Consulting 101: How to avoid giving away free time

By | August 1, 2016
avoid giving away consulting for free

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You are a consultant. You're an expert at what you do, and you expect to get paid for it. So how do you avoid working for free? How do you handle clients that expect you to give away your valuable time? 

The worst thing you can ever do is to doubt your level of expertise or ability to help an organization. If an organization is considering utilizing your consulting expertise then obviously they need YOU for what they can't do or can't do as well themselves. Always remember that.

Do they want to pay top dollar? Of course not, would you? Should you demand top dollar? That depends on how good of a consultant you are and how much you're pretty sure you can help them. But you need to eat and there are only so many hours in the day. What I want to present here are three strategies to help you avoid giving your valuable knowledge and time away for free. Why? Because you'll be asked to, and it may not be obvious. Try these methods out and you'll likely be much happier.

Bill in advance.

This one may be tough and if you're a new consultant with no real history or reputation you will scare off some good potential clients. However, if you have a great reputation, have some testimonials or are known or have some great searchable work on the Internet, then your clients should be fine paying you in advance or paying you on a retainer. This is especially true if you are doing custom consulting work for them. Think wedding photographer. You're going to pay at least half upfront for a wedding photographer even if yours is their first wedding. Getting paid up front keeps you from not getting paid at all by those deadbeat clients who come to the end of the agreement and say they need more time to pay which stretches from a couple days to a couple of months. Remember, you have to feed your family just like they do and you deserve to be paid….so get it first.

When I changed to the “pay in advance” policy about four years ago I already had a good reputation so it wasn't too hard. With existing consulting clients, in order to get them to quickly buy-in to the change, I either reduced their rates a bit to pay in advance or I offered them a free add-on service one time to make it happen. It was a fairly smooth transition. Just think it through in advance and consider what has value to a good client and offer that to make the transition. But again, don't give away too much to make it happen…remember – you're the expert giving custom service and this is how that area of the business world works.

RELATED: 6 Strategies for Getting Paid What You're Worth

Get paid for brainstorming/proposals.

I get frequent requests to “talk” to marketing and discuss ways I can help them and see if something “sticks.” Or, send us some content for free and we'll see if it helps us and then we can consider working together. Hmmm…sure. I'm busy five days a week…often seven days a week. I'm up at 3am answering questions for a client halfway around the world because that's when they are working. I can't give knowledge away for free. So work something out – offer a per hour rate to do a brainstorming call and get paid up front for a one hour call to start it out. You know that if you don't, half the time they are going to take the good advice you gave them for free in a “brainstorming” call that you didn't ask for payment for and you'll never hear from them again. Get paid for this type of brainstorming up front. $100, $150, $250…it isn't much to them, but at least it gives them something to feel accountable for and now they have a vested interest in your consulting skills. Trust me, they'll be more likely to retain you if you don't give the brainstorming away for free.

Get paid for the constant requests for help.

Many experienced consultants with an online presence get asked nearly daily for their advice on something within their area of expertise, or sometimes even their advice on starting out down the consulting path and how to set up shop. This isn't a 5 minute adventure. It takes time to offload this type of knowledge – especially if you're passionate about it, which you are or you wouldn't be successful and no one would be asking you for this advice. Don't give out this advice – not even by email…at least not at first. Plan out a process where you can get paid for this type of brain dump. Not everyone that asks for help or advice will take you up on it, but some will. And you can just point them to the contact form on your website to send in this type of request. Here's what I do:

  • Plan a one hour call where they can ask you anything and you'll tell them what you know. For this, charge your highest rate. Whether that's $50/hour, $100/hour or $250/hour…it's up to you. Get payment in advance via PayPal or whatever means by which you prefer taking payment.
  • Allow for follow-up email questions/support. I do this for free, but for a limited amount within reason. If it gets to be too often or too much, I suggest a follow-up call and they know then that I'm cutting them off. It doesn't take much for me to cut them off…I'm busy.
  • For follow-up calls, charge less. And you can pick your minimum call length. For the initial call I always go with one hour. On that initial call you can fill an hour fast. For the follow-up, maybe charge by the half hour and charge a lower hourly rate. Maybe.

Summary / call for input

Consultants…what's your experience? Do you agree with my suggestions? They've worked well for me, but they may not be for everyone or for every type of consulting. What works for you? Let's share and discuss. Scroll down to comment.

Author: Brad Egeland

Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience leading initiatives in Manufacturing, Government Contracting, Creative Design, Gaming and Hospitality, Retail Operations, Aviation and Airline, Pharmaceutical, Start-ups, Healthcare, Higher Education, Non-profit, High-Tech, Engineering and general IT. Brad is married, a father of 11, and living in sunny Las Vegas, NV. Visit Brad's site at

5 thoughts on “Consulting 101: How to avoid giving away free time

  1. Ron Knickrehm

    I have found some clients will pick your brain for every opportunity and never commit to pay for your services. I have found asking: “Would you like me to write up a quote for services for you?” can let the client know your services are valuable but not free. For most this will make it easier to stem the flow of free information. For others it will reduce the non-profitable time chasing potential clients.

  2. Cindy Mobey

    I found myself giving away too much at the beginning. Now, due to the location of my work, I offer a free half hour first consultation. I’m very careful about what information I give away. I then follow up with an email detailing what was discussed, make suggestions and give a quote for those services. I find this works quite well.


    first comment ever in an article …found it interesting and in several cases thought of myself in the beginning of consulting where the article highlighted as traps or tips to avoid…

    Thanks for the thoughts and time spent to share it with us

  4. Ruth van Vierzen

    This is an excellent article filled with practical advice. Great suggestion on getting paid for brainstorming and getting paid in advance. I require new clients to pay a deposit on all work until they’ve established a payment history, and all design projects require a deposit because of the typically lengthy time frame to completion. I’m curious to know your thoughts, and others who have commented here, on the idea of displaying the per hour consulting charge on my website as a service promotion. I saw this on another consultant’s website with paypal option some time ago and thought it was a great idea. What do you think?

    An important lesson I’ve learned in my consulting and direct sales businesses is that the people who take up an unreasonable amount of time upfront with endless questions (under the guise of appearing very interested) rarely result in a sale. I’m much more protective of my time now and have learned to recognize those prospects much earlier in the process.


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