By Andrew Neitlich

Why free consultations don’t work

By Andrew Neitlich

Lots of professionals offer their clients a free consultation or free trial.

These usually don’t work as an initial offer. Why? Because people are skeptical. They don’t know you in the first place, and so:

1. Think you are going to make a sales pitch (and you are).

2. Don’t want you inside their business, because they don’t know or trust you. The downside risk of letting someone into their private and personal concerns is too high.

It is much better to demonstrate your value with something that presents less risk to them, and is less intimate – like a free report that addresses one of their more pressing problems (and that you solve).

As a somewhat related aside, I was walking to Raymond James Stadium yesterday to see the Tampa Bay Bucs play the Dolphins. The Fresca company was offering free soda samples to fans. Now, the day was hot, and it was way before the game, and so you’d think everyone would take a free can of soda. Not true. I counted that maybe 25-33% of people took the free soda. The rest walked by — too busy to respond, skeptical about such a kind offer, or just not interested.

Anyways, the Fresca people got good exposure and got a bunch of people to try their soda.

Professionals will experience a much lower response rate with an offer of a free trial.

Here is one other example:

When I first started in consulting, my local Chamber of Commerce had a trade show to highlight local businesses. They needed free door prizes. I offered to give 3 hours of my executive coaching to a lucky winner. The President of the Chamber turned me down, for the same reasons noted above. She told me that no one wants free professional services, because they need to know the person giving the services — especially when we are in a field with no certification.

So there you go.

  • wildscribe

    Good point. I am always skeptical when someone offers me anything for free. I believe that you usually get what you pay for. Fortunately, I have never had to give away my services, at least not intentionally :-)

  • Kai


    you got some good points there. However, I noticed that it depends on the type and the size of the business you are dealing with.

    Usually the smaller the business, the more likely they are to ask for a personal talk with you instead of some written report for example.

    I think you need to adjust the nature of your consultation to the way the business contacts you (if they contact you at all) and their organisational structure.

  • soda jerk

    Only 25-33% of the people took a free Fresca because, well, it was Fresca.

  • 20-33% is still a good amount of people. If they sold to that amount Globally, they would be doing well. Maybe they were put off by someone staring at them and they thought they would look cheap if they took one :p

  • Lira

    That’s why pricing is also a marketing technique, I reckon, and there’s wildscribe’s post to confirm. Usually, the cheaper, the worse people judge it to be so, if it’s free, they might not even care about it.

    Go figure.

  • I’ve had great luck with free consulting. I make sure that it’s something that is fairly well contained, to make sure that an hour or two of free consulting doesnt’ spin out of control. Also, I choose carefully who I offer it to.

    I would say that 50% of my clients are the result of me doing some free work for them. I have [selectively] invested an hour or two working with quite a few people around Sitepoint, trying to build relationships. Many have turned into ongoing, paying work.

    I’d say that if you are smart about it, free consulting can be a great way to demonstrate value to potential clients.

  • I guess it depends on the type of consulting one would be offering. I like to meet with professionals I’m considering hiring, but mostly just to get a “feel” for what they’re like.

    Do you have any suggestions for what to do instead?

  • mcreal

    So possibly the first few points of this previous post would be a good way to go about things:

  • Tom

    As many have said, it purely depends on the company.

    My lawyer offered free advice for the initial meeting. I doubt many would otherwise go along if they’re interested in what’s involved – I know I wouldn’t. They charge £185/h thereafter for any actual service.

  • EOBeav

    I’m not a full-time coder, so that may be why my view is somewhat different than a full-time professional. I don’t get a paid gig until I develop the relationship first, and build that important first level of trust. That’s what works for my medium-sized businesses and organizations in my small town. I don’t give away anything unless I’m reasonably sure it will turn into a good business relationship down the road.

  • Mark Hollander

    I’m not sure I agree with this at all. A finite offering of professional services – in my case Executive Coaching – does work and does offer value and exposure. I have made “door prizes” to Apple, The NYC Art Directors Club for example, and have met with genuine appreciation. Some became paying clients, others did not, and all benefited from Good Will. I think it depends on how you frame the offering and manage expectations.

    Mark Hollander
    Career Coach

  • barbra_jo6

    I would have thought that offering a free product trial is only available for big companies who can afford it, or smaller companies who are trying to look bigger than they are.

    Most people would be aware of this, and would be too polite to let the smaller companies lose face by giving away too much for free.

    I have been trying a sample giveaway site where you only pay for postage to receive a product worth $29. It turns out to be a learning experience, just to work out how to market it well.

    Survey and product sample

  • No wonder those free business consultation emails go mostly in y junk box … I wonder if the same applies to a product …

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