Over the years, there have been many instances in which I’ve had multiple meetings with potential clients about their social media presence. After investing many hours in outlining potential strategies in the hopes of landing their business, many prospects have instead taken these suggestions for their own internal use rather than hiring me.

It’s tough because I want to help people see the value of social media. But as a two person business, we can’t afford to be giving away so much time without compensation. So, a few months ago, I made the difficult decision to charge for consultations. I charge a nominal fee, which is credited back to the company if they decide to work with us beyond those first few meetings. I know full well that this will cost me a few opportunities because people will balk at the cost, but it’s the best way to protect our time.

Granted, there will be time spent in the marketing and sales process. With every inbound lead, we ask prospects complete a short intake form so we can get an idea of their marketing goals and challenges followed by a 30 minute call to clarify points and to ask/answer questions. We often end up passing a few emails back forth before we generate a proposal for our services.

The toughest part is that the opportunities to work with bigger companies often involve meetings with multiple levels of management. Each time, I need to not only sell the idea of using social media but also sell the value of hiring me. There have been several scenarios where these multiple meetings have led to a dead end. Charging a consultation fee has been a way to protect the value our time.

Some may think that’s a death sentence for a business, but it’s proved to be an invaluable part of streamlining our sales cycle. And here’s why:

ROI is not as simple as ABC. I find that many people simply don’t know enough about social media to know whether it is something they want to invest in. There is an education process involved in understanding the ‘why’ of social media. We often refer people to blogs, products, or information that covers some of the social media basics, but most people want to cut right to the chase and know what it can ‘do’ for them. This necessitates some in-depth research, an understanding of their target market, and a level of expertise before we can begin to formulate a plan of what it may ‘do’ for them. That takes time that I believe we should be compensated for.

Time and expertise are relevant. Willingness to pay for an initial consult is a strong indicator of the willingness of a company to work with us. Are they serious about integrating social media into their marketing plan or are they just fishing for information? An introductory meeting can take an hour (or two) plus travel while we answer of myriad of social media questions. If we are lucky enough to meet with the decision maker (usually it’s a marketing person or staff champion for social media), we often field an exhausting stream of questions while we try to ‘turn’ a naysayer into a believer. I’m always up for the challenge, but only for a company that respects our time – even if they don’t yet understand the value of social media. If we can start off with a mutual respect for each other – including their payment for our time – I find they tend to take social media more seriously than those would rather not pay.

Fairness to our paying clients. For those who already pay for our services, it’s unfair to them that we spend countless hours with prospective business. Our clients already see the value of what we offer and our first priority is to them. This approach has allowed us to maintain a strong overall retention rate. We still focus on growing our business, but in a way that won’t take away from the services we provide for our current clients.

Do I miss out on opportunities because of this policy? Yes. But that’s a risk I am willing to take. While social media professionals are champions for social media and work to endlessly educate our audience, that doesn’t mean we have to give away our time.