Are sample sessions a good idea?

Q & A by C.J. HaydenIt’s a common practice among coaches, consultants, health practitioners, and other professionals to offer a complimentary first session. The intent of this approach is to give prospective clients a taste of your work so they will want more. But how well does this work?

First of all, you should recognize that sample sessions or complimentary consultations are not a requirement. Even if others in your profession frequently offer them, that doesn’t mean you also must. You can choose whether offering complimentary sessions makes sense for your business and your clientele.

Sample sessions can be a useful technique when you need to demonstrate the value of what you do. A life coach might use a sample session to show a prospect the impact of powerful questions. A chiropractor could offer a complimentary adjustment to let prospects experience how quickly their pain could be relieved. A PR consultant’s complimentary consultation could prove to a business that public relations work would quickly pay for itself.

The more of an unknown your service is to your prospects, the more helpful a sample session will typically be in convincing them to work with you. Prospects who have never visited a chiropractor before, for example, will be more likely to be convinced by a complimentary adjustment than will those already familiar with chiropractic.

But complimentary sessions have their drawbacks. They can potentially waste a considerable amount of your time, and in some cases, devalue what you do. Many people who agree to a sample session do so only because it’s free, and have no intention of ever hiring you. Your prospects may also have the reaction, “If he’s giving it away for nothing, how good can it be?”

One key to productive sample sessions is to remember that it’s rare for your service to sell itself without your help. Even when you deliver superior service in a complimentary session, you still need to ask for the business. Be sure to leave time at the end of the session to ask your prospect questions like, “How did that work for you?” “What benefit can you see from us continuing to work together?” and finally, “Would you like to get started?”

If you are a brand new coach, consultant, or professional just learning your specialty, it often makes sense to offer sample sessions to practice your skills. But don’t confuse that motivation with what might work best for you in sales and marketing.

When I first started my own coaching practice (at a time when most people had never heard of coaching), I chose not to offer free sample sessions. Instead, I set up a 30-minute interview with prospective clients where I asked them what they were looking for, told them what I could offer, and we explored together whether there was a match. You may recognize this format as a standard consultative sales presentation.

For a meeting like this, of course there is no charge. But unlike a sample session, no one signs up for a sales presentation unless they are a serious prospect. And you also don’t devalue your services by giving them away to anyone who asks.

There is one exception I have sometimes made to this no-comp-sessions policy, and that is when a prospect wants to compare my approach to that of others in my field. In this case, a prospective client may want to experience the styles of different coaches to see which one works best for his or her needs. But I only agree to this when prospects are at the place of narrowing their selection between two or three options. In other words, they have already decided to hire a coach, and the only question is “which one?”

If you decide that offering sample sessions is a good idea in your situation, you should pre-screen anyone you offer complimentary service to. Your free offer should be made only to people who are seriously interested in hiring you.

Many professionals offer sample sessions to all comers, for example anyone attending their speaking engagements, or any visitor to their website. But in venues like these, your offer should really be presented as, “I’d be happy to give a complimentary session to anyone who might be interested in hiring me.”

If you are ever unsure of someone’s intention when they ask for a sample session, ask them this question: “If you get value from this session and you find my rates affordable, will you consider hiring me?” Most people will answer such a direct question truthfully, and you can weed out the “looky-loos” who just want the session because there is no cost involved.

If at least one out of every three sample sessions turns into a paying client, it probably makes sense for you to continue offering them. But if your experience is that samples rarely seem to convert to sales, there is no good reason to continue giving them. Many successful professionals — myself included — have built a thriving business without offering sample sessions.

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