As a new consultant, sometimes it can feel much harder to say no than yes. You want to stay open to any and all opportunities. You want to learn. You want to see what works and what doesn’t. You want to open as many doors as possible.
I’ve been there, and I get it. But setting these three important boundaries are critical for building a strong foundation for your consultancy (and I’ll explain why further down):
- Set a minimum engagement fee
- Require payment for sample work
- Don’t give away your ideas or time
Set a Meaningful Minimum Engagement Fee
One of the ways to build a premium consultancy vs. a freelance business is to set a minimum engagement fee, or the minimum amount of money you are willing to work for on any given project for a client.
I always suggest a minimum engagement fee of $5,000 when you’re first starting out. That’s a number that rules out all of the small clients and tiny projects that don’t won’t lead to bigger, more premium work. It’s a great launching pad and starting point to build up a client base that has the budget to pay $5,000 for your work and your fees.
It also sends the message: “I value my time and my work enough to hold out for premium projects that match my skill level.”
In addition, when you implement a minimum engagement fee, you help others rule out referrals that aren’t aligned with your minimum engagement fee. Friends, family and colleagues will learn not to send you the pebbles, but rather the boulders.
Ultimately, you don’t want to be caught as a consultant or freelancer with tiny little $200 or $800 jobs. Those small projects almost always lead to even more small projects. On the flip side, large projects almost always lead to more large projects.
You want the big chunky work.
If someone wants you badly enough, and if you’ve done a great job communicating ROI and value, they’ll create $5,000 worth of work for you.
Require Payment for Sample Work
Once in a while you’re going to get a potential client who says, “We’d love to work with you, but we want you to produce this sample project for us this week, just so we can see exactly what your work would look like if we hired you.”
This is never ok. You should never ever take on sample work, unless it’s compensated.
Here’s what you say: “I’d love to do sample work for you. In fact, I have an hourly rate for exactly this purpose, for client prospects who want sample work. My hourly rate for sample work is $200/hr. And I’d be more than happy to produce that work for you this week for my hourly rate. Also, I have plenty of sample work that I’ve done for previous clients– projects that I’ve completed–that I’d be happy to show you. These clients continue to hire me over and over again for the great quality work that I’ve produced for them. Either one works for me, let me know what you prefer.”
That’s it. You don’t ever ever do sample work for free for a client who hasn’t signed a contract.
It’s important to show clients that your time is your asset. If you still aren’t buying, ask yourself this: Have you ever seen a lawyer give away a sample contract to a prospective client to prove that they can write a great contract? I didn’t think so.
Free samples de-value your work. And providing free samples does not lead to more clients, and it most certainly does not lead to premium clients. In fact, I’ve seen more consultants ghosted than hired after providing free work.
Don’t Give Away Your Ideas or Time
During your initial prospecting call or in-person meeting, some potential clients will push you to give away work and ideas. Or you may feel an impulse in yourself to give away great ideas to show “what you’ve got” and to get clients excited to hire you. I’ve even seen consultants give away frameworks and ideas in a proposal, only to get ghosted and later find out the client took the work in-house, using their ideas.
Bottom line: You are not a tray of cheese and toothpicks at WholeFoods. Giving away the cheese for free does not build a strong consulting business.
Giving away ideas will not help you sign the client. It actually only degrades your value. Make this your mantra: If they want you, they have to pay for it.
So how do you respond when a client is testing you for ideas? When pushed for ideas, politely tell the client, “I have so many great ideas already brewing–I think they’re even better than some of the ideas I had for past clients who [experienced 30% growth after working with me for only a few months]–and I look forward to sharing them with you once we start working together.”
If they push again say, “My ideas and my time are my biggest assets, and they are why clients hire me. Although I can’t divulge my biggest assets before officially working together, let me give you some examples of how my ideas for past clients [led to explosive growth.]” And then proceed to give a couple of relevant case studies.
If they still keep pushing, you can say, “These are all things we can discuss if we decide to move forward in working together.” And just repeat this line every time they cross your boundary.
Also, some prospective clients will push for many calls or meetings before going to contract. You want clients who will respect your time, and who are ready to get started. Either they have a sense of urgency, or they don’t. It shouldn’t take more than two meetings for them to make a decision about hiring you.
If they ask for a third meeting, simply say, “Why don’t we set up a 10-minute call where I can answer any last minute questions you have.” This sends the message that they shouldn’t be dragging the process along anymore, and at this stage, it should only come down to small details that need clarifying.
Why Boundaries Work
Setting boundaries will help you draw the right clients to you, who will respect your time and be strong ongoing collaborators in your consultancy. In addition, the right clients–premium clients–lead to better referrals, which is how all successful consultants build their businesses.
If you want to build a network of small projects and so-so clients, and create tons of gaps in between all of these small projects, then by all means don’t take my advice. But if you want to build a premium consultancy with long-term clients and premium project rates, then boundaries will help get you there.