Working For Free

Given my topic this morning, this could be the shortest post ever. With respect to doing work for prospective clients or others without being compensated, it’s a one word proposition:


Let me explain, after my 7 years in consulting, why I feel this way. Yes, I do some pro bono work but that’s different. Helping out a charity or other worthy cause is different from helping a for-profit. Similarly, I try to be a resource for my friends, and have looked at many friends’ business plans, websites, social media plans, and analytics over the years with zero expectation of reciprocity (I know they will be there in a heartbeat if I need something).

What I’m talking about today is spec work. Obviously I realize you need to discuss the prospective client’s business issues with them ahead of time in order to figure out the scope of work. You might even want to begin to do a bit of a deep dive so you can pinpoint how best to move their business forward. That’s an exercise for ME, so I can establish a mutually beneficial working relationship and we (the client and I) make best use of the time they’re buying. Over time the focus of the work always changes as the business changes and grows, but you need to have a starting point.

That said, there is a difference between identifying the issues and opportunities and providing a roadmap to a solution. When clients demand lots and lots of spec work, I politely but firmly say “no.”  Much of why people hire me is for the expertise that comes from experience.  The strategic and tactical documents I give clients are roadmaps.  They probably believe they can find people with less experience and knowledge to follow that map.  They forget that the business road usually takes unanticipated turns after which it’s easy to become lost.  Who gets the blame?  The map maker (me!) so I’d like to be in the car with them to get them pointed back in the right direction.

A client paying for your advice is their skin in the game.  It also makes them pay attention.  I don’t like to spend my time providing guidance and observations that, ultimately, get ignored.  Inevitably the recipient makes the mistake(s) that I warned were going to be the outcome of their direction or decision. It is a waste of both of our time.

Your job is to remind them of the value (NOT the cost) of what you bring them and then to deliver.  The old saw about free advice usually being worth what you pay for it rings true to most clients.  To me as well.  You?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints, Reality checks

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