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client always asking for "free" advice

...and I've always given it to him



11:18 am on Sep 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member


I have been doing freelance-work for a couple of months now, and already have returning clients. One client keeps giving me new, small projects to work on, none of them pay enough in my opinion (project-to-project pay), but I can't afford not to accept them at this time.

My problem is with this client - he is often asking me for advice on how to handle certain things. He asks me for my opinion, suggestion and advice. Up until now I have given it to him, only because I know of no decent way of saying "hey - I am not getting paid for this".

Yesterday I spent a good, valuable, 45 minutes answering e-mails, telling him what I thought about a project. This morning, what do I have in my inbox? Another e-mail with tons of questions regarding header templates for his websites.

Although tempted to answer this e-mail, I thought "enough is enough". I should not have to answer these emails, wasting time that I could be spending actually making money. But I am afraid if I do not answer these e-mails I will lose the client, which again, I cannot afford to do.

So what do I do? Should I just be honest with him and say that it is taking too much time answering his e-mails when I am not being paid for it?

Of course, I could ask for hourly pay, but I do not believe he has the budget to fund that.

Advice is needed and would be very much appreciated!

Tine - Unit4


1:24 pm on Sep 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Welcome to WebmasterWorld, Unit4.

Common problem, simple answer - but you are probably not going to like it...


Your advice is valuable advice for your client which is given with regard to your experience and skills, in which case he should be willing to pay you for it.


Your advice is not particularly helpful and your experience and skills are not giving anything of value, in which case he should not have to pay for it (and should not be particularly bothered about not receiving it).

At the moment, it appears as though your client is receiving worthwhile advice for free.

Don't give yourself too cheap. They don't respect you in the morning.


1:49 pm on Sep 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member


Thanks for the welcome, thanks for taking the time to reply.

I agree with you, but I suppose my problem here is that I already set a standard for how I conduct business with this client, and changing it now might be concidered bad business.

I feel I have established an honest business relationship with him, so he knows I will tell him the way it is. This could probably benefit me in this matter.

Could I for instance, starting with the next project he assigns me, if he asks for advice then, tell him that I can only continue giving him advice if he can pay for it (maybe not in those exact words..)?

All this is very frustrating, but if anything, I'll most certainly take this as a learning experience.


1:57 pm on Sep 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

It should be a separate line item on your invoices to clients called "consulting fees" and charged at a fair hourly rate.

Make it clear in your contract (or an addendum to an existing contract) that you have consulting fees for answering questions, emails, giving general advice, etc., etc.

Marketing Guy

1:57 pm on Sep 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Just say you have revised your support structure to better manage your increasing workload and it might take a while for you to reply to any questions not directly related to the project.

There's no reason you should be dropping everything to respond to him, but that said, there is value in giving a loyal customer that extra mile of customer service. At the end of the day though, you are running a business and need to draw the line somewhere.



3:45 pm on Sep 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

As an alternative why not cost in some support in the next project.

It won't help you get money for the stuff you have already done but if, for example, you costed in 5 hours of support on the project it would go someway towards future projects.


4:33 pm on Sep 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Wow, thanks for all the great suggestions and advice! Really helpful :)

I will definitely include consulting fees future projects.

Thanks again!


12:12 pm on Sep 15, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

My opinion is to just tell him that you are spending a great deal of time on his projects and that you will in future need to charge him, as you are a business. He should understand.
In my line of work "quantity surveyor", we are liable to be sued for ANY advice we give, whether it be free or to a friend down the pub. For that reason I/we do not give any advice at all withoutout there being a fee agreement in place, which then means we are covered by our insurance. Could use that reason.?


10:30 pm on Sep 16, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Definately include a specified support amount in your contracts.. When we did a lot of custom software they all came with 5 hours of 'technical support' after delivery and then clearly stated what the rate for phone and on site support would be after that..

Not one ever blinked at it.. Also, be sure to send invoices for the "5 hours" and say something like, included support time.. 3 hours left..



6:34 am on Sep 17, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

This post is a few days old and what not, but the experience is one I've had to learn to deal with as well and just thought I'd add my two cents...

