How to Say No When People Want to “Pick Your Brain”

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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13 Replies to “How to Say No When People Want to “Pick Your Brain””

  1. Hi Cate,

    I really liked this one. When people ask me for free design work, I usually just tell them that I’m too busy and then change the subject (of course, I’m not full-time freelance at the moment, so I can get away with it a little bit).

    Been following your videos for a little while, but I have no specific questions at the moment, let you know when I do,

    – Kyle

  2. Well said. This seems to happen all to frequently. I work with small restaurant companies planning growth and some creating new concepts. This usually leads to people telling me that they have always wanted to open a restaurant….that their idea is unique and what do I think of (fill in the blank) I tell them to buy me a cup of coffee sometime or set up a Skype meeting for those outside my home base. I try to give a little time (30 minutes)to those potential start ups because although everyone needs to eat in restaurants…not everybody is supposed to open one. I can provide some general direction and answer industry questions without revealing too much detail. Sometimes it leads to work…mostly it helps them rethink their idea.I call this my tithing to the industry.

  3. Thank you for this article which I just stumbled upon on LinkedIn. I think people need to show more respect to those they are asking a favor of.
    I run several successful groups,which I have been doing for years and spent many hours on.
    When people just come up to me and ask me how I do it and what tips I could give them because they want to start a group themselves, I am appalled. Right there on the spot, I am supposed to stop what I am doing and give them what would be hours of my time to explain all of my secrets of success? What has taken me years to learn and many hours of hard work I am supposed to just hand you because you asked me? I don’t even know if they are serious about what they are saying. So, my reply has been that it’s much too complex for a flippant, short answer and if they really want help they could take me to lunch. That usually takes care of the issue.
    How many times have you gone to the trouble to actually give generously of your time to provide a detailed answer to someone’s email only to find out that they never even bothered to read it?
    And I am with you on the name. When someone asks me for a favor and cant’ even bother to spell my name correctly (it’s in every email signature) it irks me.
    Happy posting!

  4. Hi Cate,

    I have the same problem. I look at it as free advertising. At a party or networking event these people often have a real problem and looking for real help. Giving advise at these functions is showing that I understand their problem and have the answer or have someone in my network who does. For the record, I’m a business consultant and franchise broker. After a day or 2, I do a follow up call. All of a sudden their problem seems resolved and don’t need my services. DAMN! What they do is, they take my free advise to their accountant and he gets the business. Most accountants are not business consultants! What really gets me going is when an accountant walks up to me at a network event and ask me for free advise. In these cases I stay very calm and polite, but you can be sure he will not get very far with the free advise. I do give him my business card. I also had a large accounting firm asking me to send some examples of business plans as a test for “maybe an alliance”. That is over the limit. Again, I stay polite and send them a contract. Never heard from them again. Most of the time these free advices are frustrating, time consuming and I don’t get paid. But, I guess there is no escaping from it. Maybe it’s part of the business we are in and have to live with it.

  5. Cate, loved your article, thank you for writing it. I have worked many years as a business coach/consultant to the SMB marketplace. Needless to say, I too have on too many occasions have been hit up for free coaching/consulting. As most of us I am sure, there have been times I have done just that, give a bucket full of free advise.

    Mostly however, when someone says that they want to get together over coffee and “pick my brain” I usually say, “great” let’s set a date, time & place, then I ask, “how do you want to pay for this, cash-check-or through Pay Pal?”. You guessed it, they say, “let me get back to you”. Hey, I agreed to meet, listen, give my council as they requested, they are the one that changed their mind, not me. I am always ready-willing & able, the rest is up to them.

  6. For people who are starting a new business, or who have one they are wanting to grow to the next level, are qualified for free business consulting at any Small Business Development Center in the country. There over 1,100 Centers in the US, and similar organizations throughout the world. They are the ones who answer those myriad questions about financing, marketing, management issues of all kinds, writing a business plan, doing market research, figuring out accounting issues, writing an employee handbook, and hundreds of other issues. For free. Located on many colleges or universities. Paid for by Small Business Administration and by the host University or other host.

    Find the SBDC near you at http://asbdc-us.org . It is a great way to get people the information they need, and maybe get them up to a level where they can afford and appreciate your paid advice. Consider partnering with them in some way, and maybe develop some referral relationships.

  7. Must say I really like Cate’s “cash, check or PayPal” approach! Seriously I think this goes with the territory and I will confess that there have been more than a few times I’ve helped more than a should – depends on the individual’s circumstances and how much effort they’re putting in themselves.

    1. I completely agree that how much effort the person asking for advice is putting in makes a big difference in how it feels to give advice, Marquita. I have a personal trainer friend who always complains when people constantly ask him for diet and exercise plans and then don’t follow through but come back 6 months later and ask for the same favor again. It’s the same for any type of advice: nobody wants to spend multiple hours helping someone just to see that person ignore all of your advice. Then it’s just a waste of everyone’s time.

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