At what point do you decide that you should charge someone for your time and expertise? It’s a tricky one for many. Often it’s clear: you have quoted for a piece of work and you get the “Yes” phone call. This time the client will be expecting your invoice.

So, what do you do if they call you back a few months later with some questions and need a bit of help over the ‘phone? Or they email you asking if you could run your eyes over a document that they need to send out later that week to one of their clients? Is your first thought “How much do I invoice them for this?” or “They are a good client and who knows, this might lead to more work?”

The downside of doing something for free is the client may see little value in what you have provided. You are also teaching them that it is OK to ask you for help, without payment, just because you have been paid for something in the past.

The upside of helping out is that it can build good will, a stronger relationship and introduce you to opportunities that otherwise may have passed you by.

It’s a tough decision, I know.

So how about this as a suggestion: First time around do the work (as long as it is not too much) as a gesture of good will. But let the client know that. An email along the lines of “You caught me at a good moment, so I had a spare hour that I could put aside to work on this for you. Happy to help again in the future, but next time I might have to have the meter running.

What do you think?

4 Responses to “Free or Fee?”

  • Hi Trevor,

    This is an interesting one and I’ve come up against this problem a lot over the last three years.

    I tend to find that clients will take advantage if you don’t make clear that there will be a fee for your time. That said, it can be hard to explain this especially if they feel they’re “just asking questions about the work you’ve done” or another (one I get a lot) “oh so now you’re charging to pitch”. I have a hard time explaining I’m not pitching I’m providing tech consultancy for their project. Anyway, I think you have to be very clear about what the type of work the client expects before deciding to charge or not.

    In the past I have tended to charge for anything that requires either code to be written or a document to be produced in response to the client’s request. But this is vague at best and I find that I’m often embroiled in consulting on a clients new product over the phone before I even know it. This poses a big problem for me because once the conversation has taken place how do you then raise the subject of money.

    All that to say that in 2013 I have decided that I am going to be charging a lot more for my consultancy time. To that end I have set up a Clarity account in an attempt to communicate the cost for my time and the sort of subjects I have help with:

    That said, one thing I have struggled with is determining whether the cost of my consultancy / R&D time should be different to the cost for writing code. I’ve heard that some freelancers charge more for this kind of work and some that charge less. Your thoughts on that subject would be appreciated.

    Great post.



  • Trevor Lever:

    Hi Kieran – many thanks for taking the time to share your experiences and thoughts. I think there are two aspects here: one is the time involved to clarify, understand and define the work to be done. The other is the “follow-up” conversation or email after you think the job is complete. Here’s my thoughts on these

    1. There are many options here but my approach is as follows: if it’s not too much work I will do this at ‘no-charge’ as a gesture of good will, as long as the situation is not competitive. If others potential suppliers are being entertained then I will charge for my time and expertise as their is value to the client in having clarity and a project plan. I also add the proviso, that if they decide to work with me then the costs of the “pre-sales” work will be offset against the project costs. This is just one approach and there are many variations on this theme. This can also be a good qualification step in sorting the wheat from the chaff in many pre-sales situations. Ultimately, the client needs to be shown that their is value in your time and expertise.

    2. Here I am a little more flexible but the same general rules apply. Once you have done some work with a client – and ideally developed a relationship – they should be more aware of your value and expertise. But I think it can damage the relationship if you look for every opportunity to invoice. I’m happy to help and offer some advice – but as soon as I think I am offering significant time (or value) to the client they need to be reminded (politely) that this is also a commercial relationship. This is when I take the approach mentioned in the blog article.

    Always happy to chat over a coffee if you want to take this further?

    PS: Coffee on you :)

  • Hi Trevor,

    I just saw a link to this hiding at the bottom of your Jan 2013 newsletter. Don’t know how I missed it before.

    I agree with everything that’s been said.

    I would add that the language used is critical, as this is just one of the many aspects of the “market norms v social norms” conflict faced by everyone selling professional services.

    Social norms are defined by psychologists essentially as doing a favour for a friend. EG you might help your neighbour clear the snow from their drive, or you might help your mother in law with the washing up. Money would not mormally enter the conversation.

    Market norms on the other hand are all about the money. Cue Cuba Gooding Jr in Jerry Maguire; “Show me the money!”. You wouldn’t expect to get a new rug in a Moroccan souk for nothing. You go expecting to pay.

    And market norms are where businesses reside. Hence the conflict for professionals, who can only show value by demonstrating expertise.

    The language I use is along the lines of “My standard rate for this kind of work is £x per hour, but in this case I’ll have a go without the clock running, because …”

    It’s the because that’s most important as it gives you the opportunity to set the constraints around the time/resource you’re giving. Always give them a “why”.

    Also, the purpose in quoting an “in theory” price allows the potential client to gauge whether you are worth your money. For them it’s a pain-free “try-before-you-buy”, and you get to limit your demonstration of expertise without falling prey to “scope creep”.

    I hope that helps

    Happy New Year!


  • Trevor Lever:

    Hi Mark – thanks for the comments. Yes, language is very important here.

    I’m also a firm believer that if you have explained the price is £x or lower ‘because’… you need to back up the verbal communication with putting it all in writing as well. That’s partly to do with different communication styles, and partly to do with having a record of the interaction.

    Happy New Year to you as well.


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