It really only comes down to two responses with each custom fit for the two base types of clients...

1. Kindly explain while you enjoy being of such great help, you have to make a living and keep the lights on. You want to try to provide them with an outlook on the circumstances they can personally relate to. For example perhaps compare it to the idea of if they were visiting a doctor, lawyer, mechanic etc...

Where as the initial consultation might be free, but it ends there as you have other things you could be doing justified by paid time.

This way is for the more clear and logically thinking client. A halfway intelligent person will pick up on this and there will be no further problems.

2. Flat out tell them you don't have time to hold their hand through the process. If they want free advice, help, resources etc, thats what the internet is for. Heck, refer them here even...

This ones reserved for the "cat lady" type clients whom just incessantly want more for less and cant comprehend the idea valued time & skills... If they are truly this type of client, seriously for your own good you should just say screw'em while you have a chance. Because they can end up costing you more than you'll ever make off of them by leaps and bounds...

Anyhow I felt like venting about 'those people' too so theres my two cents. Take care and cheers!


11:32 am on Sep 17, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I'd tell him we have had to upgrade our pricing structure, and as a result do not have the luxury of providing free on the side support for technical questions. Then mention the great new deal being made on your consultation packages.

Bottom line is that unless very naive, he knows he is pushing it.

Fortune Hunter

3:13 pm on Sep 17, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

One time I had some questions on how to set up a business entity and I emailed my attorney. The messages went back and forth several times. At the end of the month I received a bill for 30 minutes of time with the description "Email correspondence on corporate entities".

It was charged at his normal hourly rate. I was a little surprised at first, but as I started thinking about it I decided it was fair and right. He only has so many hours to sell in a day and when those hours are gone he has nothing left to sell. All of us are no different no matter if we are designing sites or answering questions we only have so many hours in a day to "sell" to a client. Therefore given the finite nature of those hours I would be billing for every one of them.

It doesn't matter if the advice you are giving is over the phone, email or snail mail. It takes time and you (we) should all get paid for it.

Fortune Hunter


9:17 pm on Sep 19, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

For THIS particular client, you can use a combination of
1) "grandfather leniency" (if that's what you call it in English. What I mean is: The new rules will not be enacted immediately)
2) "You're my friend special price"

Next time you receive an e-mail asking for advice, say something like "Dear John, since my accountant and me went through the number of hours I work and the number of hours I actually send out an invoice for, we both decided I should keep a record of time spend and send corresponding invoices. Since you and I have been working on some projects together already, I am responding to your e-mail now anyway, but will need to charge from the next time you ask for advice. My normal hourly rate is #*$!, but I'm happy to give you a y% discount during periods we have a project going anyway.

Then afterwards you can:
* Sign a contract for x hours of consultancy per month
* Agree that you will only have to aks his approval of the time you will require, if such will surpass the amount of US$ per advice requested.


6:29 am on Sep 20, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Next time a project comes in from this particular client simply send a proposal outlining everything you will be doing with your fees (and include additional support costs which can reflect on the "free advice" you have been doling out..)

You can include things like support email or phone call costs..and you need to figure out what type of fee would work for you ...

It is hard to modify a relationship once patterns set in ... but it is critical that you break this pattern or you will end up losing money in the long run as your business grows...


5:47 pm on Sep 20, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I think you can transform the free advice into your business and convert it into opportunity if you take it in a positive way adopting few techniques.


5:52 pm on Sep 20, 2005 (gmt 0)

This is a tough question indeed, because as you've said you've already established the bases of the relationship. While changing them is not bad business, it does usually have the tendency to make those customers back peddle and not buy into your new billing system.

The best way to avoid this is to set very clear guidelines from the very start. We've had to do this for our webdesign company as customers always want the lowest possible price for a particular job and that is usually the bare bare minimum that can make it worthwhile for us to do the job. If that bare minimum customer then does not come through on his end of the bargain by not providing the content at appointed times, we lost money. The customer would then come to us when his content was ready and expected to have it implemented right away. We protect ourselves from this by making it part of the agreement that for us to follow our timeline, the customer must follow theirs, otherwise there will be a specific delay period.

