July 18, 2017

Should you give away your expertise?

In a previous message (subject line “How to transition from laborious coding to advisory services” sent on July 12, 2017), I talked about keeping your eyes peeled for any client requests to “pick your brain” (i.e., a non-coding, advisory consultation).

Reader Brent Giesler wrote in with a follow-up question:

Hey J.

So if I’m on a project and the client asks for one of those ancillary services (ie “Would you mind sitting in on a meeting with the CEO?”), what should my response be, if that’s something I actually charge for?

If it’s outside the scope of the project I’m on, how do I politely say “I’d love to, but you gotta pay for it”?

Brent Giesler

Thanks, Brent! Great question.

The way I would handle this depends on the situation. For the sake of discussion, let’s say the context is as follows:

Alice is a web developer who is building a heavily customized Wordpress site for Bob. Alice is about 40 hours into an estimated 100 hours of work. Everything is on track and going well. Bob knows from casual conversation that Alice is knowledgable about web security. He asks her to sit in on a meeting with the CEO about an unrelated project. They want to get Alice’s opinion about the potential security implications surrounding an e-commerce site that the CEO is considering acquiring from a competitor.

Assuming that Alice is looking to transition from working with her hands (i.e., coding) to working with her head (i.e., advice), she should agree to the meeting and not charge for it. In fact, she should REFUSE money for it, especially if the client offers to “pay for her time” to participate in the meeting.

I can hear you screaming:


Hang on, hang on... let me explain :-)

Bob hired Alice as a coder. His invitation to the security meeting is an opportunity for Alice to change the way Bob thinks about her role and potential value to the organization. Opportunities like this don’t come up very often with existing clients.

For Alice to demand payment in this situation would demonstrate that she’s not smart enough to recognize the opportunity Bob is offering to her. She’d be acting like a mercenary instead of a partner.

What Alice should do:

Alice should go to the meeting, have a Why Conversation with the client about the security issues, and offer whatever advice she can off the top of her head. (ASIDE: I would treat it like a sales meeting, because that’s basically what it is.)

What Alice should NOT do:

Alice should NOT agree to any follow-up work after the meeting. No technology research, no architecture documents, no intro emails, no nothing. To politely set this expectation, Alice can close the meeting by saying something like:

“I have the bandwidth to [DO WHATEVER NEEDS DOING] in addition to the Wordpress project. Would you like me to draft a proposal?”

If Bob says yes, Alice has probably sold her first non-coding, purely advisory gig. Hooray!

If Bob says no, Alice still got value of the meeting in the form of product / market research. And if Bob asks for more free advice later, she has earned the right to shift into sales mode without coming across like she’s looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Big Picture:

Before I have a sales meeting about a potential consulting opportunity - with an existing client or otherwise - I usually don’t know for sure whether I can do anything valuable for them. That being the case, it’s easier for me to just not to charge for them.

Remember, I don’t charge for my time. I price my services based on the value to the client. I don’t like to accept payment until I’m reasonably confident that I can deliver a positive ROI. If I charged for a sales meeting and didn’t deliver enough value, I’d be inclined to return their money.