Why I give out free advice to clients
There is always much discussion in the profession regarding the provision of free advice, and even more so on this site when every week we see complaints about ‘freeloaders’.
Firstly we need to define what we mean by both ‘free’ and ‘advice’.
One could argue that an existing fee paying client that is given advice outside of normal services is being given free advice, however, I am assuming for these purposes that by ‘free’ we are talking about a non existing client that requires advice.
Generally I would provide any required advice to fee paying clients for no extra charge, but I would have to qualify that by defining what we mean by advice.
In general practice, ‘advice’ is given on many different subjects and levels. This could range from ‘what software is best for me’, a question answered in two minutes, to ‘how can I save tax’, a question that would require a much more in-depth discussion.
There are situations where existing clients have asked for in-depth advice on a subject and that has been quoted for separately, but this is rare as it’s only when the task will take me a considerable amount of time and research to provide this advice.
But for these purposes, let’s assume we are talking about a non existing client that asks for ‘advice’ on whatever level that might be.
My general position on this is that I am happy to have a conversation for no charge and provide an opinion up to a point. With experience you should be able to determine where that point is, and you should be able to ascertain whether or not someone is a freeloader.
I have to say in my experience, the freeloaders are few and far between and easy to spot and cut short.
It might be useful to state some real world examples that I have certainly come across many times.
A little old lady walks in and says: “I have just sold my home and I am worried I might have to pay CGT”.
In a five minute conversation we should be able to ascertain whether or not there are CGT implications. It would be ludicrous to insist on a fee unless we ascertain that there is a reportable Capital Gain.
Mr Bricky calls and says: “My mate down the pub said I should be limited - at the moment I do my own tax”. This could go either way - a short conversation should establish the facts and an opinion could be given as to the viability of going limited through brief discussion of pros and cons. Again, it’s unrealistic to charge a fee for this but a fee could result if he wants to explore it further.
Miss Haircut walks in and says: “I am thinking of going self-employed but I’m not sure what to do regarding how much tax I will pay etc”. Firstly, the initial meeting is my chance to sell my services and show the individual that I know what I am doing and that we can work together. If I was to say that I can help with that but it will cost you, I don’t think I would gain many clients!
Mr DIY walks in and says: “I have my own company and do my own accounts, I just need some help with the CT600”. Apart from the fact that I would be unlikely to take this client on, I would also offer no free advice, as this is obviously a paid for service.
Education Ltd calls and says: “We have an accountant but we are looking for a second opinion on VAT treatment of our services”. Firstly, if they are unhappy with the existing advisor there is an obvious opportunity here. Secondly, the chances are the advisor is correct but it’s not what the client wants to hear. I am happy to talk to them for a few minutes, but there will come a point when I will have to quote a fee for an in-depth written opinion.
Personally, I never wanted to be the kind of accountant that charges for every single thing. I much prefer to have a fixed fee all inclusive approach, and that is the way I have operated for the last 20 years.
Clients are encouraged to call with any questions they may have and in my experience this open approach works very well. We often get referral business, and that usually will start with “a friend said I should speak to you”.
We have all worked very hard to become qualified - we all have a living to make and deserve to be paid for the work we do and the expertise we have. But when I do finally turn off my calculator for the last time, I would much rather be remembered as someone who was always ready to help rather than that accountant that always charged for every phone call.