As published on Forbes.com

In my keynote sessions and workshops, I often speak about not playing fetch and avoiding the pitfalls of giving away free consulting. I might sound cynical since I often deliver free webinars, provide articles and podcasts weekly for free. Am I not guilty of providing free consulting? You might be wondering the same thing in your business. So, let me explain the difference between free consulting and building value and trust with your customers.

Rule 1: Never Give Free Consulting Unwittingly

You can easily be caught in a balancing act. On one hand, the customer wants to see if you are qualified to help them. On the other hand, how do you know if you are helping them determine the fit, or if you are giving away all of your knowledge for free? Too often, I see businesses who want to share details about their solution before they fully understand the customer’s situation.

You should avoid answering questions before you fully understand the root of the issue. When you jump into answers, you run the risk of opening the faucet and start flooding the room with random information. Without the right skills, one can quickly get pulled into the vortex of evil and spend an hour describing your approach. There is an interesting dynamic when selling services.  The greatest influence for a buying decision is how well the buyer feels that you understand their specific situation.  How can you demonstrate that you know their situation when you talk about yourself?

So, what information should you give, and where should you withhold?

Rule 2: It’s OK to Give a Taste – Don’t Give Away the Full Meal

Am I contradicting myself when I write an article, post a blog, or host a webinar? It is OK to give away pieces of your intellectual property to establish your expertise and experience. In essence, you can share information to whet the client’s appetite. In essence, your content and discussions serve to provide third-party examples of challenges you’ve solved for others. Two things will likely happen: 1) The client could think, “Hey, we’re having that same issue. I wonder how similar that is to our situation?” and 2) “If they solved this for them, they might be able to solve it for me.”

When you create content (webinars, articles, podcasts), you are sharing your approach, philosophy, and style. For those who see it as a good fit, it works well. For those who do not, the content helps ensure that neither party wastes valuable time.  There is also a component of giving back to the community.  For example, I often encounter new entrepreneurs who need help. The articles, podcasts, videos, and webinars I share for free (like this one) provide resources to help them make an impact, though clearly not as dramatic as my paying clients.  I also see that as a keynote speaker, sharing ideas and style helps event planners to determine if I am a good fit for their audiences.

Where To Draw The Line

You can intelligently speak about your past experiences. You can also share information about industry trends. Without a detailed analysis, you are not in a position to make a recommendation and implement a solution for your potential client. When asked for your specific approach to your prospect’s situation, you might say, “We’ve seen this situation several times, and have had success in each situation. However, each approach was unique based on the underlying requirements. I don’t want to mislead you by suggesting one approach.” You can then share the challenges and outcomes you solved for others in a similar situation.

This is not some sort of Jedi mind trick. Rather, the idea is that if you want to provide the best solution for your prospect, you need to take the time to understand their situation

The bottom line is that if you provide third party examples and general information, you are doing so to establish expertise and determine fit. If you share specific recommendations for that prospect, then you might be giving away free consulting.

One More Point About Content

One last thing, when sharing content. Never include a sales pitch. Your content should educate, and inform. Those who find your content valuable will be able to figure out that they can contact you if they want more of what sparked their interest.

I completely support the notion of intentionally giving away “tastes” of your talent to help establish your position in the market. But, be sure to limit your taste to something that won’t satisfy their hunger. Most importantly, use your time with prospects to learn about their needs to determine whether or not you have a fit. You’ll be surprised that if you do a good job learning about them, they’ll make fewer requests for free consulting, and instead will want to engage your help with haste.

It’s Your Turn

Do you have any great “free consulting” stories to share?