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As a business professional/entrepreneur how much time and resources should be invested in giving free consultation to clients.

This is the question often faced by business owners. Being an entrepreneur, I know the gravity of such situations when you have been asked for free service/consultation. My take on how to tackle such situations.
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This is the question often asked to me. I am sure others have faced similar confusion with their business as well. For a business owner or services provider, time is a very pressing concern in executing tasks.

Gaining clients on board is crucial for small businesses. To gain clients, one can offer many things like offering a discount in cost, promising support after delivery, delivering the task for a shorter span of time. However, these are the tools used by the sales team to pitch the client and are part of standard business development activities. There are scenarios when a client is simply not sure and ask for our assistance in their decision. The client wants our technical assistance to let them decide if they want to further pursue it or not. And most f the time it is asked for free. There arises a confusion as to what amount of time and resources should be invested in giving free consultation to the client and when is the time to say NO.

In current scenarios, businesses are neck-deep competitive, and bagging the client/customer was never so tough. For small businesses, clients/customers know this and may ask for some advice and some free work which may take significant efforts from the services provider. The amount of time invested and the approach used can be different for service providers from a different domain. For the software industry, it can be preparing SOA documents and preparing architecture to convince the client. For design industry in can be preparing and sharing some design templates to clients to convince them.

However, it is completely different for IP/legal industry. In this industry, we do not convince the client or sell our pitch but guide the client through our consultation and technical assistance. A patent or patent application can be complex enough to be understood by an inventor or engineer. Often, the inventor/engineer has no clue how he shall proceed, and here comes our free technical assistance. The client is advised on various parameters like which jurisdiction to file, best strategy, what to cover and not cover in the patent, drafting strategy, etc. Advising clients on such things demands subject matter knowledge and technical skills. Sometimes, legal skills are also required. In the IP industry, it is a norm to provide free consultation and guidance to clients up to an extent and I make no exception to this.

My simple rule is to set a time limit of my work hour for such tasks. I always know that my consultation would take what amount of time and if it appears that the task is going to fetch more working hours from me, I simply say no for free service. Saying No is inevitable sometimes and you have to follow the hard path. For example, we often receive requests from clients to advise them on Office action reports for their patent application. Clients often want to know if the FER or ISR is positive and should they further proceed with responding to actions. In such cases I often ask for a small fixed amount to give my consultation as analyzing FER is a tedious task and takes significant amount of time.

There shall always be a line beyond which you should not go providing freebies. Of course, this is not the case with recurring clients.