As for billing, we encourage our customers to take a bulk consulting or support hours block at purchase in exchange for a rebate on this. They may or may not buy into it, but at least they know what to expect when they need advice or tech support that is beyond our basic mandate and you don't have to feel bad telling them uh, well uhm you're gonna have to pay for that...


2:15 am on Sep 22, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

This thread reminded me of an article I read a while back. Just to play devil's advocate, here's a quote from Nine New Customer Rules: If you want to play, you'd better know the score.

No. 5: Customers expect your advice and assistance in running their businesses. Your customers are as lean and harried and overwhelmed as you are. Which means that any help you give -- whether by providing inventory management or marketing research assistance -- will separate you from your competition. Customers likely won't pay you for your consulting expertise, but they'll increasingly choose you (or other partners) on the basis of nonproduct value.


2:27 pm on Sep 22, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

My experience has been exactly the opposite.. Your clients will value your time based on what they pay you.. If you give it away they will treat you 'cheap'.. I lost a huge client 4 or 5 years ago because I gave them too much for free.. When they went to 'upgrade' they went with a larger firm that charged them nearly double what I quoted them.. Their reason was that they wanted to step up to a more 'business oriented' provider..

This was after their business increased some 700% with the software we wrote for them.. Come to think of it, I really didn't mind loosing them either, too many calls at midnight with 'issues'..


5:36 am on Oct 1, 2005 (gmt 0)

I often find a good way to combat this is to build some of the support costs into your pricing structure. If you factor less billable hours, but increase your hourly rate, it all works out in the end. As long as your customers aren't taking advantage of your time (as many have plenty to do anyway), they'll be thankful that you're going the extra mile to help them out, when they're paying for the support anyway. If you include the price in your quote, and explain your dedication to helping them out with whatever they need, they'll be more than happy with your service and you don't need to lose money. Typically, if a customer is using a LOT of your time, they'll be fine with a consulting fee, especially if they don't do that much business with you in comparison to the amount of time you spend helping them out.


5:43 am on Oct 1, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Unfortunately, you have trained him that your time is not valuable. Untraining him is difficult, but possible. Obviously, he is intelligent, or you wouldn't be working with him. He knows that you get paid for your expertise, and you should be paid. So, my advice here is to meet with him (hopefully face-to-face) and tell him that you have spent time with him to get him up to speed on projects and have comp'd him your fees. However, the time has come where the "foundation" has already been completed and additional consulting will be on a paid basis. Either charge him your normal rate or negociate terms that are acceptable for both of you.

You mention that he doesn't have the budget to pay you. I have been in this business for a long time, and unless you have access to his bank account, I am fairly certain he has the funds to pay you. Those who complain the most, often, have the most money to spend, they just don't want to.




3:19 am on Oct 2, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

My experience has been exactly the opposite.. Your clients will value your time based on what they pay you.

I'm sure it has been. I'm just pointing out a general business trend and offering another perspective.

As products and services become commoditized (like web development has) and customers are realizing that they can substitute one product/service for the another and be perfectly satisfied, they are putting a premium on advice and help.

Clients don't really value your time. They may respect it, and not expect you to work for free. But what they truly value is the results that you produce for them.


3:40 am on Oct 2, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

You've overlooked the simplest answer. Hire a company oversees to deal with your tech support or go to the nearest prison/jail and ask the warden if any inmates are looking to make 10 cents an hour. No different than all the big companies do. Then he can have all the free tech support he wants.

If that fails, send him to webmasterworld (or some other forum with advice on whatever topic he is pestering you about). Thats what I do now when people ask me for website advice. If they really want advice and answers, let them do the footwork to go get it. Let them find out how hard it is to find information. Then he will come back offering you money for your quick and easy advice. Try it, I guarantee it will work.


9:02 am on Oct 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I had something similar happen where an organization I had worked with previously on a web site decided to get a content mgmt system set up by me to manage their site, in an effort to save on paying someone to do updates. So I quoted them for the system installation and tweaking, got 1/2 up front, installed the system, gave a printed-out manual to them and offered an hour of free training to the 2 key people in charge of it (which one of them did not attend), and got the balance of the job payment.

