What’s your advice worth?

by Tom Albrighton 24 June 2010 Freelancing

I spend an increasing amount of time providing SEO advice to my clients. They’re usually the kind of firms you’d expect to need such advice: sole traders, SMEs, firms inexperienced in digital marketing, startups without a site. And what all those clients have in common is a strong need for sound advice coupled with an even stronger need to invest resources wisely.

Often, there will be a discussion about what I could do for them before they commit to buy. And that discussion is usually pretty wide-ranging. To illustrate the services I can provide or broker, I’ll propose many SEO tactics that would be specifically useful for them – as opposed to generic tactics that would work for anyone.

In fact, if they were taking careful notes, they’d end up with a passable SEO strategy just from the conversation. What’s more, the follow-up tasks involved are sometimes relatively mechanical (directory submissions, article marketing), allowing them to be handled in-house or overseas. The prospect could easily take what I’ve given them for free and use it to create significant value for themselves – and I’d never know. In other words, my effusive proposal could easily lead straight to being jilted at the altar.

It’s a serious issue for freelancers, and service providers generally. When does advice stop being an incentive to purchase and start being a product in itself? Where does a comprehensive proposal become a suicidal value giveaway? How much valuable knowledge should you share without payment? And just what is your advice really worth?

What you want

Let’s say you’re submitting a proposal to a client. On the face of it, your aim couldn’t be simpler: convert the prospect to a sale. But there are subtler concerns. The negotiation or proposal stage offers a valuable insight into how the working relationship might pan out. What will the client be like to work with? What if they question your advice, or refuse to act on it? How will differences of opinion be dealt with? Working through a proposal now could give you a chance to find out before any commitment is made. That gives you the option of walking away, or (more likely) quietly incorporating some ‘messing around money’ into your price.

Even if they’re not going to buy right now, you want them to remember you fondly and come back later – possibly after trying someone cheaper. And even if they’re never coming back, you should be mindful that people do talk to each other. Not just locally, but globally, through social media and other networks. Deal or no deal, you’re putting your reputation out there every time you pitch.

What you don’t want

So there are lots of reasons to submit a detailed proposal, offer useful advice and answer your prospect’s questions in some detail. But there are just as many reasons to hold back, or at least carefully consider what you want to share.

The first and most obvious reason is that you’re not being paid. The time you spend preparing and discussing your proposal must be either written off as an overhead (effectively, spreading the cost across all your clients) or charged to this particular prospect when they become a client (not explicitly, but as a tacit element of the price). For freelances, this sort of accounting is largely notional, since they rarely tot up every hour and assign it to a cost centre. But it’s still worth considering how much time you’re investing for an uncertain reward. Think of the opportunity cost – the money you could have earned elsewhere with the time you’re spending. Is this prospect actually worth that many hours?

The second reason is that you don’t want to give away valuable knowledge for free. For freelances who are paid for tangible deliverables (text, designs, websites), it can be tough to get clients to recognise the value of advice. The idea that ‘talk is cheap’ is pretty powerful. Indeed, it can be hard to recognise the value of your own consultancy, if you’re stuck in the same materialistic mindset.

Remember: if your free proposal can help someone add value to their business, in any way at all, you’re effectively giving them something for nothing. From this perspective, it’s worth thinking more like a lawyer, who charges for every conversation regardless of its content. That might be an impossible goal for most freelances, but it’s still a worthy principle: the band don’t play for free.

Thirdly, you don’t want to cede negotiating power. You want the prospect to understand what they’re buying, but not gain the ‘little knowledge’ that would allow them to misguidedly pick and choose from the service menu, or attempt to impose an alternative pricing model (for example, hourly rate instead of price-per-service). You also don’t want to give them the confidence to go back to the market for a different provider (say, one from a low-cost economy) – or, again, use the threat of doing so to secure a lower price.

Finally, and most subtly, you don’t want to seem too needy. Giving away the farm at the proposal stage suggests you’re desperate for work, which won’t instil confidence in the prospect. Remember the negotiation adage: ‘she who cares least wins’. So you need to respect yourself and do the right thing by your business – although, obviously, without striking an arrogant tone that will turn the prospect off.

What they want

It’s worth considering the client’s viewpoint too. They want to understand what they’re buying, but they’re probably making a foray into an unfamiliar market where they must buy with incomplete knowledge. They’re not going to splurge on a ‘black box’ solution where money goes in and results come out – most firms will stick with the status quo rather than take that sort of risk. (A notable recent exception is social media – in its infancy, firms were clearly spending on ‘gurus’ with little idea of what would be delivered in return for their fees.)

Most firms also appreciate that experts must have trust in order to deliver, but they don’t want to pay for snake oil. And behind the business rationale lies the deep-seated and very powerful need of human beings not to feel humiliated in front of peers by making a mistake or being taken for a ride.

Setting the boundary

In such a situation, only those in-demand suppliers with stellar reputations can set their personal ‘paywalls’ at the outer limits of their expertise. Like film stars who no longer have to audition, they don’t have to prove their worth. The rest of us need to do our little dance to make it rain.

So somehow, you have to set the boundaries on the advice you’ll give away for free. In theory, this will dictate the point in the conversation at which you will say (or imply), ‘If you want to know more, you must pay’. And it’s clearly worth deciding where this point is before you get talking, so you don’t end up putting the phone down with the sinking feeling that you’ve given away far too much.

General knowledge

One solution is to provide loads of advice, but keep it generic. You could have a ‘one size fits all’ template that you simply adapt for each new client, tweaking the content a little and changing the title page.

This can work, but most firms have already moved this type of content one stage earlier in the sales process by offering it for free in the form of web pages, blogs, white papers or free ebooks. Available to everyone online, it serves a dual purpose: building credibility before the client approach, and building SEO profile. So you might not win many client hearts by serving up this kind of content as a proposal.

Also, it’s not really about what you know, but how it’s applied. You may have testimonials, articles and past clients in abundance, but your prospect is still asking themselves whether you can do it for them.  Will you understand what they do? Will the service benefit their business? Generic content won’t deliver that kind of reassurance.

A better approach is probably to indicate the general themes of the service you’d deliver, without going into great detail on what will be involved. This can still be very valuable to a client who knows nothing, but it should be possible to leave them a lot of work to do if they want to exploit it without you.

Buying with the heart

Another perspective on the proposal dilemma is the emotional mindset of the prospect.

No-one likes buying stuff they know nothing about. And yet most of us buy far more with our hearts than with our heads. At some point in the process of appraising a product or supplier, we’ll decide (perhaps unconsciously) that we’re going to buy. This might happen, for example, when we first step over the threshold of a property, or when we see a pair of shoes on someone else’s feet. Our subsequent ‘research’ or ‘shopping around’ is actually about building up confidence and gathering data to support a decision that’s already been made – or, perhaps, so we can justify it to others. The intellect serves the emotions, not vice versa – and we may never admit how and when the true decision was made.

So you need to be attuned to the point at which your prospect clicks emotionally with your offer. If you feel they have decided to use you, you can force the free consultation phase to a close with confidence. Continued unpaid dialogue adds no value for you and could even risk unselling them. Prospects will carry on listening to free advice even though they’re ready to buy – they won’t want to look stupid or gullible by thrusting cash into your hands for something you’re willing to give away. People need a cue to act, so give them it.

I’d be fascinated to hear your own experiences on this topic, and how you decide where to set the limits on proposals you submit to clients.

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