How Free Is Your Free Consultation?
 

How Free Is Your Free Consultation?

Many client relationships start with a consultation of some sort, as you both get to know each other and you gather information to better understand their situation and their tax needs. It’s a very useful meeting on both sides, but it may leave some tax professionals wondering whether they can charge for it.

About nine out of 10 practices offer a free initial consultation, according to a recent fee survey by the National Society of Accountants. But if you do charge, when should you apply that fee to tax prep work if the prospect becomes a good client?

“I don’t charge for an initial consultation – yet,” said Enrolled Agent Tom Figgatt of Figgatt Tax Services, Ridgefield, Conn. “First 30 minutes are free. It allows me to decline the client if I’m uncomfortable.”

Experience seems one solid teacher of whether to charge for a consultation and whether to apply that fee to subsequent tax prep work. EA Pamela Burda of Burda Books in Peninsula, Ohio, “rarely” charges. “My plan is to greet them with no charge to answer their initial questions. The clock starts after an hour,” she said. “It’s worked for over 20 years. On the rare occasion I charged an initial fee, the business didn’t pan out.”

Overkill’

Whether to charge sometimes depends on what happens after the meeting. “We don’t charge a fee for an initial consultation unless we’re actually doing something, like providing tax-planning advice,” said David Leidel, an EA in Sebring, Fla. “If the consultation is to meet us and find out what we need, we try to close that engagement at the meeting. Our process keeps us from meeting with too many [potential clients] who are just kicking tires.”

“Applying initial consultation fees to tax prep certainly helps clients come back for tax prep, but sometimes you may not want them back,” said California-based EA Crystal Stranger, author of The Small Business Tax Guide. “There often are clients that I’m interviewing as much as they’re interviewing me. I’m not sure if I want to commit to doing their work by giving them a credit.”

Mario Costanz, CEO of Happy Tax Franchising, believes a charge for an initial consultation should be applied to the tax prep fee “if the consultation was light. Most times a new client will just want to get to know you and ask a question or two prior to hiring you. In those cases, charging for a consultation is overkill. Where a client wants to do tax planning and go into detailed specifics on their tax situation, a consultation fee might be warranted. So long as it is discussed up front with the client, it can be handled either way.”  Read more on Accounting Today.