How to offer “free consultations” without devaluing your time

About 6 months after taking my business full-time, I came down with a major case of “free consultation fatigue.”

I’d been writing a LOT of home pages & about pages for my awesome B-Schooler clients, many of whom were doing coaching, or some other service-based business.

A free consultation was a natural first step. I mean…who’s gonna hire a coach without first making sure there’s a spark? (Said my inner skeptic.)

And yet something in me cringed every time I planted a “Book a Free Consultation” button midway through a home page, or linked to one in a welcome series. I felt like I was devaluing their services by giving them away for free, with zero barrier to entry.

(Especially when some of the best coaches I know—like my coach Kathleen Milligan—can basically give you everything you need in 15 minutes. There’s no incentive to book a paid appointment, since you already feel like you can do anything after a few minutes on the phone with her.)

My naturopathic doctor doesn’t do free consultations. My osteopath doesn’t do free consultations. Why should YOU be doing them?

In order to answer this all-important question, I made myself a guinea pig.

I experimented with all sorts of arrangements, editing my website, my buttons and my forms many, many times before I found a system that worked for me. This might not work for your business exactly, but hopefully you can grab a wee bit of insight from my system, and apply it to your business, if free consultations are a part of your process.

Here’s What I Tried That Didn’t Work

Offering free “ask me anything” consultations

The verdict: 50% magic, 50% waste of time

In retrospect, I was really asking for it with the way I worded this offer. I called it a “20-min Copy Jam,” and specifically stated there was no obligation to continue working with me, and that we could work on anything they wanted.

I thought if I could deliver awesome feedback and ideas on the phone, people would be lining up to work with me. But being too nicey-nicey always kills the sale.Click To Tweet

It’s basically an open invitation for others to take advantage.

The biggest mistake here was that there was zero barrier to entry. No form to fill out, nada.

Anyone could click a link on my website and book straight into my schedule, which meant at least 50% of the people I got on the phone with were just curious copywriters wanting to talk to me, solopreneurs who wanted free advice, or just plain not a good match to work with me.

I axed this offer after about a month. Though it’s worth saying I did sell about $5k in services from those consultations, and bonded with a few of my subscribers. It just cost way more time than it should have.

Making a paid consultation ($250/hour) a mandatory first step

The verdict: Drove away too many good leads

Next I swung the pendulum waaay in the opposite direction. I had steady leads coming in, and it was costing me a lot of my assistant’s time to follow up with them all. I figured this would be a way to weed out candidates who weren’t all that serious, or were just price-shopping.

As it turns out, if you’re going to charge $5000 for a project, it’s a wee bit rude to also make people pay just to meet you. It turned a lot of (possibly really good) leads off that I was charging them just to say “hello” and tell me a bit about their project.

Also, my assistant had to give away more intel up front regarding pricing, availability, etc.—i.e. more reasons for good prospects to rule me out.

What I Learned From All The Freebie Conversations

There’s one huge benefit to doing lots of free consultations: EXPERIENCE.

If you’re not confident selling people on the phone, or you just need more face-time in front of total strangers, free consultations are a great way to get experience (assuming you have traffic, and people are actually seeing the offer).

It’s pretty important to be able to talk about money casually and naturally. (I ALWAYS bring it up first, because I know we’re both thinking about it, and it removes a lot of the friction.) Once we’ve covered the basics and I get an idea of what I’d charge for a project, I usually pipe up and say something like, “Hey, so do you want to talk about money and see if what we’re discussing is within your budget?”

There’s almost always a feeling of relief on the other end. Thank God she brought it up first. Even clients with big budgets get nervous about this question, so if you can remove some of the friction, you not only build rapport, but you come off as cool & confident.

(I never, EVER bring up price in an email. I used to do that as a way around the money convo, but it feels much better to tackle it head on.)

Another equally important skill is getting OFF the phone with people who aren’t a good match for you. Maybe they can’t afford your services (in which case ideally you have a downsell prepared—I direct people to my time-based packages), maybe they just aren’t your ideal clients (in which case you can build great rapport by referring them to someone else—I do this a lot with last-minute jobs, and copy I don’t have experience with or don’t like doing).

How I’ve Structured My Free Consultations Today

As it turns out, I’m okay with doing free consultations as long as they’re serious prospects who want what I offer (even if they only book me for a half-day or a full-day). I actually prefer it to paid consultations.

All I had to do was put up a small barrier to entry. And I did that in two ways.

1. I put an intake form on my website.

No one can book into my calendar without being pre-approved. No matter where the leads come from, they’re directed to this intake form. But this system only works because…

2. I made my assistant Sandra the gatekeeper.

Lord knows what kind of requests she gets in her inbox. I don’t see them.

Once Sandra has pre-screened candidates, she emails them a link to my calendar. (We used to do this manually, but it was too time-consuming, and anyway Acuity let’s me have full control over my calendar without ever bothering Sandra.)

Even this low barrier to entry has made a major difference in the quality of people I get on the phone with. They’re much more serious. The bonus of sending people through an intake form is that they’ve made a micro-commitment.

They’ve spent some time filling out my form, and they’re less likely to stiff me. (That almost never happens now, and before it was a common occurrence.)

With my new set-up, I do FAR fewer consultations (3-4 a month, tops). I probably miss out on some business, but I’m okay with that. The people who really want me are happy to go through the process, and we’re generally really, really well matched.

My closing rate is pretty much 100%. (Which probably means I need to raise my prices, but that’s later. For now I’m just enjoying my awesome new friends / clients.)

What Happened When I Broke My Own Rule

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A few weeks ago I broke my own rule: I emailed my list asking them to talk to me about B-School for a few minutes on the phone.

I’m running an affiliate promo for B-School this year (i.e. I give people a whole bunch of wicked perks for signing up to B-School through my link), and knowing my audience is super key to creating the right bonuses, and getting my sales page conversion-ready.

Because I felt like they were prescreened (being on my list and all), I put a link straight to my calendar in my email newsletter.

All kinds of people booked into my schedule for hugely varying reasons. Some people wanted to discuss their project (in which case, since they weren’t prescreened, most weren’t good candidates). Others just wanted to talk to me (which was actually really cool, but not an excellent use of my time).

About half of the women I spoke to were really good B-School prospects with genuine and heartfelt concerns they wanted to discuss.

But I’m on a 4-day workweek now, so I need to do waaay better than half.

Your turn—what’s your special sauce for making “free consultations” work for you?

Add your comments below. Do you offer them? Are they paid? How’s your conversion rate?

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