As a consultant, do you sometimes feel like you are taken for granted? Have you ever been asked to work for less than market rate? Well, this week I was effectively asked to consult for free, and this was my response.

As a marketing consultant, I spend a lot of time giving away free advice. At networking functions, barbecues, at the beach or in the street, when small business owners (and sometimes CEO’s) find out I am a marketing consultant (with a passion for social media) the questions start flowing. How do I build my audience on social media, how do I increase foot traffic into store, how can I increase ticket sales for my upcoming event all the way down to, could you have a look at my social media and tell me what I could do better? I don’t mind sharing some quick tips and ideas, after all selling my skills this way is part and parcel of being a consultant and is how I can effectively demonstrate my expertise and ahem, market myself. However, after a handful of questions, I usually steer the conversation onto something else because I know what happens next, 2 hours have gone by and the person I am talking to has effectively received a free marketing consultation from me, with absolutely no intent to engage my services properly. But what do you do when someone attempts to engage you to help their business formally but asks you to do it for free, or payment pending their satisfaction with your work?

Recently, exactly this happened to me when a small business reached out via email asking how I could help them get their ‘message out’. What their message was, who they wanted to get it out to or anything about their business was not included in this initial enquiry, they did, however, go to great lengths to tell me how they had been burnt in the past by ineffective and expensive marketing people. Oh dear.

My initial response was to ignore the email, but that would’ve been terribly unprofessional, so I emailed back apologising for the past sins of marketing consultants everywhere and a brief outline of the approach I would take to help them get their ‘message out’. I hit send and thought that would be the end of it – it wasn’t. They came back asking what I would charge, and whether or not I would be open to charging them only when they had achieved success. So reading between the lines, would I do all the hard yards, which could take months on the promise of a paycheque only if they saw success in getting their message out (remember that at this point I still didn’t know what their message was or what they would consider success). I responded by outlining the three reasons I would never entertain this idea, and why no good consultant would.



You can pour hours into a consultation, then follow that up with a lot of time researching the industry, business and market to come up with a solid understanding of the situation they are in and what they need to do to grow and reach goals (hell, you can even help them set goals based on their business strategy if they have one). But once you hand over your expertise as a business/marketing or marketing communications plan to implement you have absolutely no control over what they do next, or when they do it. Even when a small business operator has been engaged in the entire process from start to finish, I have still seen business owners so overwhelmed by what is laid out in front of them they don’t know how to start. It’s like they are sitting at the other side of a 12 ft speed hump with no way of getting over it, so they don’t, instead they pop the plan in the bottom drawer for later. If you are waiting for them to see if the plan worked before they pay you, you would never get paid.


Small business owners run a tight ship and are notoriously thrifty, preferring to do everything for themselves, outsourcing only when it’s absolutely necessary. Smart small business owners understand the importance of bringing in experts to help them in the areas of business where they lack skills, but even the smart ones can forget they need resources to be able to implement any recommendations the expert makes. If the business, you have just poured your heart and soul into doesn’t have the people or the budget to implement the direction you recommend for their business then there is no way your plan will heed them results – ever. Which means your ability to get paid based on said results is doomed from the start, and the only guaranteed result will be you fighting to get paid (or not being paid at all).

Stakeholder Engagement

More often than not when you deal with small business you deal with the key stakeholder, which is the small business owner. For bigger small businesses you may deal with a nominated office slashie – the finance/HR/marketing person who acts as the go between you and the business owner. At the start, everyone is on board, momentum is high and you will spend a lot of time working hand in hand with the key stakeholder/s of the business, kicking serious goals. However, from experience, as time goes on and deadlines drag out, possibly because the stakeholder becomes focussed on something else the project starts to grind to a halt. As a consultant it is part of our role to keep the momentum moving along and keep timelines met, but there is only so much a consultant can do before we put the whole project in jeopardy by coming across as ‘full on’. What was scoped as a 6-week job has blown out to 3 months and you are only half way. You know that at this rate, what should have been in market before the end of the year will creep into the next. If you are engaged on a ‘wait until we see results’ agreement, guess what, you are not going to be paid for a long time, if at all. And this is just not fair.

As a consultant have you been asked to work for free? I’d love to hear from you.