“Get your free crisis counseling! Step right this way!”

You'd think by now this battle-tested veteran of the crisis wars would be able to distinguish X14241308 between a real and fictitious lead and, in the process, avoid giving away free advice. But, clearly, some remote part of my brain still clings to the belief that prospects will do what they say and deliver on their promises. Alas, such is not always the case.

Two recent examples prove my point:

– A month or so ago, the CEO of a family-owned business was referred to me. His organization was in deep trouble. A rival faction on his board was threatening to wrest control away from the man, ending what had been nearly a century-old love affair between the company and the CEO’s family.  Listening to his plight on the phone (replete with sobbing, BTW), I went into action over a weekend. Joined by a few other Peppercommers, we dug deep into the issues, developed a strategy and submitted a plan and budget. Then… radio silence. Eventually, the CEO resurfaced to say he didn't have the funds to retain us. Case closed. Time spent helping this guy? Fifteen hours. Monies collected: none.

 - More recently, the head of a firm whose work was at the epicenter of a global firestorm on the blogosphere was referred to me. As I'd done in the previous case, I listened as the executive lamented about the damage done to date, the very real possibility that customers would bolt and the need to do the right thing ASAP. Not understanding the nuances of crisis communications, the executive asked me to hypothesize various scenarios and possible strategies. We ended a lengthy conversation by agreeing to  speak again the following morning with the organization's other top leaders and begin implementing a rapid crisis response. Once again, the silence was deafening. Time spent counseling: 1.5 hours. Monies collected:  none.

My wife suggested I stop trusting prospects to pay for my time before a contract is actually signed. Instead, she counseled I say nothing until the proverbial check is in hand. She's right, of course. She's also a lot less trusting than me (which can be a good thing).

So, the next time the circus barker cries out, 'Get your crisis counseling! Step right this way!' the adjective 'free' will be noticeably absent from the proclamation.

9 thoughts on ““Get your free crisis counseling! Step right this way!”

  1. We at the law firm usually will meet for an hour for free. If they want more than that, they pay for it. I like the mark-up arrangement too. Offer to listen for a set amount of time and then say you have some suggestions and would be happy to expound upon same once you have a signed retainer and check in hand. Once burned, ok, twice? I’m w/Angie on this one. Good post though Rep.

  2. Thanks Peter. We’ll actually be discussing this at Monday’s management meeting. One thought is to tell these crisis ‘prospects’ that we need them to sign an LOA and wire an advance payment before we even discuss their problem.

  3. Spot on, Ghost. There’s no doubt the crisis clients in question would move on to the next unsuspecting firm in search of free advice if I asked for a fee up front.

  4. Think about what lawyers do: They charge you an initial, hourly consultation fee just to hear your issues and then say, “I have some ideas on how to proceed.” But they don’t expound upon those ideas until there’s a financial agreement in place.
    The problem PR has is that its market place isn’t as defined as other industries, so inevitably you will be competing against other practitioners who will give away the store without any agreement, verbal, written or otherwise.

  5. Greg’s advice is the best I’ve seen yet on this matter. You know what it’s called in sales: qualifying your prospects. I know it works in other service businesses.
    I’d add that you should carefully parcel out your time and condition them to respect its value. Do not talk with these “potential clients” longer than 30 minutes initially.
    The serious ones will understand and respect that. The schnorers will continue being schnorers, but you won’t be sore about it.

  6. As I once told a prospective client who said,”Send me your thinking and if it is any good I’ll send you a check.”
    My response, “Send me a check and if it is any good I’ll send you my thinking.”

  7. Hopefully, you learned your lesson. While Angie offers a good suggestion, here’s one I would like to share. Next time a prospect comes to you asking for advice such as this, tell them your hourly rate and mark it up 20 percent with the stipulation that if they sign a retainer contract with you that this work would be credited towards that retainer. Otherwise, if they take your ideas and run with it on their own, you are still getting paid the
    hourly rate plus 20 percent. Verbally express that to the prospect and then send an abbreviated one page agreement outlining what is stated above. Then you’ll see quickly how many are real and weed out the phonies.