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Starting out as a freelancer is kind of like a first-job-out-of-college: You take what you can get. If someone asks to “pick your brain” over a cup of coffee, you’re half way out the door before they tell you when and where.

As your freelance business grows and you welcome more clients aboard, your time will become more and more of a hot commodity, which gives you the audacity to be pick and choose who you work with and at what rate — every freelancer’s dream.

After all, time is what freelancers really sell. The less time you have, the more it’s worth. When someone wants your time, even if it’s just to “pick your brain” over a cup of coffee, a four-dollar latte isn’t going to cut it.

If you haven’t already come to this realization as a freelancer, you’ll learn sooner or later that people will waste your time if you give them the opportunity to do so.

That’s why it’s imperative to charge prospective clients for an initial meeting, because it effectively puts the onus on them to show how serious they are about working with you. As Nancy Snell, CPC,PCC says: “I’m not in the convincing game; I’m in the collaborating game.”

But First, A Few Conditions

There are a few conditions that must be met before you can successfully start charging prospective clients for your time.

First, you must have clout, which is based on:

  • A history of driving proven results for multiple clients
  • An impressive client roster and attractive personal brand, and
  • Proactively marketing yourself in addition to word-of-mouth, so that you develop a consistent pipeline of prospective clients

Which brings me to the next condition: The prospective client must seek you out. That is, they need to make the first move, as I discuss in detail here:

The Playbook

Assuming you’ve met the conditions above, proceed accordingly:

  1. Feel them out via a free 15-minute phone call. Use this call to ensure the prospective client understands who you are, what services you provide (and don’t provide). Also, make sure they’re a client you want to work with, and inform them that you charge for initial meetings—if they want one.
  2. Set a fixed price for the initial meeting. Let’s call it $100, even if your hourly rate is significantly less. The idea is to avoid a situation in which you ask for $100 an hour, but the prospective client only wants to meet for 30 minutes, so they’re only willing to pay $50 for the meeting. Instead, tell the prospective client you charge $100 for an initial meeting, which can last up to one hour.
  3. Outline goals and objectives of the meeting. If you’re going to accept payment for an initial meeting, the prospective client will want to know they’re getting something out of it. Once they agree to pay you for the meeting, send them a prospectus of goals (what you’re going to accomplish) and objectives (how you’re going to accomplish them).
  4. Accept payment before the meeting. If you trust the prospective client to bring a check or cash to the meeting, go for it. However, if you’ve never met them, or if they weren’t referred to you by someone you both know, ask for full payment up front. Tell them to mail you a check at least a week before the meeting, or offer a bank transfer, PayPal, Square or another payment processor. Only until you receive payment, schedule the initial meeting.
  5. Apply the payment to your first contractual invoice. It’s important to ensure the client understands all bets aren’t off after the initial meeting. Assuming you both agree to work together, deduct the amount they paid for the initial meeting (e.g. $100) from your first invoice post-service agreement.
  6. Be prepared to lose the prospective client. Some people don’t like the idea of paying for an initial meeting, regardless of how much clout you bring to the table. By asking to get paid for an initial meeting, know that some of these prospective clients will inevitably walk away.

Exceptions to the Rule

There are times when it may be wiser to forfeit payment for an initial meeting.

For instance, you may be approached by a prospective client you really want to work with. In these cases, do a cost-benefit analysis. Is it worth potentially losing this client for a few bucks up front, or are you better off offering a free initial meeting in order to increase your chances of signing them to a service agreement?

Another instance in which you may want to forfeit payment for an initial meeting is when the prospective client is referred to you by a close friend, or from a close friend of one of your existing clients.

The idea is to use this approach case-by-case, but either way you slice it: Being in a position to charge prospective clients for an initial meeting is a great place to be.

Josh Hoffman runs Epic Freelancing, where he teaches people how to build a freelance life they love. Take his challenge: 6 Steps to 6-Figure Freelancing.