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.
In 1999, I was encouraged by some friends to take a class about personal growth and transformation. During the class, I couldn’t help but notice when a certain gorgeous woman stood up to share something.
During one of the breakout sessions, I ended up sitting next to this particular woman. Normally I have no problem thinking up things to say, even regarding topics that I know very little about. However, under the extreme pressure of sitting next to such an attractive woman, I was rendered speechless. The only thing I could think of saying was, “Did you know that your pager is going off in your purse?”
The little common sense I had remaining told me that that line wasn’t going to win the day. So the session ended with me not saying a single word to her.
To make a long story short, that gorgeous woman ultimately became my wife. We have been happily married for the past 13 years and have two rambunctious young boys who are teaching us a lot about being grown-ups.
After our first son was born, I was telling a friend—one of the friends who had encouraged me to register for the class to start with—about how I had sat next to Denise during the second day of class but didn’t have anything slick or suave to say to her.
Retrospection being highly accurate, he suggested that I should have said something like, “I know you don’t know me, but how would you like to have kids together?”
Hmmm… Single guys out there reading this, don’t try this one out. At least, if you do, don’t blame me for your dismal results!
The other day, I was speaking with a colleague about the challenges of getting clients. She shared an experience she had had earlier in the day: Someone she had just met had immediately started a sales pitch. To my colleague, it felt like an attempt to pressure her into buying something. My colleague has a lot of past experience with sales and immediately knew what was going on.
Another misguided attempt to “close” a buyer without taking time to build rapport.
Her story reminded me about my experience of meeting Denise.
I still shake my head in disbelief when I see so many entrepreneurs out there trying to go back and close a sale almost literally after the first handshake. That’s the business equivalent of saying:
I know we just met, but how would you like to get married and have kids together?
I’m not saying you have to take things slow as molasses, but I do recommend that you take whatever time is necessary to get into the other person’s world. Learn about them. Ask questions and listen for problems, issues, challenges, and frustrations. Listen for ways you might be able to provide suggestions or resources, or otherwise provide something of value in an unimposing, nonthreatening, nonsalesy way.
Over the years, I’ve come across a number of people who teach how to get clients by offering a complimentary strategy session, with the primary aim of having the client work with you or otherwise buy something from you.
This approach can certainly work. I used it for the first two years of my coaching practice. But I found it incredibly inefficient, as I wasted a lot of time doing these complimentary strategy sessions with people who I just wasn’t going to be able to work with effectively.
“If only I had a way to screen these people out!” I lamented.
I started tinkering with my approach to the early phases of engaging with potential clients.
Along the way, I wondered why so many coaches, consultants, and therapists just jump right in to working with their clients without so much as a plan, other than: “Let’s get started right away. We can schedule our first session next week.”
Instead of leaping from “just met you” to “let’s jump in bed together,” I teach all my coaching clients to offer a planning session as the next step after the initial “getting to know you” session.
Here’s the common approach:
Informal conversation => complimentary strategy session (a disguised sales session) => sign up client
Now, here’s the approach I recommend:
Informal conversation => screening questionnaire => complimentary discovery session => complimentary (or paid) strategic planning session
While there’s an extra step in the sequence I recommend, I’ve found in my own experience and that of my clients that taking this added step is going to increase your conversion rates significantly when it comes to longer-term, higher-paying clients. And it’s a more natural progression for your clients, making it easier for them to say yes.