One Accountant's Strategy for Drawing a Line on Free Advice

To answer or not to answer, that is the question.

Between email, Facebook and LinkedIn, I get between 50-100 questions from other ProAdvisors, bookkeepers and potential clients each week. The topics differ – QuickBooks® Online, practice management tips and a panicked call for help with data corruption, just to name a few. I welcome each and every one of them. But, if I answered each and every one of them, it would take a ton of time. How do I decide whether to answer?

Now, About Those Questions

Like most consultants, information is what I sell. This information is what I’ve gained over the last 20 years of doing what I do – the time, experience, training and knowledge. Yet, I’m constantly giving away information for free via my blogs, articles and emails. That should be enough, you say. Why do I answer those questions when that is my bread and butter? Well, that’s exactly why. Let me explain.

  1. My brand and integrity. I’ve worked hard to become a subject-matter expert in QuickBooks Online and Work/Life Integration. The fact that people are finding me means they recognized that expertise. That comes with a responsibility to share what I know. I absolutely do set boundaries, though. More on that below.
  2. Learning opportunities. Answering questions gives me a chance to learn new things, or refresh my memory on something I might not have done in a long time. That’s why writing blog posts and articles like this is part of the process.
  3. Good karma. I am a firm advocate of the idea that you should give what you get. I can’t count how many people have taken the time to help me with when I’ve had a question. Plus, the person I help might say some pretty nice things about me, and maybe send me a referral in the future, just because I took a few minutes out of my day to reply.
  4. Opportunity. Frequently, the initial answer I give to an inquiry leads to additional questions, and eventually, a sale. And, that’s what it’s all about. That said, boundaries are still important to protect your time.

To Reply or Not to Reply

A recent coaching client asked me the following questions: “How do you decide what you’re going to answer? Do you give one free, and then ask for an appointment, like with me?” She had originally approached me with a question via email and I replied with an answer. She had another question a few weeks later, and I asked her to make an appointment.

I always try to reply with an answer, but it’s not always possible. Sometimes, I need more information, or to see the file. When this happens, my admin Katie or I will reply by letting the person know that the situation would best be solved via a formal (paid) support or consulting session. We always include our rates in these responses.

My coaching client was really surprised by my answer – I would have answered many more questions for “free” if they’d met my criteria. You see, more often than not, it has nothing to do with how MANY questions someone asks. (I mean, at least to a certain extent. The minute I feel like someone is taking advantage of this, I shut it down.)

My Rule of Thumb

Here’s the deal.

If it’s a question that I can answer in about the same amount of time (or less) that it would take to reply with a suggestion for an appointment, then I just answer it. It’s easier for me, the person asking is genuinely grateful, and we all feel warm and fuzzy about it. Yay for everyone!

Do some people take advantage of this? Yup. Do they think that now that I’ve answered one of their questions, I should be at their beck and call? Yup. In fact, it recently happened. Someone that asked a question last year (which I happily answered) contacted me and stated that he “had some questions and needed my expertise.” Since I was traveling, I asked Katie to reach out and find out what he needed.

At this point, all this dude had to do was email his questions, right? Didn’t happen. He insisted he wasn’t going through “a middleman” and only needed “5 minutes of my time.” Uh huh. How many of us have heard THAT, only to be trying to end a call 37 minutes later?

Our standard procedure before scheduling ANY call is to get an agenda from the client or prospect so that we know how much time to block out. So, I texted the guy and explained this to him, and that it would most likely need to be a paid consultation. His reply was this: “I’m not looking for your services. I was wanting to talk to you about a situation I had. Apparently, you forgot who I am and the various conversations we’ve had in the past. I just wanted an opinion from you because of your expertise.”

Let’s take a moment to look at the definition of a consultant, shall we?

Okay – back to our story. At this point, I very politely explained that yes, we had indeed previously communicated, but that didn’t mean I could continue to provide this service free of charge. I stated that he could email me if he was unwilling or unable to pay for an appointment, and that I would try to reply in my spare time.

His reply? He texted me these scissors, with a message that I was off his list for referral.

Boundaries

The lesson here is boundaries. Determine your process and stick to it. Sure, there will be exceptions … there almost always are. But, in this case, I was traveling for work and was booked solid for the following week. All I was asking was for this person to tell me what they wanted from me. This is never too much to request of any prospective client.

Fortunately, situations like this are the exception, not the rule. Most people choose to pay for an hour of consulting, or one of the email support plans we offer. Those that don’t are either unable to afford the consulting fees or don’t respect my time. We usually never hear from the latter again.

This is a problem many other consultants face. How do you decide when to give your time away for free?