Successful people are often asked for free advice. I don’t mean the kind of requests one gets at a cocktail party like “Jim, you’re a financial planner. Where would you invest $5,000 right now?” I mean time-intensive requests like, “Would you meet me for coffee and tell me how I can get started doing what you do?” or “Can I buy you lunch and pick your brain?”
Such requests are always flattering. The presumption is that one knows enough to offer useful ideas. But as the frequency of those requests increase, they can become problematic.
The first problem is that many people really don’t want advice–they want validation. Despite what they say, they are less interested in finding out what they should do or do differently than they are in being told they’re doing quite well as it is. And should you mistakenly offer advice when validation is desired, you won’t be appreciated for your efforts.
Another problem is that, by my observation at least, most free advice seekers rarely follow-up except to ask for more free advice. I’ve had two hour conversations with people who I never heard from again. Did they do anything at all with the information I provided? If they did, I’ll never know.
Most maddening, however, is the entitlement mindset that suggests the seeker is owed advice. To turn down a request for free advice, even tactfully, risks stark criticism as someone who isn’t willing to help. (Panhandlers, by the way, operate under the same assumption, but are often less militant when you don’t give.)
Let’s suppose you ask me for free advice. I have the same number of hours in a week as you. If I spend an hour giving free advice, that is one less hour I have devoted to my own business, to serving clients, to growing my own abilities or spending time with my family.
Over the last twenty years, I’ve given significant free counsel. I like people with initiative who are committed to pursuing their dreams. I do, as time allows, meet people for coffee or lunch and offer what I can. But as demands on my time have grown, time allows less for giving free advice.
Most discouraging have been those moments when I was invited to meet over coffee and got to pay for my own coffee. Many years ago a man invited me to dinner to learn how to get into professional speaking. It was a marathon question and answer session that almost prevented me from eating my food. And yet when the check came, he informed me what I owed for my share of the food. If I had been smart, I would have informed him what he owed for my expertise. But I didn’t.
Does that mean I would discourage someone from asking an expert for ideas or advice? No, but I would suggest some guidelines that will increase one’s odds of success and reception.
First, don’t assume that by asking, anyone has an obligation to meet with you. It is a gutsy undertaking to ask anyone for another’s time, so respect a decision to decline.
Second, it helps to make an introduction through a mutual acquaintance. While not foolproof, it does help screen out the flakes and others who might waste one’s time.
Third, think about what you can bring to the party. How can you make the advice giver’s decision to invest in you worthwhile to him or her?
I’ve had people offer to compensate me for my time. It is a very classy gesture, and in the rare instance where I’ve accepted the offer, I requested the money be donated to a charity of my choosing. I see that as a true win/win.
Another way you might reciprocate is by offering to make business introductions in line with the person’s interests.
Finally, express appreciation. A note afterwards—rarely received these days, by the way—or even a small gift like a certificate to a favorite restaurant, will be greatly appreciated. But the best expression that you have valued the advice giver’s time is to implement something you’ve learned, and then let them know. Then they’ll know their time wasn’t wasted.
Have I ever neglected to pay for free advice? Undoubtedly, and to my shame. My restitution over the course of my life has been to periodically assist someone asking for my help without any expectation of reciprocity or even appreciation.
But that doesn’t mean I haven’t noted those classy individuals who know that in the business of life, it is always a good idea to pay for free advice.