Are you charging potential clients for initial assessments? If not, your firm may be burning money—and missing out on the chance to filter the type of clients you work with (and the services you offer them).
There are a number of common (and reasonable) objections to charging for initial assessments. Will it put off potential clients? How do you charge for initial assessments if they’re different for each client? How do you remain competitive with other firms that offer free assessments?
These are valid concerns, but the cost of throwing money out the window—or worse: setting the expectation that your firm works for free—are potentially more damaging.
We’ve brought together some of the pros and cons of charging for initial assessments so you can decide what’s right for your firm.
Let’s start by looking at why charging for initial assessments might make sense.
The Cost of Doing Free Initial Assessments
A half-hour phone call (AKA a “discovery call”) with a potential client is only half an hour of your time, right? When compared to the hours you spend advising major clients and preparing their tax returns, that half an hour may seem like nothing.
But think of half an hour of your time as an investment. An investment without a return is a bad investment. So what’s the return on your half-hour assessment?
Let’s say that for every ten half-hour initial assessments you do, five results in new clients for your firm. (The other five either stop returning your calls, or maybe they turn out to be poor fits for your services.)
So, you’ve spent 5 hours to get five new clients. If your hourly rate is $80, that’s $80 per new client, and a total of $400 on assessments alone.
Keep in mind that this calculation doesn’t take into account any preparation you may have done for your phone calls or meetings, the time it takes to schedule the discovery call or any resources you’re paying for to prepare a thoughtful assessment. If you spent half an hour reviewing each individual’s books before chatting, that’s one hour of work per potential client. Each new client ends up costing you $160 in hours you don’t bill...that $400 just ballooned to $800!
That may seem like nothing for a big client, but not all clients are big, and not all discovery calls lead to new clients. On average, how much is each of those clients going to earn you next year? You can see how free half-hour meetings start becoming expensive.
The Downsides of Charging for Initial Assessments
On the flip side, even if it may mean losing money, there are some good reasons not to charge for initial assessments:
Your competitors don’t: If you’re competing with another firm for the same clients, and they offer free initial assessments, you could find yourself left in the dust.
It’s a difficult conversation: Some prospects may come to you expecting a free initial assessment. When you burst their bubble, you may find it hard to convince them that your assessment is worth the money.
Your partners may not agree: Maybe you have partners, and it’s difficult reaching a consensus on even minor decisions at your firm. In that case, the time it costs to get buy-in from your partners for paid initial assessments may not seem worth it.
You’re still building a portfolio of clients: If you’re just starting out, and you still don’t have enough clients to fill your schedule with billable hours, it might make sense to hold off on charging for initial assessments.
Beginning to charge for initial assessments could put you at risk of being outmaneuvered by the competition, resulting in awkward conversations, create internal disagreements, or slow down your portfolio growth.
For the money you stand to save by charging for assessments, facing those difficulties may not seem worth it. But charging for initial assessments doesn’t just put more cash in your pocket; it also helps you get more control over the types of clients you work with and sets you up to create a healthy, steady, and profitable firm.
Initial Assessments and “Filtering”
Whether or not you charge for it, an initial assessment is an opportunity to filter out leads who aren’t a good fit for your firm. Those potential clients may…
- … be too small to be worth your time
- … need other help (like catch-up bookkeeping) before they’re ready to come to you
- … be hard to coach (won’t follow advice, believe they always “know best”)
- … be stagnant or in decline, meaning there’s no opportunity for increasing future billings
- … need services beyond what your firm can offer
In all the above examples, the sooner you determine these clients aren’t right for you and move on, the better.
But there’s one “bad prospect” that we didn’t include above: those who aren’t serious about getting help.
Some clients come to you because they’ve been told they should—by a business partner, spouse, or colleague—but don’t really believe in the value an accountant offers. Others are just looking for free help; they plan to meet with you, get the advice they need, then try to take care of their accounting on their own.
In cases like these, the best way to filter clients who aren’t serious is by charging for initial assessments.
