Someone asks to pick your brain over coffee. A prospect has so many in-depth questions that it turns into an impromptu advising session. These situations make many IT consultants uncomfortable, but it always comes up eventually. Your expertise is valuable, and you may not want to give it away for free. At the same time, you don't want to risk sounding rude or brusque. Here are some tactics that allow you to decline these requests without alienating your potential clients.
The "Loss Leader"
Some companies use a loss leader as a free consulting offer. A loss leader is something you give away for free or for less than it costs you in order to attract new clients. An example of a loss leader for IT companies is a "free security assessment to check for vulnerabilities" in a prospect's infrastructure. Be sure to set boundaries around what you will and won't do for free. Clearly document what is included in the assessment so you can respond appropriately if a prospect wants help beyond those boundaries. Simply refer to your original document or agreement and ask if they would like to book more of your services.
The "Pick My Brain" Offer
Some consultants do not provide a free consulting session at all. When they are asked out to lunch or coffee, they see the prospect valuing their service for the price of a cup of coffee, which is ridiculously low. To combat this, you can create a "Pick My Brain" offer for a short, introductory consulting session. This can be as simple as a $100 session over lunch (the prospect pays for lunch) and you provide access to your in-depth expertise at a heavily discounted rate. Of course, if you really feel the prospect is a good one and you want to get your foot in the door, you don't have to charge a fee. This approach heads off some of the requests for coffee or lunch and allows you to gracefully direct prospects toward this offer when they express interest.
The "Read This White Paper First" Suggestion
If you are unsure whether your time would be well-spent on a free consulting session, ask the prospect to read your white paper or guide on the topic of interest first. This requires you to have a guide ready to use (Presstacular can help with that — we have a large content library that you can brand with your logo and contact information). Once you have something to give to prospects, you can tell them that your guide explains a lot of the issues people with related issues are facing and that you would be happy to sit down with them after they read the document. This will help them get familiar with the important issues on the topic so you can have an intelligent and productive dialog.
Use Email Templates
To make responding to requests easier, create email templates. You may need several for different kinds of inquiries, such as the "pick your brain" coffee, follow up on a previous meeting, reading a guide, etc. Having templates on hand will save you time since you will only have to think of how to politely decline once. Depending on the nature of the question, you could send information on your services and pricing, a link to your blog, or information about an upcoming webinar/speaking engagement.
Send them some resources for their own research
You probably have people asking many of the same questions, so it may also be worth compiling a short list of online blogs, videos, or other resources to give to prospects who want help but are slow to buy. It's a way of being helpful without giving away your time for free.
Be Careful with Follow up
Naturally, some of your prospects will have questions and points they want clarified during your initial consulting session or assessment. This can quickly turn into a longer session that requires you to spend more of your valuable time. Decide what you are willing to give in this situation.
If someone tries to go beyond what you are willing to provide for free, ask if they would like to address their problems under a more formal agreement. You can say something like the following:
I appreciate your question and it is definitely something I can help with. Shall we go ahead with a formal agreement so that we can get started right away?
When asking for advice, many people don't realize that they are asking to get what is usually a paid service for free. Recognize this, and respond both firmly and politely. By deciding what you are willing to offer and using these ideas you will be able to head off any unwelcome requests for your time and skills.