whether they are looking for one-off advice, or to appoint an accountant or bookkeeper for recurring compliance services?

I think the most common justification financial professionals adopt for giving free advice is that it helps evidence their credibility, style, approach, knowledge and willingness to help clients.

In reality it is typically only the accountant or bookkeeper themselves who doubts their own ability and knowledge. The prospect generally takes all that for granted – after all your business card, online profiles, adverts and website make clear you’re a financial professional. And most prospects assume this means you know everything they need you to know. Even more so if they have been recommended or referred by a third party.

So you are generally proving nothing by giving away free advice. You can evidence the other key qualities you want to exhibit without giving away valuable advice for free.

I tend to think that a side benefit of the Anti-Money Laundering (AML) legislation is that it gives accountants a statutory justification for any apparent reluctance to provide answers to technical questions before engaging a new client.

“I’m really sorry Mr Prospect but as a professional adviser I’m precluded by law from giving any advice before we’ve been through the anti-money laundering checks. I know it’s a pain but it’s the law.” 

The consequence of this will often be that you have engaged the client and secured their agreement to your preferred billing procedures before you give them any valuable advice. So the AML laws do have an upside after all.

If you’ve not yet done so, I’d suggest you establish a process/checklist (that you will, in time, commit to memory) to qualify future enquiries before you see them as prospects.

Get used to allowing likely time wasters to go elsewhere before you lose much of your time on them. Initially you may want to qualify out time wasters on the phone. You will also want to determine what you need to cover in an initial meeting.

What’s your approach to making time for initial meetings and to avoid giving away valuable advice to strangers?

Mark Lee is a professional speaker and mentor for accountants.

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