Do your agency’s prospects expect free advice?

Written by: Karl Sakas

Wondering how much free advice to share in your Exploratory Calls and elsewhere in the sales process? An agency owner asked me:

“How do you keep your initial client calls from turning into the equivalent of a free one-hour consulting call—or more? I find there’s a strong pull to demonstrate ability to provide valuable insights to a prospect during that first call or two. In some cases, that means giving away a lot of free advice. This is different with a CMO than with a startup exec, but in both cases we feel inclined to probe and offer advice because the prospect is talking to other agencies, often that same day.”

Almost every agency faces this problem. Fortunately, you have options!

Here’s how I recommend thinking about the “free advice” problem—and my tips on handling it, including when your competition is giving free advice to the same prospects.

Navigating Pressure from Prospects to Share Free Advice

My philosophy is that I want to convey that I’m helpful and interested in solving their problem—but I also have firm boundaries about sharing custom-to-them insights.

I also call-out that I’m approaching this from a fast-failure perspective: my goal is to confirm if we’re a match, not to get them to buy what I’m selling. Because my positioning is pretty clear, people tend to be fairly qualified—but certainly not 100%.

My 5 Tips for Handling “Free Advice” Requests in the Sales Process

I implement this in five ways: requiring a pre-intake questionnaire before the Exploratory Call, sharing a curated list of free articles, explicitly calling-out when I’m sharing free advice, sharing industry benchmarks and anonymized anecdotes, and diplomatically noting when a question would be best answered during paid consulting.

Let’s elaborate on each of those points:

  1. Pre-Questionnaire: I won’t get on the phone without prospects taking 15-20 minutes to complete my pre-questionnaire. The responses help me understand if it’s a match—and sometimes lead to my recommending that we don’t do a call, if things aren’t a fit. More often, the responses help me dive-in faster—which benefits the prospective client, too. And it’s not so in-depth that it turns into an unpaid version of Paid Discovery.
  2. Articles: I often recommend that people pre-read 2-3 articles, among the hundreds on my website. This gives us a shared language, saves [some] time on the call, and reinforces that I understand the type of problem they’re trying to solve. I can also see if they followed my advice to read the articles—which predicts whether we’ll be a mutual match. The articles are useful for SEO… but they also help as “sales support.” (And in helping my current clients, too.)
  3. Strategically Free: If someone is considering doing something truly terrible, I’ll recommend they not do that. I don’t want people to make avoidable mistakes—and they still need my consulting help creating a custom alternative solution. But either way, I’ll preface it by saying it’s “free advice.” It fits my concept of “strategically free”—while successfully avoiding “secretly free.”
  4. Industry Benchmarks: Most agency owners have fairly good judgment, so this is also about sharing agency industry benchmarks. For instance, someone might volunteer that their net profit margins are running 14%; I might note that net profit margins are ideally 20-30%. Or I run a quick calculation on Rev/FTE (per-capita billables) and estimate the positive profit impact of my helping them fix the gap. I also work-in anonymous anecdotes about helping other clients solve similar problems, to demonstrate my expertise and reinforce that I’ve solved the problem before.
  5. Diplomatic Parrying: If I volunteer free advice, that’s fine—it’s my choice. But sometimes people press for free consulting that I haven’t volunteered—and I won’t do that. I’ll say something like, “That’s exactly the type of question we’d work on together in a paid { Phase 1 / Executive Coaching / Bite-Size consulting call }.” And if someone keeps pressing by asking an obviously-billable question—and I’m feeling snarky—I might joke: “Hire me… and we’ll figure that out.” That usually gets a laugh… and it stops the freebie-fishing.

Ultimately, my goal is to convey competence and helpfulness—but also pickiness and boundaries. That is—I’m ready, willing, and able to help… as soon as they pay money.

What About Competing Agencies That Share Free Advice?

If you’re competing directly with other agencies that are offering [extensive] free advice, you have to decide whether to play the “free advice” game.

I don’t recommend playing the game—because the client wins, and all but one agency is guaranteed to lose—but I understand the pressure to play.

What about your competitors that might be giving free advice—potentially earlier or later on the same day?

  • As I recently mentioned to an Executive Coaching client, you can diplomatically re-frame the other agencies (that share free advice) as misaligned to the client’s needs.
  • For instance, free advice leads to: non-strategic solutions (salespeople rarely are client strategists), misinformed solutions (you haven’t gathered and analyzed the underlying data), lowballing on budget (if the agency is jumping to provide an unfounded number), and hiring agencies that feel desperate for the business (because… that’s what’s happening).
  • Some prospective clients don’t care; they just want the free advice. They might even lie about other agencies giving them free advice, to bait you into sharing. But when you frame it right, your ideal clients are now wondering: “Oh, maybe that ‘free advice’ agency is a lowballing sleaze-bucket…”

If clients insist on free advice in the sales process, it may be a client that you can’t “afford” to win. For instance, an agency owner was struggling with a cheapskate client. She mentioned the underlying client’s name was [along the lines of] “” I noted the client probably handles vendor management from a similar mindset.

Beyond that, this may be a sign that the other agency is internally shambolic—and barely profitable, or constantly on fire because the owner has no backbone. That doesn’t speak well to the firm’s longevity as one of your competitors. Meanwhile, you held strong—and won the deal, or preserved your dignity.

QUESTION: How do you handle requests for free advice during the sales process?

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