Do you give it away for free?

So, what do you do when someone wants free advice?

I talked to someone the other day who had just hung out her freelance Web writing shingle. That means, she’s hustling for clients. All. The. Time.

She had a great sales-call conversation with a local business owner. They talked. They laughed. They bonded. He asked her, “What changes would you make to my site,” and she spent 45 minutes outlining how she’d change the Titles, how she’d start a blog, how she’d add keyphrases to his copy. She even showed him WordStream‘s keyword research tool and how to use it.

She was convinced she got the gig. The prospect told her that “He’d let her know” – and she left in a sales-happy daze.

Fast forward two weeks. The prospect won’t return her calls. He won’t return her emails. And when she looks at his site – surprise, surprise – some of the Web copy was changed per her suggestions.

Where did she go wrong?

She gave it away for free.

This is a problem for any professional. If you work with computers, everyone calls you for tech support. If you’re an attorney, people ask you to answer “Quick legal questions.” And if you’re a freelance SEO copywriter (or SEO professional) the question on everyone’s minds is, “How can I do better in Google?”

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for educating prospects. That’s important. But there’s a fine line between educating clients on best practices and telling them how you’d “fix” their site (or whatever you get paid to do.)

This can be especially tricky during the sales process. You may really, really need this sale. Or, the person asks you face-to-face. Suddenly, not giving out free information seems like a sales (and social) faux pas. You start wondering if other people have given out freebie information and you’ll look bad if you don’t.  Heck, it doesn’t feel comfortable to say, “Uh, you have to pay me for that.”

No, it doesn’t feel comfortable. You don’t need to say those words, exactly…but you do need to say something like them. That is, if you want to make money.

Yes, you want to show off your expertise during the sales process. Yes, you want to wow the prospect. At the same time, you need to set a boundary. You need to know – clearly, deep in your heart-of-hearts know – that you are willing to talk about X for free. Maybe you provide one tip. Maybe you provide very general (but highly educational information.)

Or maybe, you don’t want to give anything away for free – even the most basic information. That’s OK, too.

When the prospect says something like, “What would you do to fix my site,” that’s when your boundary should kick in. Say what you’re comfortable saying and then steer back to the sales process. Tell them, “It looks like you have many Web writing opportunities here. I can outline them out in a report that contains (X) and costs (Y).

Or you could say, “That’s a great question. I’d have to dig deeper into your issues to really help you – let me tell you a bit more about how I consult with clients like you.”

You’re not ignoring their question or being rude. You’re simply – and nicely – informing them of your limits. At that point, they can choose to work with you (get the information they obviously want to have) or try to find someone who will give them freebie help. Either way, you win.

Consider if it’s time that you reviewed your own sales process. Have you felt “trapped” into providing “too much” information? Do you give it away for free? Are you gaining new clients – or inexplicably losing gigs? It could be that a slight change in your sales process can actually drive new business.

What about you? What kinds of information do you give away for free – or do you?