As soon as they find out they have to pay for your time, the rank amateurs and free-handout-seekers tend to head for the hills. That saves you time that would have been wasted—time you can charge a serious prospect for.
How To Charge For Initial Assessments At Your Firm
If you’ve decided charging for initial assessments is the right move for your firm, taking the first steps can be intimidating. The following guidelines make the process easier and help you avoid missteps along the way.
1. Set an attractive price
Price your initial assessment at a fraction of what you’d normally charge using your hourly rate. Yes, this means you’re potentially losing out on some earnings. However, it will make what you’re offering more appealing to clients who are testing the waters but still serious about working with an accountant.
2. Don’t call it an “initial assessment”
Branding matters, and it can sometimes impact the expectations of your prospects. Consider these alternatives to calling it an “initial assessment”:
- Introductory coaching session
- Accounting inspection
There are plenty of other creative options you can use (you can even get cutesy with it and call it a “mini accounting makeover”), but what you call it matters for two reasons: First, if your clients are shopping around at different firms, the fact that you charge for initial assessments and some competitors don’t could be off-putting. Calling it something else helps eliminate the comparison.
Second, a coaching session or workshop is more powerful than an assessment. It suggests a concrete outcome prospect can benefit from, rather than a formal process they go through before working with an accountant. That helps to sell the service and set appropriate expectations.
3. Standardize your initial assessments
Speaking of expectations, put down in writing what every prospect can expect from an initial assessment with you. What kind of actionable advice will they walk away with? Will they receive financial statements or other useful documents?
It’s important to know this now, both for planning out how you’ll spend your time with prospects and for justifying the expense to them.
4. Write a script
You don’t need to map out word-for-word dialogue, but having a rough script outlining your initial assessment calls or meetings will ensure you stay within a set time limit and cover all your bases. It also helps guarantee every prospect gets the same service from your firm, even if you have multiple accountants.
Break the script up into sections: an introduction, overview of the work done in the assessment, actionable items, explanation of any documents you’ve prepared, next steps, and so on.
5. Give them something they can walk away with
Once you’re finished with your initial assessment, your prospect should be able to use what they’ve been given elsewhere. You need to give them something portable.
That could be financial statements or a breakdown of different routes they could take with their deductibles. It doesn’t need to be elaborate or complicated. But if the prospect decides to try and do their own accounting or they opt to work with a different accountant, the info you provide in your assessment will still be useful.
This both helps justify the cost to prospects who are on the fence, and it has the potential to bring in new leads. If a prospect uses your deliverables to file their own taxes and tells a friend (maybe a fellow business owner), you could end up with a new client. Word of mouth marketing is the best way to get new business, after all!
6. Follow up
Just because you charge for an initial assessment doesn’t mean your prospects are off the hook. If they come to you for an assessment and you haven’t heard from them a week later, it’s time for a follow-up call.
Even if you’re earning revenue from assessments, they’re part of your marketing wheelhouse. The main purpose of an assessment is to bring in a new, qualified client. Once you have that prospect’s contact information—plus insight into the kinds of services they need—you should use it to your advantage.
Treat Your Initial Assessment as a Service—Because It Is One
Years of financial experience deciphering the current situation for a company is worth the price of admission. But should you charge for your initial call? That still depends on how you and your firm operates. We can’t prescribe you a golden ticket for firm success because every firm is different. But the information in this article hopefully helps you get a better idea of whether or not charging for an assessment is the right call.
What we can tell you with certainty is that no matter how you land new clients—through a paid assessment or one on the house—maintaining ongoing service for them is even more important.
How do you ensure consistent service for new clients while also getting everything else done and working toward your growth goals? The answer is automation, and plenty of firms are benefiting from it.
To learn more about how automation is helping firms save time and increase their productivity (and their bottom line), take a look at this case study that explains how one firm saved $20k in labor and got 26 hours back—just by leveraging accounting automation!
Click below to read the case study.