I’ve been consulting on my own for almost four years. I need a polite but firm way to parry requests for free consulting, which arrive constantly. One person asked me to critique her business plan “as a professional courtesy,” although I had never met her before. People ask me to have lunch, when all they want is free advice on their business. How can I say no without being rude?
I have never heard a consultant speak of being dissed or undervalued before, so your message comes as a major shock, heh-heh.
Every consultant deals with this, and many non-consultants do, as well. The universe wants you to start valuing your expertise more highly than you do now; when you value it, other people will, too.
Let’s start with the “professional courtesy” request. The next time, you’ll say, “Your business plan? I would love to see it. My rate for business plan review is $X. I could get it back to you by next Tuesday — would that work?”
When you get requests like that, smile and name a price. One of the best things about consulting is that you almost never have to say “No.” Instead, you get to say, “Of course I will do it! Here’s how I charge for that sort of thing.”
On to the free-lunch people.
Let’s say that someone you don’t know contacts you to ask, “Will you have lunch with me?” You have a choice. You can offer one free consultation, or you can charge for the initial meeting.
You might say, “Hello, Marjorie! It’s wonderful to meet you. Lunch sounds magnificent. I offer a free consult to each new or prospective client, so we’ll do that introductory meeting over lunch. I’ll hear about your situation and ask you a ton of questions. That will help us figure out whether we’re a good fit.”
You are not going to give Marjorie answers to her business problems at lunch. You and she are going to chat, and determine whether you’re meant to work together.
When she asks, “Now that you’ve heard my situation, how would you proceed, if I hired you?,” you’ll say, “I would dig into areas A and B and talk to Larry, Curly and Moe — that’s how I would begin. I would not be much of a consultant if I told you here at the Zolo Grill that the answer to your problem is (faster-than-light quarks, 42, etc.)”
Every consultant goes through the “bill for this conversation, or not?” tug-of-war at times. Make it easier on yourself by deciding what you’re going to charge for and what you aren’t, and how much to charge for each of the things you’re commonly asked to do (whether the requesters intend to pay for the service when they request it is of no concern to you).
You are growing your consulting muscles and your mojo in every one of these conversations, so don’t bemoan them. They make you a better consultant, a better business person and a stronger advocate for yourself.