This is an age-old question and quandary for many service providers in all types of industries.
I’ve heard of people embracing the policy that the first two hours with a new potential are free. Wow! That is a lot of volunteer time that gets racked up over the course of a business career!
One of the problems with not charging an initial fee is that you’ll end up wasting a lot of time with “tire-kickers,” people who are just shopping around for the lowest price and/or using other less- than -desirable buying criteria.
I also understand the reticence to charge an initial fee. You may scare off a potentially good client. However, charging an initial fee does serve as a filtering mechanism; just make sure the client knows about the fee BEFORE you arrange to meet with them.
Having said that, I suggest a different approach:
- After a potential client has contacted you and expressed an interest in speaking/meeting with you, have them fill out a brief questionnaire that gives you background on their situation.
- Then after you have reviewed that questionnaire, schedule a time to speak BY PHONE for up to 20-30 minutes. Then share any suggestions and recommendations you might have.
- If appropriate after that, offer a fee-based strategic planning session as the next step in working with you.
This initial session coupled with a questionnaire is not only an efficient approach, it gives you the ability to assess whether this would be a good client for you, moving forward.
Once you get comfortable and confident with this approach, you can actually charge significant fees for an initial strategic session.
Here is an example…
One of the bookkeeping services that I suggested this approach to ramped up their business to $100k in the first 12 months of being in business. 5 years later, $1M.
Coincidentally, this very day, I happened to get an email from the owner thanking me. This is a snippet of what he wrote: “All of our time together years ago, especially around paid-consultative sessions, is coming to fruition in some fun and interesting ways this spring. Several large companies who want to work together with us have approved 10-15 hour blocks of time at $150/hour for us to scope out our work together, so that we can give them an accurate proposal. Thanks again for the great coaching and belief years ago!”
So this approach can and does work.