Should I always charge clients for meetings?

I regularly send challenge questions to my mailing list. The most recent one came in the form of whether or not there is a ever a case for taking meetings for free. Here was the exact challenge:

You're half-way through a project building a Shopify site for your client. Now your client comes to you and says they've been thinking about ways to increase their conversion rates and wanted to know if you'd be willing to meet with them and their business partner to "just spitball some ideas".

Matters concerning conversion and sales was not part of the initial scoping conversation, and this meeting request is completely out of the blue.

How do you respond to the request:

a) I'd be happy to have a chat about this. Would this day + time work for you?

b) I'd be happy to have a chat about this. My consulting rate is $x. Would this day + time work for you?

c) I'd be happy to have a chat about this. Let me send you a change of work order for sign off.

Note: A conversation about goals and sales is definitely recommended before building out the project, but let’s assume that didn’t happen.

Most people answered:

b) I'd be happy to have a chat about this. My consulting rate is $x. Would this day + time work for you?

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. However, this is a situation in which I would respond with a quick “I’d be happy to have a chat about this. Would this day + time work for you?”.

I would not mention any money. At all. I’m 100% doing this one for free.

Wait, are you saying I shouldn’t get paid for my time?

Not exactly. I’m saying you should get paid for providing significant value. If you are firmly locked into an hourly billing paradigm, in which your time is the value, then that can be a tough concept to grasp (and the subject of another article).

However there is something more important to note here. By casually asking you for this meeting your client is saying:

You have proven yourself to be such an asset in this project up to this point, we now consider you as an advisor, not just a technician.

This, my friends, is achievement unlocked. The holy grail of the client relationship. This is the point where everyone feels on the same side and your client begins to fully trust and follow your lead. Suddenly when you tell them why you recommend a certain piece of software, or the fact that you won’t make the logo bigger, they listen and agree without pushback.

You’re a consultant, and you’re a consultant, and you’re

You’ve probably heard the title “consultant” being thrown around liberally in freelancing circles lately. Maybe you love it, maybe your roll your eyes at the buzzwordiness of it all. Either way it warrants a quick peek at the actual definition:

One who gives professional advice or services
— Merriam-Webster

You may not realize it due to the informal-water-cooler manner in which they asked, but a high-value consultation service is literally what your client is requesting. This is an invitation to enter into a new phase of your relationship and an opportunity to increase revenue through a new engagement.

You want to confirm your client's assumption about your role as a professional Tweet

You want to confirm your client’s assumption about your role as a  lead in this project; the professional they can turn to for guidance. If the first thing out of your mouth in response to this invitation is “yeah, but it will cost you”, you risk coming across as a nickel-and-diming freelancer living in scarcity. This hurts your perceived value and the trust you have carefully built-up.

So how do you navigate this? How do you respond with a “yes” to the ask without actually giving away all this expert-worthy gold for free?

It’s just another sales process!

Think of it like a brand new lead that just dropped into your inbox. You don’t answer that very first email from a potential new client with “Hey, I’d love to hear more about you project but I’m going to charge you for the privilege of telling me what you want”.

This is the just the same as a new sales call with a massive advantage: it’s for an existing client. You’ve been working with them over time and they are clearly happy with the project’s progress. You’ve already made the toughest sale: trust!

So I would respond to the ask with a simple: “Sure thing, I’d be happy to have a quick chat about this.” Then treat that chat like a casual sales call, and the process is pretty straight-froward:

You listen to their desired outcomes and provide some general education about the different factors at play for increasing conversion rates. This is a professional courtesy so let them do most of the talking and don’t let it drag on more than 20-30 minutes. Your goal is to communicate the fact that you have a deep knowledge of the subject matter and you are the right person to help them “figure it out”.

Crossing the spitball line

At this point your client will most likely want to drill down and apply this high-level info to their business/org and will say something like “Great, so what do you suggest we do?”

This is where the line gets drawn between professional courtesy, and designing tailored strategies for growing their business/org. When you feel yourself about step over that line, a new engagement should be negotiated.

This is where the line gets drawn between professional courtesy and designing tailored strategies Tweet

If you’ve done a good job communicating your deep knowledge of the subject matter, it should come as no surprise to your client that you now want to formalize the next steps. You might answer something like this:

As you can see this is a broad subject with many possible approaches. While I'd love to give you some immediate answers, designing a strategy tailored for your business/org will require a more extensive meeting and some research. If you'd like to move forward, I'd be happy to put together a quote for the engagement.

Now you’re a consultant.

If your client truly values you as an advisor and they are serious about their need, they will answer with a resounding “oh yeah, that sounds great”. If they don’t, all is not lost: you’ve spent 20-30 minutes making it clear that you’re an expert in your field and, like any other professional, you expect compensation for helping their business grow (i.e for the value you deliver, not your time). Setting limits is great practice and never a waste of time.

Understand the ask

So does that mean you should use this approach each time a client asks for something?

No. it’s important to make a distinction between a straight-forward change of scope (sometimes called a work change order), and a brand new engagement.

The former tends to be a technical tweak or adding a minor feature to work already in progress. The scope of this new feature can be clearly defined without deeper research, and implementation can begin after a simple sign-off. Ex: Adding a store locator or creating an alternative landing page design for A/B testing.

On the other hand, a new engagement could be any solution which would be too fuzzy to define or risky to  implement without first doing research and planning. It may be necessary to assess the impact on current user experience, or you may need to evaluate the pros and cons of one software solution over another.

Implementing strategies without proper research can be a costly error. Your experience and expertise in your field is what assures your client you will ask the right questions, evaluate the relevant tools, and deliver a tailored plan for hitting their targets. That is the value. In many ways, the actual implementation is secondary.

A request like the one in our example definitely falls under the new engagement category.

A final note about meetings

Unless you’re working in a team that includes a project manager, you will be wearing the PM hat. It’s not an exact science, but you should expect 15%-20% of your effort on any given project to be spent on emails, phone calls, meetings, etc. If you’re not already doing so, always account for project management overhead when pricing out a project. If you do, then a few short meetings like this one over the course of a project should be a non-issue and accounted for.

Comments or questions? Drop ’em in a tweet!