Most accountants have found themselves in meetings with prospective clients seeking free advice. I know I did it myself when I was in practice. I wish I had known then what I know now.
When a stranger/prospect calls you need to set clear parameters. Why give ANY free advice?
Over the years I have learned from many conversations the most common reasons that accountants give free advice to prospects. And the main reason is not one that many accountants actually admit. But it does become clear from discussion.
Before I explain and challenge this let me first point out a couple of real disadvantages of giving away valuable free advice to prospects. And hundreds of accountants have confirmed that these resonate with their own experiences:
- If the prospect doesn’t become a client (because you’ve given them all they need) it’s like they have stolen your time. Have you ever taken advantage of a free kitchen or garden design service? And then walked away with the designs so that your mate can turn them into reality? Why let strangers take advantage of your good nature?
- If the prospect DOES become a client, they will expect more free advice and will resist paying for this. After all, you have shown them that you do not value the advice you give. You give advice freely to prospects, so of course they don’t expect to have to pay for it if they become a client.
The main reason accountants give free advice to prospects it that accountants feel the need to evidence their credibility, style, approach, knowledge, expertise and willingness to help.
In reality it is only the accountants themselves who doubt their ability and knowledge. The prospect generally takes all that for granted – after all your adverts, online profiles and websites makes clear that you’re an accountant. As far as most prospects are concerned, all accountants know everything. 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 accountants are generally proving nothing by giving free advice. They can evidence the other key qualities they want to exhibit without giving free technical advice.
Lawyers do this all the time. You will rarely get valuable free advice from a lawyer before you become a client and agree to pay their fees. You may have a free no-obligation initial meeting to see if you like them (and for them to decide if they are prepared to act for you). But that’s about as far as things go until you sign up as a client.
The big difference here is that lawyers are aware that typically their clients have a one-off specific need for legal advice. That is the paramount reason for the initial meeting. With accountants, both parties are typically thinking about a long-term recurring relationship.
Of course prospective clients like the idea of free initial meetings and may hope to get some free advice from you.
This is why I tend to think that a side benefit of the Anti-Money Laundering (AML) legislation is that it fully justifies you being unwilling to provide answers to technical questions before engaging a new client. “I’m really sorry Mr/Ms 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!
I have lost track of how many times I have asked accountants if they offer a free initial meeting to prospective clients. Typically the answer is “Yes. Everyone does it”, “People expect it”, “It shows our desire to invest in a new client”
Yes, yes, yes. I know. I’ve heard it many times before.
The problem is how few accountants limit the length of such meetings and how much free advice they give away unnecessarily.
I invariably ask a follow up question: “How long do you allow for such meetings?”
Some put a cap on it. Others say “As long as it takes” which prompts my next question – “As long as WHAT takes?”
Offering strangers a standard one hour free meeting is traditional but may actually be a BAD idea.
That meeting is 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 for the work/service they need. You also need to determine if this is the sort of person you want to have a client. That’s what lawyers do. Why not you too?
This is the other key reason why so many accountants give free advice to prospects. A misunderstanding as to the purpose of offering free initial meetings. And I explained earlier the disadvantages of giving away valuable free advice during such meetings.
You’ll also waste less time if you pre-qualify prospects on the phone, or on Zoom these days, before you decide whether or not to meet for a free initial meeting.
And stop thinking you need to give free advice to strangers. When clients haven’t paid for initial advice they are hardly likely to value (and pay for) the advice you give them later.
The advice I give my clients is to establish a process/checklist (that, in time, you will commit to memory) to use when you receive calls from prospects and indeed when you have an initial meeting with a prospect. After you have done this a few times you will build the confidence to avoid giving away valuable advice to prospects who never become clients!
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