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Liz later added her views:
It’s a case of avoiding people taking advantage of your vast knowledge store without paying you for the privilege of doing so whilst still being able to demonstrate competency on your subject. No advice doesn’t work at all, since you can say all you like that you can fix their problem, but they don’t KNOW it the way they would if you’d just demonstrate it by stating some solutions to them.
The best way to do that is to offer a timed initial meeting, either by telephone or in person. You then soak up 2/3rds of that meeting with, “Uh huh. You have three kids, you say? My that must keep you busy. What ages?” “Oh, you’ve been in business two years? What bookkeeping system are you using? Uh huh. How easy do you find that to use?” Only after shooting the breeze [sorry, I meant to say asking probing fact-finding questions] for a while, giving you oodles of vital information for the tax planning you’ll be doing later on, do you start in with the free advice. Keep the advice portion to just 20 minutes of an hour meeting or ten minutes of a half hour meeting. Never have an initial free meeting longer than an hour, or you’ll be lulled into giving more advice.When the time is up, you say, “Gosh, we really don’t have enough time to go into more detail here, as I’ve got another appointment. I’ll have my PA send you some client agreement documents so that we can formalize the advice and get into greater detail.” With just a few minutes spent on the free advice portion, they get enough of a taster to know you’re the best person to hire, but there’s no way that they’ll have enough info to then implement the plans and ideas you’ve come up with on their own.
Examples of free advice I give all the time include letting someone know whether or not we should be looking into incorporation (but not how to do it), whether or not they should be selling any assets now to reduce tax next year (but not which assets), whether or not they should file tax forms (but not where to get them), and so on.
I am able to keep 60% of the initial inquiry calls to 10 minutes, spending longer only when there’s a strong possibility that we’re in the running as the “right” firm for them. If I think we’re the wrong firm, I can usually tell in that in the first ten minutes and I send them referrals to more appropriate accountants.