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No one likes to get ripped off. But that might be exactly what you feel like when someone asks to “pick your brain” for advice, particularly if you’re a business owner. Responding to this pesky “pick your brain” question is one that I get very often from readers, and the second most popular question is usually about how to deal with getting low-balled on fees. Either of these situations is irritating for anyone, and it’s deeply frustrating for qualified and underestimated women. There is a very real and very rude expectation that we will accommodate the request without the offer or guarantee of future business. So how do you negotiate and flip the situation so that you can get what you need and transform a freeloader’s question into a business opportunity? You have to find ways to reliably change your own perspective from a competitive negotiating mindset to a collaborative one.
Reframing a request for free help into a collaborative opportunity is an essential skill for growing a business. It’s particularly important to develop if your natural inclination is to be generous and relationship-focused. Consider billionaire Kendra Scott‘s three guiding business principles of family, fashion and philanthropy. Jaclyn Johnson also talks about the idea of a favor economy, where you trade business favors with friends to help everyone grow collaboratively. Both of these women (and thousands more) have found that by being generous and pairing that instinct with creating lucrative business partnerships is a reliable path to building and growing your venture. Let’s explore five other ways to collaboratively deal with free requests for help, and how you can flip them into business opportunities.
1. Respond with your rate. Refer the freeloader to someone else if you’re feeling generous. The best way to respond to any request for advice or free consulting is to say:
“That’s a great question and I can help you solve that problem. My fee is [amount per time interval], and my next available appointment is [date and time.] Where should I send the invite?”
You cannot be shy about this question. Also, you need to find ways to stop being annoyed by this question. You simply have to practice your response so many times that it becomes involuntary.
Let’s examine why this whole dynamic might be bothering you. If you are a person of color, indigenous, queer, or a white woman, chances are you have been socialized since childhood to accommodate others. It has become ingrained within you to please other people and meet their needs. When we ask directly for our own needs, particularly when it involves money, it likely clashes with that deeply embedded social impulse to please. Understand that this new habit you are trying to form – to respond with your rate – is like building a new muscle. It’s going to take hundreds of successful attempts before it becomes an even semi-automatic habit. So move through the irritation by continuing to practice your response. I also like to have at least two other options to refer people to, so that I don’t have to say “no” directly but just point them elsewhere. This is a more graceful way to tell a freeloader that you’re just not interested in helping them.
2. Treat free consultations as market research. Every time a freeloader asks to pick your brain, return the favor by picking their brain, too. The consultation is not actually “free” because you are leveraging an opportunity to collect market research on your product or service. For maximum benefit, do your homework and think about the questions you want to ask the freeloader. Look them up on LinkedIn and get a sense of what insight they could share with you, be it about their industry, their organization, or their perspective as a consumer.
It’s also an opportunity to do a live sales pitch, which will precede a negotiation on terms. If you think the person is going to say “no” when you suggest paid services, this is an even better situation to make the sales ask. It allows you to an opportunity to train against the fear of rejection.
Make sure you collect an email address for every freeloader or participant that benefits from your product or service. If you are in Europe, be sure to follow appropriate GDPR requirements. Building an asset like a list of emails is key to building an audience, and ensures that you’re not just engaging in philanthropy. You’re starting a relationship with the freeloader while also building a sales funnel.
3. Get at least two warm business introductions in exchange for help. It’s key to have a clear sense of your target market and a very clear definition of what a warm business introduction entails. Just like the previous tip, you want to do your research on the freeloader before your meeting. Who do they know that they might introduce you to, and how do you want that introduction to be given? Spend as much time as you need, before the meeting, and create a menu of options for the freeloader. Also, spend time creating any supporting content that will accelerate the effectiveness of the business introduction. That might look like a draft email introduction that you email to the freeloader to speed up the introduction process.
How would this look in practice? Let’s consider an example of someone asking for your time in a significant way. Let’s say you’re meeting with freeloader Bob because Bob reached out and wanted you to come and do a free class for his Queer Pride employee resource group. Bob tells you at the beginning that his group doesn’t have any budget for a speaker fee. You’re considering this request because Bob works for a major company that you love, and you want to find a way to work with them. So you agree to come and do a workshop for his group if he can guarantee that his department vice president and the human resources officer will be present at the class. You also ask that Bob facilitate an in-person introduction and a few minutes for you to talk to each decisionmaker. In this situation, you are delivering your class for “free” but it’s facilitating your foot in the door to make a very important contact that can lead to future business.
4. Secure approval to use company logos on your website. Those logos become an important authority builder as you grow your business. Again, you want to make sure that the logos and brands you associate with will continue to attract your target audience. If you’re just getting started and can’t be as picky, that’s ok. Just be sure to consistently edit and update the part of your website that lists logos. Logos and brands reassure potential clients and help you build credibility, just like strong recommendations. Be sure to get the approval in writing, and don’t deliver the complimentary service without the logo in your inbox.
5. Get a video or written testimonial. Recommendations are extremely powerful in building up your authority, and they are also a form of feedback that people really trust. This is a type of favor that costs time and a LinkedIn connection. Plan up to five reminder emails or messages, so that you can create a steady and polite reminder until they submit the recommendation. Update your website with the copy of the recommendation as well. This is a deeply undervalued resource that is really cheap for the freeloader to give but often requires a consistent nudge until the recommendation is submitted. You also may consider writing prompting questions or reminding the freeloader of a breakthrough she or he mentioned as a result of your help. Having someone else sing the praises of the outcomes you created are marketing gold. An even more effective recommendation is a short video talking about the benefits of your help. Nearly everyone these days has a smartphone that can shoot video footage. Be sure to have prompting questions for the freeloader to help facilitate a one- or two-minute video testimonial.
Bonus tip: debug your branding. Positioning as a marketing and branding term means to define your position, relative to any other competitor. (This is different from the term “positional negotiation” which means to adopt a highly competitive mindset based on power positions.) Your branding is a signal that you send out every time you post things on the internet and social media or even talk in a meeting. The digital aspect of this is important because it is tied to all the algorithms that access the digital content we create. In it’s spoken form, it’s your reputation. Both of these dynamics are the signals that help people find you and your business.
You have to think strategically about your branding signal. If you find yourself attracting too many freeloaders, you need to diagnose and change your signal. How you do this – in terms of tone and approach – is really important, because there is the potential for confrontation. Ask open-ended questions about why someone is expecting free advice. Again, nuance and tone in how you ask this question is really key. If you intend to communicate that you are angry at their behavior, ask these questions without emotion and be prepared for them to have a negative reaction. That negative reaction will tell you a lot about the asker.
If you’re not inclined towards confrontation and still want to know why you are attracting freeloaders, recruit a friend or mentor that you trust to give you direct feedback. Ask them to evaluate how you present yourself online or in meetings. Ask them to help you see why people might think it’s ok to ask for your free advice or free products. If you’re running a for-profit business, are you showcasing that work by talking about solutions you’re delivering for your ideal client? Or are you talking more about your start-up, philanthropic, non-profit or volunteer work? All of that content that you are actively and passively generating are sending signals that attract the people asking for your help, time and attention. If you’re sick of attracting freeloaders, find a way to leverage their attention to support your business, or rethink how you’re talking about your work.
December 31, 2018 at 01:29PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs