Ever had someone find out that you’re a freelancer and say, “Can I just pick your brain?” If you agree, that person will probably ask you a whole stack of questions about how you work and how you would complete certain projects. More often than not, it’s someone who probably could use your services, although if he gets answers to all of his questions, you may never seem him again. If you’re lucky, the brain-picker in question may by you a cup of coffee in the process, but it’s not exactly easy to walk away from these situations with a new client. People who “just want to pick your brain” want to be able to replicate what you do, preferably without paying for the privilege.
Becky McCray, who helps businesses in small towns with social media and founded Small Biz Survival, is no stranger to this type of person. It happens enough that she’s had to set some rules on how to handle people who want free help. “I decide how to handle people seeking free advice based on my existing relationship with them. Some people are close friends. I’ll help those folks more than someone who emails me out of the blue. Most of the questions seem to come from folks who don’t know me at all. So I try to assess the situation based on our relationship.”
Turn Freebies Into Clients
McCray sees the people who ask her for free help as potential clients. Some need simple consulting services, something that McCray (and many freelancers) do offer. If you can suggest that sort of option, rather than just handing over plenty of free advice, you can walk away from a situation with a paying client. It doesn’t always happen, but if you at least ask, you’ll be better off than if you just offer a flat out no. But you do have to have a plan of attack. McCray says, “I do have to help the freebies turn into paying clients. It doesn’t happen by magic, you do need a strategy. And even then, not all of them will convert.”
McCray has been collecting phrases that she can use to steer advice-seekers towards her services, preferably in the nicest way possible. She’s found a variety of ways that different people say the same thing: “Liz Strauss says, ‘If you’d like me to do that for you, I charge $XXX/hour.’ Denise Wakeman says she will point people to her matching products already available. If someone asks her to look over their blog, she’ll give them the link to her sales page for a blog critique. Cathy Stucker uses, ‘I can spend ten minutes with you, and if you require more assistance I will be glad to schedule a consultation at my regular rates.’ Sheila Scarborough invites folks to talk with her at her weekly co-working session, Round Rock Jelly. If the question is more involved than can be answered there, it’s a consulting job. Jennifer Navarette told the story of meeting with a potential client in his office. He asked lots of questions. Finally, she stood up to come around the desk and reached for the keyboard. Her partner interrupted, ‘You do know that we just crossed into paid time?’ he asked. ‘Oh, yes,’ the prospect said, instantly converting to a paying client. Those are all useful strategies.”
You have to find your own strategy for how you’ll address requests for help, of course, but having a set response can make a world of difference.
Help Others Without Hurting Yourself
There will be some people asking for advice but still not able to pay your freelancing rates that you still want to help. The key to helping them is to find a way to provide them with resources, without tying up all of your time with providing that help.
McCray does provide resources to help educate people on her own terms. “The basic answer is to offer them the help they need, but in a way that respects your valuable time,” she says. McCray even has a few suggestions on how to do just that: “Create a standard resource you give to people that want to do it themselves. Invest a few hours in creating a simple how-to booklet, paper or downloadable, and recoup those hours you would normally spend trying to assist the freebie-seekers. You probably have all the info you need on your blog. Do workshops. Charge a modest fee. Then Do-It-Yourself-ers can be encouraged to take the class, online or in person. This lets you group up the learners, help them all a certain amount, get paid for it, and allow some of them to see that they really do want professional help. Then the next time you get hit up for more free advice, you can hand out a flyer for your workshop. Do NOT make this a pitch for your service. Do make it an honest useful training.”