Should you expect free advice from your consultant?

Many people will ask for free advice from their accountant, lawyer, tax adviser, pension consultant, IT contractor or whatever. And many of these same people will then take offence if that consultant refuses to give for free something for which others pay. This is not the fault of the consultant or a reflection of their greed. It is more the fault of the person asking the question, or the client, who indicates a lack of appreciation of the skills or expertise possessed by the consultant and which may have taken them many years of study, hard work and advancement in their field to acquire.

If you are looking to engage the services of a consultant, then it is usually because they have a set of skills or expertise that you lack. Are you going to hire somebody unqualified who has little or no experience in their field, has no appropriate qualifications, or do not know your sector or industry? Almost certainly not. You will instead opt for somebody who can convince you that they have the necessary qualifications and experience, has a proven track record and relevant industry or sector experience. Or are you going to hire the cheapest option available, somebody who stands out because their rates so much lower than anybody else’s? If so, good luck with that! There is almost certainly a very good reason why they are so much cheaper than the alternative. Most likely it is a reflection of a consultant who cannot compete in terms of knowledge or expertise, so chooses price instead. Remember the old adage – buy cheap, buy twice.

Free advice and solutions are widely available in books, and on the internet, through online articles, blogs, vlogs etc. However, much of that advice is general and not tailored to your particular circumstances or business challenges. Also the providers of that advice are supplying it to everybody; there is no duty of care to individuals when they publish it. That means that whilst their advice can have general application, there may be specific factors which may apply to you which may either be ignored or given insufficient weight in their arguments.

Providers of free advice may be untrustworthy. Just as we have become used to the phenomenon of “fake” news, there is a lot of false and misleading information online. The authors of much of the free advice have no need to establish their credibility – after all, how can you be held to account when you provide something for free?

Furthermore, there is advice available on line covering almost everything – from beauty tips to recipes, from resolving computer bugs to researching your family tree. But, when it comes to complex plumbing or electrical problems, or trying to get your car to start, all the free advice in the world is not going to help most of us get the issue fixed. Unless we have the utmost faith in our own abilities, or are very misguided, we are still likely to turn to an expert plumber, electrician, or mechanic to fix the problem. The same should be true of a consultant.

There are some consultants who will give free advice as a “taster”, in order to entice you to work with them. That should not be regarded as the norm. Even in these circumstances, the advice that they are giving may still need to be tailored before it meets your needs.

A consultant’s expertise will have been amassed over many years, dealing with clients from different industries, sectors, countries, sizes and situations. Not only do they have knowledge; they know how to apply it, and tailor it to the needs of a particular client. That is knowledge for which you should expect to pay. After all, you don’t go to a doctor and expect them to examine you for free, or take your pet to the vet and expect them to treat it for nothing. A consultant is just the same. And, as with the doctor who specialises in one field or another, the more unusual or particular skills required, the more you should expect to pay for their services. For example, general advice as to how to incorporate a company or establish a business in a particular country will be provided for less money than more detailed and specialist knowledge as to how to operate there in a tax efficient manner or benefit from local government funding or investment grants. Similarly general marketing advice will be charged less than more niche specialisations such as digital, social media, content and email marketing, or web and data analytics.

As to what to expect to pay a consultant, our advice is to compare market rates and then decide which offers both the best value for money and the best fit for your business. Apart from avoiding those consultants whose fees are so low as to arouse suspicion, however, we also suggest you avoid the lure of big name firms unless you have deep pockets. For example, whilst having a “Big 4” accountancy firm audit your books may seem prestigious, they will likely charge two or three times as much as a local firm who will do just as good a job or better. After all, that Big 4 firm will charge more for an inexperienced accountant than the local firm for a manager or partner. Equally whilst there are some very well-known management consultancy firms out there, unless you can afford them or want the cachet of working with McKinsey, Bain or Accenture, we suggest choosing a local firm who will do the same work for considerably less money. In fact, arguably they will do a better job for you as they are likely to want your business more. That means they will be hungrier, more flexible in their approach and methodology, and can better tailor their work to your needs and circumstances.

Providing advice and applying knowledge is what the consulting profession is all about. That advice and knowledge is something for which you should expect to pay, as with any specialised expertise. After all, if you pay for somebody to fix your washing machine or cut your grass, why shouldn’t you expect to pay for somebody who is hired to help improve your business, or minimise your personal tax exposure.

There is a lot of free advice available – books, articles, blogs etc. – and by all means avail yourselves of as much of this as you want. However, remember that there is no means of knowing if this advice is valid or credible. And even if the advice is true, do you have the skills and confidence to apply it, without reference to an expert in the field? A paid consultant, by contrast, not only has a professional reputation to protect; they might also be subject to legal and other sanctions if they provide false information or bad advice.

So by all means collar your friend the accountant at the next dinner party and ask him for some tax advice, or email your brother-in-law lawyer about a tricky legal problem you face. Just don’t be surprised if they give you the brush-off or reply in general terms only. You may have asked them to give you for free what it has taken them years of study and work experience to master. Value them and their skills, and offer to pay for their time and knowledge.

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