Should You be an Unpaid Consultant?

Last Updated Jul 21, 2010 1:53 PM EDT

I recently received an email from Landy Chase, author of the new book Competitive Selling. In that email, Landy criticizes the oft-quoted maxim: "Don't be an unpaid consultant." I agree with Landy... to a point. Here's Landy's e-mail (my comments follow).
Over the last twenty-five years I have heard more than my share of bad ideas when it comes to effective selling. Here is the worst one that I have ever come across:

"Don't be an unpaid consultant".

I was recently reminded of this when I was asked to participate in a phone conference involving one of my clients. The company had a number of their senior executives together for a meeting, and they asked me if I would be willing to join their group for a teleconference during my lunch hour.

Here's the "catch", if you prefer to think of it that way: there was no offer of payment for my time; this was "free work" in the form of giving advice. Yes, I was being asked to be the Unpaid Consultant. And, as always, I welcomed the opportunity.

You see, I strongly disagree with the idea that you should avoid being an "unpaid consultant" when you are in sales. In fact, in my opinion, you should do just the opposite. You should strive, every day, to be the Unpaid Consultant. Here's my rationale.

Customers form their strongest relationships with people who give the most value. In today's selling environment, what you sell - be it a product or service - is, in itself, the least valuable thing that you offer. In fact, it is probably viewed by most buyers as a commodity. Whether you are a car salesman, a financial advisor, a copier rep, a lawyer, or a plumber, customers can get what you sell from dozens of other people who offer the same thing. In a me-too world, good advice - ideas that help customers to make better decisions - trumps, by a wide margin, the value of your "wares".

Which brings me back to sales people. The highest compliment that a customer can ever pay you is to confer upon you the title of "Unpaid Consultant". To want your opinion when they are not buying. To value your knowledge enough to want to take advantage of your expertise.

Examples: If you sell automobiles, to get your opinion on which of a competitor's two models is a better choice for a child going to college. If you sell newspaper advertising, whether you would recommend radio or cable television as a better investment for reaching a target audience. If you sell printing, your thoughts on whether a new ink is appropriate for a packaging project that doesn't actually involve you.

The point is this: people don't ask for input from those whose opinion they do not value. When a customer asks for your advice under these circumstances, the message is loud and clear: they view you as an expert. Give the request your very best effort, every time. I assure you, you will be rewarded many times over.

Among my vendor relationships, there is a small group of vendors whose advice I place a high value on. These are also the people with whom I do eighty percent of my business. One of these is my CPA.

I have utilized this same professional for my business for over ten years. She is in private practice and lives five hundred miles from my office. Yes, I could find another CPA who is local to help my business - in fact, I could line them around the block seven or eight times. I could also save money by doing so - her fees are higher than most of those in her profession.

So why do I swear loyalty to her? It certainly isn't because she provides bookkeeping services and prepares financial reports. That's a commodity - any CPA firm provides that.

No, what I value is her mind - her ability to analyze my business and make recommendations that help me to manage it. To me, this is irreplaceable. Yes, much of her time with me is billed, but many times her advice is unbilled, as well. She is a very good sales person (she cold-called me to get my business) and has excellent interpersonal skills. She is a good listener, and even puts up with my annual whining during tax season. In other words, she understands the value of being the Unpaid Consultant. If I changed my CPA relationship, I would not have her to work with anymore - and that idea distresses me greatly, as you will see.

A couple of years ago, her business had grown to the point that she sent all of her clients, including me, a form letter informing us that she was going to have to trim her client list to lessen her workload. In other words, some of us were going to have to go.

My reaction to this announcement? Sheer panic. I called her immediately. I begged to make the cut! I pleaded. I stammered. I reminded her that I have a simple business and am easy to work with and always pay on time and ... and...and...you get the idea.

She laughed and assured me that I had nothing to worry about; her focus was on reducing her workload with more complex businesses that were taking a lot of her time. Relieved, I hung up the phone.

Then I thought - WOW. I am the customer, and here I am begging this vendor: please, please - continue to take my money!

Does this describe the relationship that you have with your customers? How valuable are you to them? Do they depend on you for giving them direction, or are you an order-taking commodity?

In my business, every time that a sales person asks me, "what would you like to do?" I want to say "why are you asking me? I thought that you were the expert." I never say that, of course, but it is what I am thinking.

Don't ask me for my opinion; I'm paying you for yours. Be confident and assertive. Tell me what you think I should do. In other words, be the Unpaid Consultant.

Here's my take on this. An hour of my time, or my opinion about something, or a little pro-bono work for a customer I like -- that's fine. However, there are cases where a customer is clearly taking advantage.

For example, I once had a customer ask me to write a proposal for a new market research service (with me as the analyst writer), only to have them lift the entire idea and hand it to another writer.

I've also seen many cases where sales reps have been asked to write detailed proposals and spend large amounts of money developing an "opportunity" only to find that they've been snookered into bidding on a deal that the competition already has locked down -- in order to give the appearance that the customer did their due dilligence.

In short, you have to look on "unpaid consulting" as a cost of sales. If it starts eating up too much time and resources, it's time to ask for some up-front payment.

Or you could do what a friend of mine, a lawyer, does. When he's asked for free advice (and he's asked plenty), he provides it, then sends an invoice for his hourly cost with "complimentary" stamped across it in red ink. That way people know exactly what his time and knowledge are worth and don't pester him unnecessarily in the future.

READERS: Where do YOU draw the line?