December 16, 2012

Rachel Strella

Making the Difficult Decision to Charge for Social Media Consultations

By Rachel

Over the years, there have been many instances in which I’ve had multiple meetings with potential clients about their social media presence. After investing many hours in outlining potential strategies in the hopes of landing their business, many prospects have instead taken these suggestions for their own internal use rather than hiring me.

It’s tough because I want to help people see the value of social media. But as a two person business, we can’t afford to be giving away so much time without compensation. So, a few months ago, I made the difficult decision to charge for consultations. I charge a nominal fee, which is credited back to the company if they decide to work with us beyond those first few meetings. I know full well that this will cost me a few opportunities because people will balk at the cost, but it’s the best way to protect our time.

Granted, there will be time spent in the marketing and sales process. With every inbound lead, we ask prospects complete a short intake form so we can get an idea of their marketing goals and challenges followed by a 30 minute call to clarify points and to ask/answer questions. We often end up passing a few emails back forth before we generate a proposal for our services.

The toughest part is that the opportunities to work with bigger companies often involve meetings with multiple levels of management. Each time, I need to not only sell the idea of using social media but also sell the value of hiring me. There have been several scenarios where these multiple meetings have led to a dead end. Charging a consultation fee has been a way to protect the value our time.

Some may think that’s a death sentence for a business, but it’s proved to be an invaluable part of streamlining our sales cycle. And here’s why:

ROI is not as simple as ABC. I find that many people simply don’t know enough about social media to know whether it is something they want to invest in. There is an education process involved in understanding the ‘why’ of social media. We often refer people to blogs, products, or information that covers some of the social media basics, but most people want to cut right to the chase and know what it can ‘do’ for them. This necessitates some in-depth research, an understanding of their target market, and a level of expertise before we can begin to formulate a plan of what it may ‘do’ for them. That takes time that I believe we should be compensated for.

Time and expertise are relevant. Willingness to pay for an initial consult is a strong indicator of the willingness of a company to work with us. Are they serious about integrating social media into their marketing plan or are they just fishing for information? An introductory meeting can take an hour (or two) plus travel while we answer of myriad of social media questions. If we are lucky enough to meet with the decision maker (usually it’s a marketing person or staff champion for social media), we often field an exhausting stream of questions while we try to ‘turn’ a naysayer into a believer. I’m always up for the challenge, but only for a company that respects our time – even if they don’t yet understand the value of social media. If we can start off with a mutual respect for each other – including their payment for our time – I find they tend to take social media more seriously than those would rather not pay.

Fairness to our paying clients. For those who already pay for our services, it’s unfair to them that we spend countless hours with prospective business. Our clients already see the value of what we offer and our first priority is to them. This approach has allowed us to maintain a strong overall retention rate. We still focus on growing our business, but in a way that won’t take away from the services we provide for our current clients.

Do I miss out on opportunities because of this policy? Yes. But that’s a risk I am willing to take. While social media professionals are champions for social media and work to endlessly educate our audience, that doesn’t mean we have to give away our time.

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14 comments on “Making the Difficult Decision to Charge for Social Media Consultations”

  1. As a social media manager myself, you've made wonderful points why consultations should not always be complimentary. It certainly does take time to research what may be the best fit for each client. Social media is a not cookie cutter format. One size does not fit all and it does take time to research what will work for the client. I love that you credit the fee back to the company if they decide to work with you.

    1. Hey Jennifer -

      Thanks for chiming in! I think there is a little time needed to get to know the clients needs (which is why I allow for a phone call), but a meeting to discuss it further takes time. If we don't value our time, who will?


  2. Rachel,
    I feel your pain. When I started the social media and blogging portion of my business, I was determined to focus on demonstrating the value of the services I could provide for clients. As a result, I wanted to take the time to educate people about the true value of those services, so I offered free consultation. The result, unfortunately, was considerable time spent letting others pick my brain only to decide not to hire me in the end. What I found, in fact, was that those who eventually became my clients were fully aware of the value of blogging and social media and didn't need much education. They simply wanted to know how much it would cost.

