I'd like to take credit for that axiom, but someone else thought of it first.
We've all been there. We're talking to prospects and helping them in many ways, even though they haven't paid us a dime since we first met. At some point, we have to delicately bring the conversations to a conclusion. The prospect either becomes a customer or you stop helping them for free and move on to another prospect (or, shock of shocks, you help an existing customer for free).
Every business, at some point, employs the services of an attorney. Last week I met an attorney. She was a very sharp lady, and with a track record of success. I paid her $275 for a one-hour consultation. It was worth it, of course, but what struck me was how comfortable she was about telling me I was going to pay for the hour she spent with me. What I learned once again was that, if you want to be successful in business, you need to get good at asking for the money.
-- If they don't pay for it, they won't value it --
If you give your time away for free, your prospects and clients won't value it as much, and they are more likely to waste more of your time. Just like people who get money for free tend to squander it faster than those who had to earn it.
- No one will be offended --
- If they won't pay for it, you shouldn't be doing it --
- If they owe you money, they will avoid you --
I've noticed on a number of occasions, when I pressed a client to pay their overdue amount, right after they pay me they call me to ask moe to do some more work. My guess is that, for the weeks they were delaying paying me, they were less prepared to ask me to do some more work. That's business I may have lost if they hadn't paid me for the earlier work, so insisting you get paid for past work is essential.
- Asking for the money is good for your client too --
Some time in 2002, the CEO of my company Bocada and I were negotiating with a very large prospect. You know the company, so I won't mention it by name, but it was and is a large high-tech hardware company. They wanted to get a free lincense to our software product with the argument that "we are such-and-such and testing your Bocada software product is payment enough for you". My CEO's perspective on this was very educational for me. He told them that if they didn't want to pay money for the software, he recommended they should not use the software. His argument was, it was bad for Bocada to have customers using the software who didn't believe in paying for it. Not alone for the sake of the money itself, which of course is important, but paying for it laid the proper foundation in the client's company for the long term healthy relationship between vendor and client.
-- When is it OK not to charge? --
At the early stages of growing my SiteLeads.net company, I wasn't exactly sure what business I was in. In addition, there were a few "holes" in my knowledge and my expertise that needed to be filled before I could say I really knew what the heck I was doing. I was very upfront and honest with my prospects about my limitations. Sure, you always learn from your clients, but at the early stages, the learning curve can be so steep it adds some risk to the client's aspirations, so I would be very clear about that from the beginning. "I'm giving you a rock bottom price for your patience with me while I learn a lot from this project", I would say to my prospect.
But once you get on top of your game, the time comes when you need to "harvest" the often costly investment you made in your business over the early years. You need to get paid.
- -- Put structure into service offerings* --
I also schedule these introductory conversations so that I have a legitimate engagement following the short, free introductory call. For example, I might have the free thirty-minute conversation beginning at 9:30am, followed immediately by a 10am visit to a customer. That way, I set the tone, at least in my own head, to expect a hard stop at the end of the free thirty-minute session.
-- When friends ask for your services for free --
This is probably the hardest one, but the good business rule that people shouldn't use the service if they don't pay for it still applies. If I meet my doctor at a cocktail party, I'm not going to ask him for a prostate exam, and I don't expect anyone else at the party to ask me for an SEO-focused examination of their website.
A good way to get through the "free consulting to friends" issue is to explain to them from the beginning that it is a good, disciplined business principle also for them, not to give or take free services beyond the appropriate introductory communication.
Remember, your time and your service is valuable, or you wouldn't be in business for long, so don't be afraid to ask for the money. In the end, your clients will love you for it.
At least, the clients worth having will.