Lawyers and doctors: I feel your pain. I know that every time you go to a party someone wants to “ask you a quick question” about an ailment or a legal hiccup they’re having. Well, if you’re a startup consultant like me, there’s always someone who wants you to “let them know what you think” about their new business idea and how to get it up and running.
This is one of my major pet peeves and, if you’re a service provider – especially one who makes a living based on your knowledge – I’m sure you’ve been in this uncomfortable position a million times as well. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love what I do and I’m happy to talk about it. I’m even happy to spend a couple of minutes discussing the very basics of what it takes to start a business – but that’s it, just a couple of minutes. I charge per hour for my consulting services, so when someone meets me for the very first time and then expects me to spend 2 hours giving them advice about exactly how to build their business without so much as offering to buy me a drink, it’s a bit insulting. The same goes for random people on the internet who write me and want to set up a call to “pick my brain.” The thing is, most of the time, I don’t think these people even realize that what they’re doing isn’t really okay.
So, this week’s episode is a two-parter: Firstly, we’ll talk about how service providers can handle these situations without feeling douchey or guilty or rude to those who basically want your services for free but also without getting stuck accidentally working pro bono. Secondly, we’ll talk about how those of you who would like to get some advice should go about approaching service providers without seeming like a cheapskate that just wants to get help without paying for it.
Okay, the first bit of this may not seem like a big deal to some of you, but I’ve talked with enough people to know that I’m not the only one who often feels awkward or guilty (or both) when trying to get out of giving away services for free. You don’t want to seem rude or arrogant – “Oh, I’m sorry but every minute of my time is worth a lot of money” – but you also don’t want to leave much room for the conversation to continue. Here’s how I handle it:
- If the person has contacted me online asking for advice I reply with the following message and link:
“I would love to see if I can help you with X. If you have a specific question, let me know and I will do my best to give you a brief answer. If you have lots of questions or want more general advice, you can make an appointment with me here and we’ll talk. I look forward to learning more about what you’re working on! -Cate”
- If the person is someone I meet at a party or other social event and wants to “pick my brain,” I usually say something like this while making it clear that I need to continue to mingle:
“Yeah, definitely. How exciting that you’re ready to start getting up and running. I’d love to help or at least connect you with someone who can. This isn’t really the most conducive environment to digging into the details though, because we really should be mingling, so the best thing is for you to set up an appointment with me. I do all my scheduling through popexpert so why don’t you give me your email and I will shoot you over the link to get something scheduled.” I then usually include a discount code when I reach out and say something like: “It was great meeting you at X. I’m looking forward to hearing more about what you’re working on! All of my scheduling is through popexpert so go ahead and make an appointment here (I include the discount link).”
- If the person is someone I actually know/am friends with as opposed to someone I am just meeting or who is cold emailing me, I am much less strict and will probably let them get away with quite a bit more free advice.
Those techniques have worked for me so far. The first few times you do it, you’ll probably still feel a little guilty, but if you don’t value your time and your work, nobody else will either. It’s important to remind people that this is what you do for a living. You wouldn’t expect someone to work for you for free or give you whatever product they sell for free, so don’t feel bad about not being willing to work for them for free.
Okay, now on to the next piece: tips for those of you who are going to approach service providers and basically ask for a favor from a complete stranger. I get it, I work in startups, money is tight and you want to get the best advice you can without spending the tiny bit of money you have to build your business. It’s not that I don’t understand, but I bet you’re not going to give away more than a sample of whatever your business provides for free to random strangers once you’re up and running, so please don’t expect me to. Also, please recognize that you’re asking me for a favor. A little understanding goes a long way.
So here are my tips:
- Be polite. You’d be amazed at how many emails I get that read like this: “I need to know X. Please send me a guide,” or “How do I do Y? Please advise.” Really? No introduction? No niceties? Not even a thank you? Let me remind you that I have never met you, you are not a paying customer, and now you’re being rude. If that is the email you send, don’t hold your breath waiting for a response with anything valuable in it.
- Be specific and thorough. Remember that I charge for my time so anything that takes up more of it makes me less likely to be willing to help you for free. If you have a specific question, give me the back story and ask the question. If I need to email back and forth with you 5 times before I even know what you’re asking for, you’re going to have to make an appointment.
- Kiss my ass a little. Okay, I know that sounds terrible, but flattery really does help here. You’re asking me to do work for you for free, which implies you don’t value my time. If you give me a little blurb about why you want my advice, that you know it would be a favor for me to give it to you for free, and why you’re not just making an appointment, I’m much more likely to respond. Remember though that really the only good reason for not just making an appointment is that the question is so specific and short I can answer quickly and an appointment isn’t necessary.
- Pay attention to detail. My name is Cate – Cate spelled C-A-T-E, like cat with an e at the end. My name is not Kate with a K, it is not Katie, nor Kathy, nor Kaitlin, nor any other variation of this. If you can’t even be bothered to spell my name correctly when you contact me asking for a favor, you can be sure I can’t be bothered to give you free advice.
I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this one so please chime in below about how you handle situations like this.
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