How to avoid giving away advice for free to prospective clients? I’m reminded of the old sex education message: Just say ‘no’!

As an accountant you are, I’m sure, well used to prospective clients seeking free advice.

I think the most common reason accountants give themselves, when they give away advice for free to prospective clients, is that it helps evidence their credibility, style, approach, knowledge and willingness to help clients.

In reality it is only the accountant themselves who doubts their ability and knowledge. The prospect generally takes all that for granted – after all your adverts, online profile, reputation and website make clear that you’re an accountant. All accountants know everything don’t they? We know this isn’t the case but most prospects assume it is so.  Even more so if they have been recommended or referred by a third party.

So you are generally proving nothing by giving free advice. And you can evidence the other key qualities you want to exhibit without giving free technical advice.

As importantly, consider how you want the relationship to develop with new clients. If you have been free and easy with the free advice BEFORE they become a client, they are hardly likely to expect you to want to bill them for advice AFTER they become a client.

If you give free advice at an initial meeting you are setting up your clients to expect it for free down the line too. Why would anyone who values their advice give it away free to non-clients.

Lawyers never do this by the way. Like accountants they have free initial meetings but they ensure that no one expects free advice from that meeting. They have more confidence than many accountants so do not feel the need to prove they are any good before clients sign up and agree to pay the solicitor.

I also tend to think that a side benefit of the Anti-Money Laundering (AML) legislation is that it gives accountants a statutory justification for holding back from providing advice and answers to technical questions before engaging a new client.  “I’m really sorry Mr/Ms Prospect but as a professional accountant 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!

Finally I would suggest you establish a process to qualify a prospect or to let them go elsewhere before you waste too much 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.

In many of my seminars I ask accountants if they offer a free initial meeting to prospective clients. Invariably the answer is ‘yes’.

“How long do you allow for such meetings?” Some put a cap on it. Others say ‘as long as it takes’.

I then ask the question – “As long as WHAT takes?”

It’s not just about getting the prospect to want to appoint you. You need to find out quite early on if they can afford to pay the fees you would want to earn. You also need to determine if this is the sort of person you want to have a client.

Bottom line, I’d suggest you establish a process/checklist (that you will in time commit to memory) to use when you receive such calls in future and indeed when you have an initial meeting with a prospect.

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