Draw the Line: When and How to Stop Giving Away Professional Advice

no_payIf there’s one thing doctors and lawyers hate, it’s being repeatedly asked for their professional opinion about something outside of the office by friends and acquaintances. First of all, it’s professionally irresponsible to advise people without a full grasp of their specific situation and context, and secondly, complying with requests of that nature effectively amounts to giving away for free what you normally do for others for a fee.

Web workers, too, have to deal with these kinds of requests, but I personally find that people are even less abashed about asking for advice and help related to blogs, social media, networking and other web work because they don’t regard it as a specialized service the way they do with medical and legal expertise.

I’m not saying giving away freebies is always a definite no-no, but I do think that as web workers we need to start reinforcing the value of our work by drawing a line between friendly advice and working for free. Here’s how I’m trying to create that demarcation.

Parry When Possible

I’m mostly of the opinion that the easiest way to deal with most conflict is to avoid it, and free advice is no exception. Most of the time, when people ask me to do something like set up their blog, write their cover letter/resumé introduction, or otherwise give away what I normally require a fee for, I either respond noncommittally or agree to talk to them more about it later on. It avoids unpleasant scenes with close friends and relatives, and nine times out of ten, you’ll never hear about it again.

Role Reversal

It’s hard to keep this tactic from sounding too snarky or sarcastic, but as with most things, asking someone to see things from your perspective can help curb friendly requests. Avoid the “Do I ask you to help me remodel my kitchen for free??” knee-jerk response. Instead, exercise some tact and take the time to fully explain real parallels between what exactly you do for a living, and how it is you do it. Often, people don’t think anything of asking for web working advice because they don’t see the work behind it, since the process can be fairly opaque to outsiders.

This One’s On the House

Refusing to give away advice or help isn’t always the best course of action. If, for instance, your mother wants you to help her set up a travel blog (sign up for Blogger and pick a theme), looking to make some money off the deal would probably be pretty callous of you.

Even in less clear-cut situations, the advantages of giving something away might outweigh the downsides. Always examine whether or not you might be able to work out some kind of barter arrangement in exchange for other service, or for future consideration, if you know the person you’re dealing with to be dependable and have a solid sense of fair play.

Convert the Lead

If you’re an optimist, then you won’t see requests for pro bono help as an annoyance. You’ll see them as viable sales leads, and therefore a valuable source of potential income. This is another tricky bit of business, since many people will immediately become disinterested in your services when they find out you won’t be performing them free of charge. But that actually makes it a doubly-beneficial solution, since you’ll land a sale if the person you’re dealing with has a genuine need and you’re a good salesperson, or you’ll dissuade them from coming calling on you in the future when they’re looking for free advice.

Being asked about your job is great, especially if you love it as much as I do mine. I love the opportunity to talk about what I do with people who are genuinely interested. What I don’t love is being asked to do something by someone who couldn’t care less about the how and why of web work, just so that they don’t have to do it themselves. People will only respect what you do for a living if you respect it first, and part of that means not cheapening it by doing for free what you would normally do for a fee. Plus, shouldn’t your buddy from college learn to write their own cover letter at some point?

Do you find that people often ask you for free advice/work? How do you deal with these requests?

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