A free consultation is essential for the best clients
When was the last time you spent thousands of dollars with someone before you got to know them and knew they could help with your problem? If you are like most people, you need at least a few minutes with a professional before deciding to hire her. It should be no surprise that your clients need the same.
Don’t think of free consultations with your target market as unpaid work. Think of them as marketing in the comfort of your own office. Instead of having to drive to an event to network, you have the ideal scenario of showcasing your office and skills with someone who is contemplating your services.
One caveat: don’t give a free consultation to anyone. Before spending time in a free consultation, you need to qualify people to ensure they are in your target market. Time is money, so guard your time like your wallet.
Your consultation should be 90% listening, 10% advising, 0% selling
When you sit down with a client, don’t go into sales mode.
This is easily illustrated by an example. Imagine a couple on a first date together. They sit down at the restaurant. Suddenly, the guy starts into a prepared speech, listing off his qualifications and what he has to offer. Obviously this would be either annoying or offensive. The better approach is to show the girl a good time, have an engaging conversation about what interests her, and show her what a relationship with him is like. Likewise, a first consultation should not start with a sales message.
People assume that how you treat them before they have committed to you is how you will treat them afterwards. So don’t mislead them with an annoying sales message. Listen. Engage. Help them start solving the problem.
One article, which I recommend reading, calls this the “let me see if I can help you” offer.
This is how I do it
To illustrate, let’s use a business attorney like me.
I have no hesitation spending 10-15 minutes to establish a relationship with a qualified prospective client. The prospective client may be a CEO who has legal needs now or will in the future, and who probably has CEO friends who will need an attorney at some point.
Here is my free consultation method:
- Qualify. Analyze the potential client: Only give free consultations to people you have pre-qualified as in your target market. For example, I don’t give a free consultation to every person who wants to ask a legal question. Only meet with business owners.
- Listen. Spend the first 8 minutes listening, asking questions, and understanding their problem. Share you care. Show that you understand.
- Analyze. Spend the 1-2 minutes by explaining their options and costs associated with those options. Build rapport by providing real value to them. Explain transparently how you would analyze their options, including the costs, what option you would pick, and why. This part is critical because the prospective client will be assessing whether you are biased to help yourself or objectively trying to help them. She is weighing whether you understand her problem and the soundness of your reasoning in solving the problem.
- Close. Then go for the close: ask what she would like to do. Either she is ready to hire you or needs time to think. Don’t fall prey to the prospective client who has unending questions; explain that the options at this point remain the same, and you will face those details or hypotheticals as part of your service if you are hired.
- Follow-up. Follow-up on this matter a few days later.
- Re-connect. Put this person in your contacts nurturing system (invite them to free events for your target market) so you remain available for future legal needs. Thus, even if they don’t retain you on this matter, you have positioned yourself as their go-to attorney in the future.
Of course, spending too much time in a free consultation is giving away that which you should be selling. Bringing the conversation to a head (the “Close”) demonstrates your ability to control conversations and helps you determine whether the potential client has an intention of paying for your services or is simply seeking a free education. For example, if I detect that someone has no intention to hire me but they want to continue asking questions, my response to their questions will be something like “those are questions we can face when they arise, but for now our focus needs to be on whether you want us to take action on any of the options we just discussed.” If they continue seek free education without any interest in retaining me, I will take a more direct approach: “those are issues we can get into as part of our service to you, but they are too complex to address in a short initial consultation together.”
If you sell professional services, I highly recommend Getting Naked, a book recommended to me by CPA Jim Stelten. These concepts are invaluable for attorneys, CPAs, consultants, financial advisors, and similar professionals.