It’s likely that part of what you provide as an IT consultant is advice as well as services. Your professional advice, in the form of insight and solutions, comes only as a result of your hard-earned training and professional experience. Unfortunately, you may find yourself in a situation where a client seems to be seeking your expertise for free, whether it comes in the form of endless interviews in which you’re pumped for ideas, or it’s as simple as a lunch where you’re asked to solve “a little problem”—in great detail.

Even when the client is well intentioned and simply doesn’t realize that he or she is—in effect— asking you to work for free, these types of situations can be hard to handle. If it’s a potential client, or a client for whom you aren’t currently working on a project, you don’t want to sound like a mercenary by saying, “I’d love to discuss that with you but first, let’s sign a contract and make sure you’re going to hire me.” This article takes a look at how to deal with such situations gracefully and how and when to put your foot down to the most boorish of clients.

Determine your own limits
The first step is to set your own personal limits. Offering advice is an excellent way to build a relationship with a client, whether it’s with a regular client or with one considering you for the first. But at some point, giving advice can cross the line into free consulting.

Is a five-minute conversation in which you offer “free” advice acceptable to you? What about an hour? What if a former client wants to meet for coffee to discuss the latest networking dilemma back at the office, without mentioning that they might want you to fix it? Give some thought to your cutoff between offering advice and working for free, and you’ll be better prepared to act when that little warning goes off in your head.

As a suggestion, you may find it helpful to think of advice as simply listening to prospective or former clients and helping them focus on finding their own solution. But when advice starts to become specific, that’s when it begins to cross into consulting territory—which is, of course, the line of work that pays your bills.

The case of the never-ending interview process
I hear too often about consultants being brought in for one interview after another, with the potential client pressing the interviewee for more information—and more specific information—with each meeting.

With each meeting, is the client providing more information about the project and expecting you to respond with greater and greater detail? Is the client asking you to build on suggestions and ideas you’ve proffered in earlier meetings? If so, you might be working for free.

If this happens to you, answer the following questions:

  • Based on what you know about this project, at what point can the client implement your solution without hiring you? Don’t get anywhere near this point.
  • Based on your research into the client and even your gut feeling, is the client really milking you for answers with no intention of hiring you, or are they just being unintentionally rude? Some clients are callous, while others are simply clueless.
  • Does the client seem to be interviewing other consultants? If so, perhaps they’re really trying to compare and contrast ideas. If not, they may indeed be looking for free work. Try to find out more about what’s really going on.

Bringing matters to a head
Once you cross your discomfort threshold, it’s time to prompt the client to sign up. If you want to work with this client and believe the company to be basically honest despite some foot dragging, you can force the matter quite graciously. Talk to the person in charge and simply ask whether the client will soon make its decision, or conclude your next interview with that question. A well-intentioned client who likes your ideas should respond quickly to something like the following: “As you might expect, as an independent consultant, I’m currently considering other projects that need a commitment from me quite soon. I’d really like the opportunity to work with your company, but to do so, I’ll need to know within [X] amount of time whether you’ll need my services on this project.”

Or there’s the more blunt method, where you point out that you’ve come in for enough interviews, that you don’t work for free, and that you’ll be presenting an invoice at the close of the next meeting.

Also consider whether you’ve done an adequate job outlining your usual MO and your specific plan of action for this client. If you’ve submitted a detailed proposal that covers all the bases, you shouldn’t need to continue coming in for interviews—that’s your signal to the client that the ball is in their court. At some point, you can refer clients to your proposal, suggest submitting a more specific proposal, or offer to address your client’s questions by performing more thorough research, for which you’ll bill on a per-hour basis.

Apply a little psychology
More potentially insidious than ongoing interviews is that of the casual meeting—lunch, coffee, whatever—in which a client starts probing for suggestions. You can sidestep questions that go on for too long by using a bit of psychology: Remember that with any problem, when people ask for advice, what they often want is simply someone to listen to them. Demonstrate to your prospective client that you understand the problem without necessarily offering specific solutions. Rephrase your client’s dilemma: “So what you’re saying is…” and “In other words, you need to find a way to….” You may have implemented a similar type of exchange when lending a sympathetic ear to a friend or relative.

You can even outline in very broad terms a few solutions you’d consider exploring. Another approach is to rule out some obvious options. It’s easy to goad a client into coming up with his or her own solutions, and you may well be hired to work out the details. Again, knowing your advice limit before you get into this situation will help you.

However, if you’re getting pressed for details despite your attentive ear, you may need to get progressively more blunt yourself:

  • In a roundabout way, remind the client that this is what you do for a living: “Yeah, I’ve solved similar situations for clients before. For one guy who was really in trouble, I was able to fix his problem in just under a month.” While this points out that solutions take time and experience (yours), you can also defer to needing more specifics: “Really, I couldn’t provide a truly professional opinion without more information from your employees, vendors, customers…”—whatever it takes to convey the fact that you need to do research.
  • You can use humor. Here’s a great line I read on a contractor online discussion: “Gee, I thought I left my ‘Will work for food’ sign at the office.”
  • If your client just doesn’t get it, be matter-of-fact but not defensive: “Well, solving problems like this is what people pay me for. If you’re considering bringing in a consultant with the kind of experience I can offer you, we could set up an assessment meeting so I could learn more about the project and tell you about my fee structure.”

Don’t get bogged down in extracurricular advice
Another problem is that of a current client who keeps bugging you with problems outside the scope of your main project—the one you’re being paid to do. In this case, again decide when the client crosses the goodwill, relationship-building, friendly advice line, and then gently turn the questions aside. One way is to point out the time that such extracurricular questions are taking away from your main project.

What about advice for peers and colleagues?
A last note here while we’re on the subject: I was lucky enough to meet several fellow contractors who were quite generous with advice and assistance when I was starting out. Problem-specific advice for a potential client is different from a helping hand for peers and colleagues. While I’m not saying you should hand out client phone numbers, remember that what comes around goes around. The young upstart you counsel today could be looking for an experienced contractor to help out with a glut of work somewhere down the road.

Meredith Little wears many hats as a self-employed technical and travel writer, documentation consultant, trainer, business analyst, and photographer.

Have you ever given out too much free advice to a client? How do you draw the line between “just enough” and “too much?” Post a comment below or send us a note.