Consider this: It’s the third interview with a prospective client, and the interview questions are getting increasingly technical and specific. By now, you’ve demonstrated your competency, and it crosses your mind that the interviewer(s) might be fishing for free advice under the guise of an interview process.

In her recent article “Free advice: How much is too much?”, TechRepublic contributor Meredith Little acknowledges the potential for consultants to fall prey to this tactic and suggests how they might avoid being trapped into consulting for free.

In a recent TechRepublic discussion prompted by Little’s article, many members related well to the pitfall of free advice. This article highlights some members’ experiences and the ways they choose to deal with revealing too much information before the contract or check is signed.

Giving away the store
When a friend of TechRepublic member rzan interviewed with a well-known toy manufacturer, the company, according to rzan, used the interview as a chance to take advantage of the candidate’s knowledge and experience. He came in well prepared for the interview with a portfolio of his work and instead was met with numerous questions asking how the company should restructure its Web site.

“They picked his brain for ideas, yet [they] never followed up with him or ever considered him. I don’t think they were looking to hire anybody. They used the interview to milk my friend or anybody else for free advice.”

Although rzan alleges that his friend encountered a company deliberately taking advantage of free advice, it’s also possible that consultants themselves get carried away in demonstrating their knowledge. Paul Wilhelm believes that his love for solving IT problems leads him to reveal too many solutions or ideas early on.

“I painstakingly explain technical issues in terms they can understand. I know it’s not right, but I don’t realize what I did until I’m in the elevator heading down to the lobby.”

Consultant Dennis Dickens agrees that the excitement of brainstorming may cause a consultant to give away some information that he or she would normally charge for. However, Dickens believes there’s a way to turn this mistake around to work in the consultant’s favor.

“What you might want to do is create solution proposals that show your potential client that you can turn the brainstorming into results more effectively than they can for themselves.

“If you’ve sold them on the product—your ideas—you might be able to sell them on the aftermarket products—your skills and the possibility of even more good ideas.”

Hinting at money matters
One of the first things that Mark Jones of RiverNet in Fresno, CA, tells prospective clients is that “the first three hours are free.” While it may seem too assuming for a consultant to waive fees during an interview process, this tactic works well to let the prospective client know that the consultant is interested in forging a business relationship with the company and that he or she is going to keep tight tabs on the billing.

“I submit a bill detailing the issues discussed and the normal charges for each. Then, I apply as much of the free hours as necessary to cover the ‘bill.’”

Not only does Jones’s method demonstrate his business sense, but it also gives the client a clear idea of his billing increments and style. Although Jones admits that he loses a few hours of billable time, it’s worth the cost to avoid future misunderstandings.

Similarly, consultant lulu-media offers a discount in the early stages of the hiring process so that the clients don’t feel like they are being charged for “building rapport.” Because lulu-media discounts services by 25 percent for the first month, the billing process is made thoroughly apparent to the new client, which helps build a bond of trust.
Do you have any tips for dealing with clients looking for free consulting advice? Do you have any horror stories about freeloading firms? Join the discussion and share your thoughts.