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man pleading with woman

Nothing in life is free, including tax advice


If dealing with the needs of clients was hard enough, fielding calls from those looking for free tax advice can be a nightmare for hard-pressed practitioners.

11th Sep 2023
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As the old adage goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. And while it can be nice to help those in need without requiring a fee, accountants are increasingly finding callers pushing their luck when it comes to accessing advice.

In a recent Any Answers post, user Alistair K had found themselves in just such a position, noting that they were dealing with an escalating number of callers who are not clients looking for tax advice that would normally incur a fee. 

“You just know that no business is going to come from these,” Alistair said, adding they felt stuck dealing with these dead-end requests.

“I am caught between not bothering to respond to these inquiries, which does not give a good impression of the practice and maybe passing over the chance of a new client.”

Shutting them down

Receiving a raft of replies from their fellow Any Answers users, one theme that arose from the community was the importance of “separating the wheat from the chaff” when it came to picking out potential clients.

“I just say I’m at capacity at the moment and not looking to take new clients on,” user Leywood wrote, while ianthetaxman noted that although he was “happy to give a degree of free time” there were limits to their charity.

“After all, this is what we sell, and you wouldn't expect the (insert your favourite trade - butchers for me) to give you a free (insert your desired item/service - dozen sausages) from a call or email,” they continued.

AccountingWEB regular Mark Lee took a similar approach in his comment, adding “I studied long and hard to become an accountant and my time and advice are worth paying for.”

Other users went a step further, reminding their fellow accountants of the dangers of offering free advice to clients not on the books. 

"Why even consider offering free consultations, particularly given you might end up being sued for the "advice" provided,” listerramjet wrote.

Push for the onboard 

While there was widespread agreement on not offering specific or detailed advice for free, others saw the cold callers as potential clients if they played their cards right.

“Help them out if it’s not going to take long. It can lead to referrals and reviews and certainly builds your reputation as a professional worth contacting,” wrote user Barry Adams.

Kaylee100, while not giving advice on the phone, would use the opportunity to schedule a free hour with a potential client.

“I discussed their background, income and business and did the appropriate checks and talked around their problems and risks and offered a quote for formal advice.”

However, it seemed that most users gravitated towards AccountingWEB user mumpin’s comment, looking towards a different industry for inspiration. 

“I used the services of a Motorbike Garage in Brentford some 30 years ago. They had a handwritten sign on the door saying: ‘The bloke who lends out his tools has gone on holiday and has taken the bloke who does little jobs with him’”.

What are your thoughts on the 'free advice' debate? Do you have a cut-off point, a standard 'polite refusal' or just don't engage? Let us know in the comments section below.

Replies (16)

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By More unearned luck
11th Sep 2023 13:02

"What are your thoughts on the 'free advice' debate? Do you have a cut-off point, a standard 'polite refusal' or just don't engage? Let us know in the comments section below."

Um, many members have already expressed their view in the answers to Alistair's post. Wouldn't it make more sense for any further comments to be added to that post thereby ensuring all comments are in one place?

More generally, a member asks a question (eg Justin posting about one of his interesting cases) and then a few days later Aweb write about the issue or case, thus ensuring that the discussion is in two places. Can something be done about this problem (eg linking the article and question in both directions).

I can see that these articles can produce a useful digest of the original thread.

Thanks (1)
Replying to More unearned luck:
By Mark Garrett T and A
12th Sep 2023 09:56

I'm in the @Kaylee100 camp. 30 minutes free, no obligation discussion by phone, email or face to face. They get generic advice on what matters are relevant to their query and no specific detailed advice unless they agree to become clients and pay for it.

Thanks (0)
Replying to More unearned luck:
By dwgw
12th Sep 2023 10:02

Some of us dip in and out of aweb and don't see every q&a (as with this one - I've only found this discussion in this article).
What's the problem? If you read the original discussion just skip the summarising article.

Thanks (3)
By JB101
11th Sep 2023 14:29

The only time I had a "client" refer me to the ACCA was when some "free advice" didn't work. After several months of very stressfult times and long, sleepless nights, the ACCA told me off for not issuing an engagement letter and closed down their enquiry.

Thanks (3)
Mark Lee headshot 2023
By Mark Lee
11th Sep 2023 16:24

Thanks for quoting me in your piece Will. I can add a couple of further thoughts:

First my full reply to Alastair K: Best approach - as indicated in earlier comments - is to interject when the caller stops for breath and say something like: Thanks so much for calling but I always prioritise my paying clients. I'd be happy to help you if you become a client. Is that likely or are you after free advice? I'm sorry but I studied long and hard to become an accountant and my time and advice are worth paying for.

1 - Lots of accountants' websites encourage visitors who want free advice to get in touch. Those visitors don't all understand the subtle distinctions between a free meeting, free consultation and the free advice they seek. Too many callers expecting free advice could warrant a review of how you promote your practice online. What messages do those callers see and misunderstand?