    1. Shawn,

      Thanks for commenting - both here and on BizSugar. I have logged countless hours for those who want to 'pick my brain.' You have to draw the line somewhere.

    2. Shawn: I can relate very much to your story. I have been there, done that. I want to talk with you more about this topic in the near future.

      Have you read Adrienne Graham's book, No, You Can't Pick My Brain. It Costs Too Much! ?

      1. Thanks Martin for suggesting to read Adrienne Graham's article. It was good to read and a great follow up to Strella's blog post.

  3. Great article Rachel! I think most people struggle with that same issue regardless of the type of industry. "Drawing the line in the sand", though initially difficult, in the end provides relief, a great deal of self-respect, and ultimately direction because there is no second guessing yourself. It also puts a value on your services and expertise, both monetary and otherwise. Many people get that and are willing to pay for consultations and the like. However, there will always be a segment of the population that want something for nothing. They give little thought and respect, mind you, to the person and the time, energy, and expertise it takes to run a business. That type of mindset can be very "telling" about a person.

    1. Hey Kristin,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      I know that I work hard for my clients and that I am pretty fair, so it seemed like a logical choice.

      You're right about those who expect something for nothing. For the companies who refuse to pay this fee, it tells me how serious they are about social media and/or working with me in the first place.


  4. I'm a firm believer in Inbound Marketing. That is, educating prospects on your industry, what you do, and how you do it, including your point of view and unique approach. The whole idea is to attract customers to help them know what they need before they may even get in front of you. Typically this 'education' is given without charge.

    So then, how does one make money?

    A wise person once told me, "Give away the what and why. Charge for the how." Everyone in your industry says they know the what / why. Your professional value lies in your unique approach to "how." That's worth money. Few people are willing to pay for the upfront learning part, and if they're solely focused on that, they're likely not qualified prospects in the first place.

    In your case, Rachel, you blog about the value and possibilities of social media, you hold "free" informational sessions, etc., etc. You go out of your way to educate. I've not had the opportunity to work with you, but I think I have a pretty good idea of how you help.

    By the time I, or anyone whose bothered to educate themselves on social media, call you, you've earned the right to charge a fee for the consultation. Your credit-back policy is a nice way to handle it.

    1. Hi Marshall,

      By the time folks find me, complete my intake form and talk with me on the phone, I've given them the why. Sometimes they know the why even before they find me. When they ask, 'well what can it DO for me - for MY business' - I can give them examples of what I have done for other clients, but they often want more specifics. Which medium should they choose? How do they get more fans? How do they find their target audience? How do they make money using social media? These kinds of questions necessitate a deeper look into the how.

      I have done educational sessions in the past, which were well-received. I also blog regularly and offer a lot of material on my social sites. It's the personalization of a plan that requires time (again, the how).

      Even if people claim not to want a plan, in order to answer their questions, I still need to give them a plan. There is no magic bullet or one-size-fits-all in social media. I have lost some big potential clients because of this fee - and I even revoked it at one point. But, I've drifted back to it after tracking my time for several months and discovering some big time zappers.

      I think it's only fair to offer the fee back. You could like at it like a security deposit. My only sadness comes in the fact that they might choose not to embrace social media because of the fee. Regardless of whether they work with me or anyone else, there is a big opportunity in social media. I hope every business finds the value - the why and the how!


  5. [...] Change is a good thing. Just as some have advised the University of California to stand its ground in spite of all the ruckus, there are times when business owners must stick to their guns even when making changes that may alienate some. Rachel Strella, owner of Strella Social Media, a small two-person social marketing agency in central Pennsylvania, was forced to make just such a difficult decision a few months ago when she put an end to the free consultations she had been offering prospects, only to have many take her suggestions without retaining her. Strella Social Media [...]

  6. If nothing else, you establish upfront that your advice and expertise is not simply window shopping for potential clients who are not yet serious about establishing a strategy.

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