I’m getting calls from a lot of prospective clients. That’s good.

Less good is this — a growing number seem interested in heavily leveraging my least-profitable service: free advice.

Lately, I’ve heard from a surprising number of prospects expecting me to do all their marketing legwork for them — for nothing more than the price of a few words.

Three in the last six months requested written marketing plans — one even asking for a list of vendors, costs, brand messaging, project outlines, competitive research, blog theme, blog sample content, and more.

And they wanted them for free.

Another wanted art direction — layouts and graphics ideas for his site and landing pages — before he agreed to pay for a single word of copy.

No deal.

I’m not against offering marketing consulting. After all, I preach the concept of the value-added copywriter.

But you shouldn’t add all that value for free — whether for a client who wants more than they’re willing to pay, or one who isn’t really serious about the project in the first place.

How serious is that client who just contacted you? Are they really looking for a copywriter? Or are they just on a fishing expedition in the hopes of getting their questions answered for free?

Here are four “red flag” tests I’ve trotted out in the past — questions you can use to determine if a client’s a player or pretender.

Test #1: Ask them about their project budget. Chances are — if a prospective client is serious about a new Web site, or blog, or online marketing plan — they’ll have a budget. Few will lay the whole number out for you, but if they become unduly evasive or — worse — start tossing out unrealistically low numbers — you’re probably in trouble.

Test #2: Ask them if they’re talking to other copywriters or marketing agencies. If they’re “evaluating” more than a couple writers or marketing folks, ask if there’s a formal review process underway, and how vendors are being evaluated.

If it simply looks like they’re pumping a dozen people for information without a signed work order in sight, then proceed with caution.

Test #3: When is the project starting? A mushy, indeterminate answer doesn’t bode well. If they don’t value a project enough to schedule it, do they value it enough to really pay for it?

Test #4: Who are your partner vendors? This can be a huge wake-up call; a client who contacts you about a new Web site also needs a Web developer, designer, host, etc. If they’re not talking to those vendors, they may expect you to find vendors and manage site development for them. You can offer those services, but you should damn well never offer them for free.

Remember — every pitch involves a little back and forth, and throwing in some free advice is a marvelous way to demonstrate your value as a marketer.

But if someone asks for a lot of information, yet is unwilling to offer any in return, then you should probably heed that uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. 

Of course, these are just a few of my “dodgy client” detectors. I’d love to hear yours.

Keep writing, Tom Chandler.

[tags]copywriting, copywriter, freelance copywriter, freelance copywriting, marketing, marketing consulting, freelance marketing consultant[/tags]