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?


Dean Peters

It’s not just lawyers and doctors.

As an experienced web designer I’m frequently asked to provide free advice; or worse, PC tech-support (http://ow.ly/3VA4a).

My younger brother is a plumber, he’s pretty popular too.

My older brother not-so-much, but then again his expertise is in nuclear energy.


Excellent Advice. I think you have to use wisdom in the decisions you make as far as who to give your professional advice to and When to give it. Be Smart and Be Wise.


In my own work I am often asked for assistance on projects from Non-Profit organizations, other organizations with little funding, or folks who are just plain cheap. :-)

What I do if I have the time and interest in helping out the person is to go ahead and provide an invoice after completion of the project with normal pricing information and a clear message that this was done ‘Pro-Bono’.

In the case of NPO’s this actually has some value to them because they could consider it an in-kind donation of sorts. Not really tax deductible for me, but helps them show ‘value’ which they have created with their org.

This technique doesn’t work so well with parents, but it has given me a way to put a ‘dollar value’ on services which I have provided to sister organizations for free at times. And, has cut down on some of those requests from those organizations or shown the value of what I have done for them for free.

Terri Karp

Recently I received an email from a nice acquaintance that would have amounted to a nontrivial amount of work.

I gave some halfhearted feedback, then at some point included this line: “Not to put too fine a point on it, is this a paying job?”

No feelings were hurt and I got a small fee.

Sly Thompson

Very good article on something I think we’ve all had to deal with. I’ve always maintained a ‘friends and family’ list that are entitled to requests free of charge.

For everyone else I use the rule that if you’re going to use my service in your business. Then as a matter of fairness then I should bill accordingly.

It also helps if you’re a little creative, “you know if I do anymore than this I’m gonna have to send you a bill”. Most people understand and don’t have a problem with these solutions.



Corin Ramos

Thanks for the re-affirmation (redundant?). Another “I can sooo relate!” here, as well as a related question for you:

When you introduce two contacts who might possibly do big business with each other, and some of that ‘business’ might potentially include work for you, how do you position yourself so that you do get a piece of that pie?

Most of us (PR, marketing consultants or consultants of any kind, really) spend a lot of time networking and, for the most part, I am happy to refer business to other contacts (pay it forward) and expect nothing in return except, as a fellow consultant put it the other day “good karma.”

But, I’ve had this happen to me so many times, where I’ve put two contacts together and sometimes you don’t even get so much as a thank you or courtesy update as to how the ‘lead’ panned out!

Thanks, and great stuff you post, by the way!


Tony Estigoy

Hi Darrell-

Well written article. Over the last 2+ years I have spent thousands of dollars and thousands of hours learning about social media so that I can offer my expertise and knowledge to businesses looking to market online more effectively.

Similar to a doctor or an attorney each business has it’s own challenges so I cannot give a blanket answer to most social media questions without first understanding the uniqueness of the business. Your opening line said it all.

Thanks for writing the article. As we progress in social media I know we will get more and more people asking for free advice so it’s good to know where to draw the line and how to do it without offending.

To Your Success,

Tony Estigoy


This was really useful advice – the kind of stuff you know but ‘forget’ in the heat of the moment! I am very guilty of giving stuff away for free which meant I never had any time to do the things I wanted to do so I am trying to get much better – most people understand!

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