Then the key person in charge of updates went on vacation this week, leaving an e-mail message to me and a few of her colleagues saying, "I'm out of town from Monday until Thursday, so please send all your updates to Bobbi (<-- me) while I am gone, for her to post to the site."

Without. Even. Asking. Me. All the while, I'm on a deadline for a client who's paying me way more than these people ever did.

Wouldn't you know, I got about 8 e-mails while she was out asking for "this" and "that" to be posted and then "Oh yeah, this too". But since these people had no idea of how this was not fair to me and their requests were nice, saying please and thank you and stuff, I happily made the update requests I got AFTER I was done with my own work for the day, even though I still had that deadline.

When the key person got back into town today she sent an email to all of us to inform that it was okay to start sending her update requests again. I fwd-ed a couple to her which had come through earlier today, and then on the last one I sent through, I tacked on the following:

"Are you pretty set with the site manager? Do you feel comfortable with it, and showing others to use it? Is there anyone else in your organization who could handle updates when you are out? The reason I ask is, Ms. Soandso agreed for me to set up the site manager was so that Organization X could cut the expenses of paying a designer to do updates (I have a $50/month maintenance plan).

Not to sound like I don't care...I do! But to be fair, I simply cannot afford to continue to assist with the site without some compensation, nor could any designer. Thanks, MyName"

Note, I pointed out the $50/month maintenance plan. My intent for the above is to let this person person know they cannot ask for free work because I provide a paid service, leaving them no choice but to take the maintenence plan or leave it. I'd do it either way because frankly $50/month is good money for a few quick updates a month. But those quick updates DO cut into my time. So if they don't like it, they will train everyone on the cms software and not bother me anymore (the cms is like so idiot-proof because it's very simple).

Perhaps those of us who feel they do too much 'free' stuff for people could benefit from (gently) pointing out a plan like this...I know if it's advice you are giving out then it's different, but HECK...I'd take all your fabulous advice, write it all up into articles and charge people $5-20/year (depending on their value and how much content there is put out regularly) to have access to them via your website.

Just my $.02!


3:22 pm on Oct 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Here's what I used to do in a non-web line of work:

1. Put out items of general interest to your clients, like client bulletins, for free. That's marketing.

2. If someone has some questions what is generally available, then a free fifteen minute consultation is appropriate. That's networking/client relationship management. At this stage I provide only guidance that points someone in the right direction. Get them thinking about the questions that need to answered. I also ask the questions that will help me gauge the expense of the project to get to step 3.

3. If there are lingering questions or the client needs something specific written or tested, the client needs to hire me for a project. This is because I need to justify budgeting my time between non-paying and paying work.

Usually the step from 2 to 3 is tricky, but it can be sold as this will take some effort to do right. I will have to do something specific for you. I may have to test and/or implement it. It puts me at risk to do this and/or the client want some warranty.

When suggesting the step from 2 to 3, you will need to have a framework for the project and an estimate on cost.

You haven't made clear why you cannot afford to lose this client, a non-paying client that doesn't have a budget.

Can't you say to the client, those are important questions that will require serious consideration and detailed answers and by me and the work would need to be specific to your situation.

This is exactly the type of work I'd like to help you with. In order to give your questions the answers they deserve, it makes sense to turn this into a project we can work on. Since we have worked together in the past, I'm sure we can work something out that stays within your budget for these smaller projects.


11:27 am on Oct 15, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

One thing is certain-if you allow a client to continue to get free advice, he will never have an incentive to pay for it. Of course there is the potential of losing him as a client, but my past experience dealing with clients has told me that if a client relationship is tainted by unrealistic expectations (as in lots of info for free, etc.), it's very difficult to "fix" the relationship-instead it's often a better idea to find a replacement client and phase the old one out. Long and short, if something was free yesterday, you want it to be free today-nevermind that it never should have been free in the first place, once you have something, it's a "right" not a privilege anymore-human nature, not fair, not right, but real.

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