I spit my coffee on my screen when I read the email below from a client of mine. He’s new to the brain-renter (consulting) space and he had a question that all of us wrestle with frequently:

Quick question – when do you know the difference between when to offer up input/advice for free, and then when to start charging?

One of the folks I met a few months ago via networking has gotten back in touch with more questions.  I’ve noticed he took a few ideas from my original proposal to him and has incorporated them online…no big deal, I want to be a person who gives. 

Now, he’s got a second round of questions (sales-related) and wants a reply.

I’ve hinted that I get paid for this type of input. Interested in your thoughts. 

(That said, if we need to hop on a call and you invoice me, I totally get it haha)   

This is the consultant’s dilemma – right? We need to give a prospective client some idea of the value we can bring, but when do we turn the meter on?

I sell my time for money and I really do think of it as a taxi meter. If a client goes too far over the time we have scheduled for a call, I will say something. My advice is valuable, and boundaries are important.

Since I know a lot of consultants, I posted this email on Facebook and got some excellent responses:

From Nina Dietrich:

I just had the same conversation with myself. I gave 10 mins of strategic counsel to a potential client that may or may not sign on. I look at it as an investment. They will sign on because they saw what they would get if they hired us or they will refer us comfortably because they saw how we think. Sharing information is also powerful. I think you get more than you give away. But then there is a line. The next call….my clock starts.

From Pam Slim:

Not more than one call for me, or it turns into an engagement.

From Barry Moltz:

I usually say, “You want friendly advice or paid advice?”

My response to my client was this:

I recommend saying you’d be happy to help and your hourly rate is x, when would be a convenient time to talk. Or, you think it will take you x hours and should you send them an invoice.

If you aren’t wobbly about it, they might just go for it. People will always push for free stuff. It’s how we’re wired. You need to draw a line in the sand at some point and stick to it. People who haven’t been brain-renters just don’t get it sometimes.

Here’s a fun true story about when I asked to be paid one time. The prospect got really snippy with me about my hourly rate and wrote me an email saying he wouldn’t pay that to anyone who doesn’t have a MD or JD after their name. I said fine and moved on, wishing him luck with his job search. (I always try to take the high road.)

I do a lot of complimentary coaching sessions and people get my very best advice. Sometimes, that’s all they need and I look at it as a deposit in the karma bank. I am happy to help if I can.

Other times, the prospect realizes I could help them and they hire me. That’s how this business works.

It’s all about having boundaries and sticking to them. Give your best advice freely and happily, but also don’t hesitate to charge for it.

Editor’s Note: A related resource you might want to check out (and one of my favorite posts on this blog) is “Please Don’t Ask to Pick My Brain.” I say post, but it was more like a rant. And it got shared a lot because every consultant struggles with this.