Should you offer a free consultation or exploratory session? Yes. No. Maybe.

I’ve had some good conversations lately about the ups and downs of offering a free introductory session, consultation, or discovery session to potential clients.

In general, get-to-know-you sessions are a fabulous idea. Although they are often seen as a way to “sell” someone who may not yet be sold on you, I’d encourage you to look at it from a different perspective, and adopt a mindset of curiosity and generosity instead.

To illustrate, there’s a statement in several places on my website that says what my own free consultations are about:

I offer a free 30-minute consultation to talk through your business needs, your new work, or your goals, and to help you visualize a path for making them happen. No pushy sales pitch, no adding you to a mailing list, no hidden anything. Please feel free to contact me – I’ll bet I can help.

The “different perspective” I referred to?  I don’t see these words as a sales tactic, and I make that very clear. I get a ton of joy out of meeting people who are working for themselves and bringing their skills and gifts to the world. My consultations are one part gabbing over coffee, one part wide-eyed wonder at learning something new, and one part intuitive assessment: Are the two of us a good fit for one another? Would I be happy and proud to bring their work to a larger audience? Will they find my style comfortable and empowering?

It almost never enters my mind to use this time to coerce or convince. If that makes me a poor businesswoman, well, so be it.

I came to this point of view after a number of chance encounters with certain professionals and wannabe-gurus. I was slow to learn that some people promote free introductions heavily in order to fill spaces on their calendar during dry times. There’s nothing wrong with this—it’s hard to grow a business, and we need to try everything. But it was clear, in my case(s), that their interest in me as a human was very thin, and thus when it came to our appointed time,

  • Some didn’t show up at all.
  • Some were late, sending an email 15 minutes into our allotted time apologizing for their tardiness.
  • One did the consultation when walking in a noisy store, obviously running errands and multitasking. I heard the tinny scrape of clothes hangers in the background.
  • In most cases, the session was followed up with an automated email sales pitch, and I was automatically added to their mailing list and started receiving daily emails.

Sigh.

But I eventually developed a stronger intuition about this, and in the past few years I’ve only experienced sessions with those who operate from a place of integrity and respect and curiosity. Each of the two coaches I now work with treated me with great respect and kindness in their introductory sessions, as an equal, exploring our respective preferences and needs to find out whether I was a good fit for them, and vice-versa.

What does that look like?

I felt respected, heard, and appreciated.

They showed up exactly when and where and how they promised.

They had a clear structure to explore my needs and their offerings and where they might or might not fit each other.

They followed up with an email that proved they were paying attention and cared. This was a personal thank-you note (NOT automated), with thoughts on next steps (or why they didn’t feel the fit was good) and best wishes for my success.

Done right, a free consultation/discovery session/exploration is a lovely idea, a beautiful idea, and it can help you find more of the right people. Here are a few thoughts to help these sessions be the best they can be for both you and clients:

  • Keep them short. Ish. Fifteen to 30 minutes is a good zone that—according to many practitioners—also cuts down on the number of people who may see a free hour with you as too good to pass up.
  • Gather some conversation fodder before the call. Many contact forms and schedulers will allow you to create robust “intake forms,” short questionnaires filled out in advance that help you to know more about the person booking. That way, your time together is as juicy and productive as possible.
  • Be ready with the answers to the common questions about your work. This is especially important if you’ve experienced having to explain just what it is you do. YOU might know what you do inside and out, but most people need a little help visualizing the beautiful intersection between their life and yours. Help them see the tangible, real-life before and after stories that can blossom.
  • Map out and do a follow-up sequence that is personal and respectful and not hinged on outcomes. Give some next steps. If it’s not a good fit, say so, and trust that the space you’re keeping open for the right person will be filled. All of this takes about five minutes of your day, and it means a lot.
  • Stay in integrity. If you want to stay in touch, in your follow-up sequence state HOW you’d like to stay in touch or check back with them, and ask permission to do so. (Not only is it distasteful to start bombarding someone with newsletters and clever emails, it’s illegal.)
  • Stay curious and open-minded, and see your free sessions as a gift to YOU, an opportunity to peer into the life and heart of another good human being and see if you can help elevate one another.

Search yourself. If there’s the slightest down-deep feeling that some sessions are going to be “good” and some “wasted time,” then consider only doing paid sessions. There’s no ick around choosing this route. My experiences with paid assessment sessions, even brief ones, have been 100% on-point, on-time, over-delivering and honest. Sometimes we’re more likely to see the time as productive—without dependence on a certain outcome—when something of value is exchanged.

Free introductory sessions or consults can be a joy. They’re a great way to keep our energies strong positive by sharing them with another soul who’s curious about our work.

Enjoy them!

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