2 - When I established the Tax Advice Network in 2007 I included a PAYG helpline facility - which we outsourced. The idea was that callers wanting quick and simple bits of advice would pay £30 and we could keep in touch to provide further, more profitable, advice in due course. In practice only a tiny proportion ever came back with anything meatier. I decided it was better to focus our marketing on attracting only 'tax advice worth paying for'. And that's what we still do to this day.

Thanks (3)
By Tom 7000
12th Sep 2023 09:55

They are all sales calls, close them.

Thanks (1)
Replying to Tom 7000:
By Postingcomments
12th Sep 2023 21:25

A sale is made on every call. Either you sell the client some services, or he sells you a reason why he can't buy any. Either way a sale is made, the only question is: Who is gonna close?

Thanks (0)
By indomitable
12th Sep 2023 13:55

I think if you have been in practice long enough it get's easier to figure out the ones that will become clients and the ones that won't.

Usually the ones that start with I need someone to do my tax returns and need advice on 'so' and 'so' are usually good prospects

The ones that start with a question about tax usually aren't. So today had an enquiry with someone that wanted advice on and understand split-year treatment, at which point I explained we only provide advice to clients of ours. Happy to take you on as a client and we have a minimum fee of £750 plus VAT for any tax advice. Would you like us to quote?

Thanks (2)
By Pam Moreland
12th Sep 2023 14:54

I think you have to be careful. I work for a very small local practice and am always wary as to the effect on our local reputation. I take the calls and give some generic information but if it looks as though a 'proper' service is required I make a formal appointment, request money laundering ID and give some idea of what my time will cost. That usually keep time wasters away and I have had new fee paying clients come on the basis of a friendly telephone call to one of their friends, neighbours or work colleagues. You never know.

Thanks (0)
paddle steamer
12th Sep 2023 16:05

The best things in life are free
But you can keep 'em for the birds and bees

Now, give me money (That's what I want)
That's what I want (That's what I want)
That's what I want, yeah (That's what I want)
That's what I want

Thanks (1)
Replying to DJKL:
By Geoff56
13th Sep 2023 09:39

But remember:
"Money can't buy me love."

(Authored by the same duo.)

Thanks (0)
By JS23
12th Sep 2023 17:17

We only give general advice for free, when the client wants more specific, we ask them to agree a fee for the services. If they are serious, they come on board, else we have already weeded out free loaders!

Thanks (0)
12th Sep 2023 17:26

Be polite and just say my Prof. Insurance does not allow me to give free gratis advice. Simples.

Thanks (1)
By Mr J Andrews
12th Sep 2023 19:12

In a nutshell - use Common Sense.
What's the basic rate of tax ? I'm OK with giving free advice.
How do I go about { eg } a Negligible Value Claim ? Let's sit down and talk.

Thanks (0)
By Ian McTernan CTA
13th Sep 2023 19:08

When I used to write the occasional book or spend time answering a lot of 'Any Answers' I found a lot of freeloaders would result from this activity, and very few serious enquiries.

The worst case I ever had was an email that was 1.5 pages long asking for detailed advice which they expected me to answer 'so they could consider whether to become a client'. My response was to provide a very large quote and if they accepted 'I would consider whether I would allow them to become a client':-) Needless to say, never heard back.

On the other hand I will spend time with referrals from existing clients - I spent almost 40 minutes on the phone the other day talking someone through what they needed to do and telling him why he didn't need me (and my charges!) at present: we agreed he'd get back to me in six months (or earlier if the business starts generating decent money) and in the meantime if he runs into any problems, drop me a quick mail.

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By ShakingMyHead
12th Oct 2023 08:05

We used to get this... I would ask the Office Manager to write down EXACTLY what they were asking about as I didn't understand what they wanted. They were fishing for information. A few ways we deal with it:
1. Please send us a list of questions - we charge X and can look into them for you
2. Yes, we can answer that / we can do that - our charges are X
3. Yes, you can look at the HMRC website and phone them for free advice (to which they may reply that they've done that and no-one ever answers), so we found that by being available they were contacting us!
4. If it's about software - give them the software supplier number / email for support.
5. Add a FAQ page on your website, and answer the questions there.

If we know you, or have been referred we can give you more time and attention, but seriously, if we allowed ourselves to be drawn into 'have you got a few minutes' - a day a week could go by just listening to sales pitches or being drawn into questions / issues ... with absolutely no thanks.

One guy (spent maybe 45 mins) on the phone earlier this year. I was bored. I hadn't spoken to anyone all day and so I had a chat. I helped this guy. I saved him money. I sent an email link - it was an optional - 'if we've been of use to you today' buy me a coffee type link. Maybe £2 donation.... Never got a penny. So, nowadays, I'll let the odd one slip through (if I'm in the mood), because I do believe in being charitable and helpful... otherwise it's - yes, I can answer that. Our fees are X. Look forward to hearing from you. I don't have time for the free advice session. That's not paying my bills.

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