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woman in brown sweater at a bistro table finishing a cup of coffee

Has it ever happened to you? Someone bumps into you at a meeting or in a café and they want to ask “just one or two quick questions.” Or they call and want to buy you coffee and “pick your brain.” If this person is a good friend or colleague who has already done favors for you, you may not mind helping them out when asked. But more often, the questioner is trying to get something for nothing.  It’s almost as if you have a never ending amount of time, and are simply available for the price of a cappuccino.

A variation on this problem is the person who wants you to write, speak, or work for free; with the chance that you will gain referrals, publicity, or great experience. Of course it is possible to use articles, speeches, and volunteer projects to gain exposure for your business, but not all opportunities are created equal. There is an art to structuring a talk that will bring you clients. (How to do that may be a blog post for another day!) But one thing is certain: if the audience is not your target audience or the assignment is not a perfect fit for your business, you will not be likely to get good paying clients as a result.

Deciding When to Give

Every business owner must decide for themselves to whom they will give their services for free, and how often. But one thing is certain: in order to stay in business, we can’t give away too much. What we look for in all interactions is what I like to call a fair exchange.

To decide whether to accept an invitation to share your skills for free, you may want to ask yourself whether this person or organization is in your “inner circle.” When a family member needs help, I willingly arrange my schedule to assist with their home-organizing project. Many business owners regularly donate their time and professional talents to their children’s schools, their faith community, or professional association. There may be other causes and communities dear to your heart that you will support whenever asked. Needless to say, the casual acquaintance from the club or neighborhood is not in this group. Your skills and mine are not available for the price of a cup of coffee.

If the requester is not among those who automatically get your help, ask yourself whether the opportunity really will lead to paying work that is worth five or ten times what you’re giving away. Will you get three or four or five new clients as a result of preparing, then driving an hour, to give a talk for free? If the talk is to a group that would never hire you (example – they live outside your service area), then saying yes to giving the talk would be a mistake, because there is no fair exchange. It is all giving on your part and no receiving.

I’m New and I Need Help!

If you are new in your business, you may have been told that often, more experienced colleagues are happy to meet you for coffee and give advice and guidance, and to some extent this can happen. Just make sure that, before asking for someone’s precious time, you have tried to get your questions answered on your own.

Before asking for free one-on-one help, check out the person’s website, blog, and social media accounts. Here are a few resources on the Metropolitan Organizing blog that can answer many new-organizer FAQs:

“What tools do you consider “must-haves”? When you walk into a client’s home for the first time, what do you do with your toolkit? Do you leave it at the door, drag it all over the house, or leave it in the car until it’s needed?”  See my blog post on the subject of toolkits.

“I want to file for clients, but I don’t know that many ways of filing. What do I need to know about filing? Can you teach me some of the most common ways to set up a filing system and the ways to name files?”

Take in this blog post on filing, which includes a video hangout hosted by John Hunt of Smead Organomics, where my colleagues Linda Samuels and Leslie Josel and I fielded organizing questions, many of them about filing.

“I feel like I spend so much time answering email I can’t keep up! How can I be more productive in my own business?”

Read my three-part series on email templates, Part 1,  Part 2, and Part 3.

Saying No, Nicely

If you’ve been asked for free advice, information, or time that you don’t wish to give, be bold in saying no. Remember, you are not obligated to justify your answer, so don’t be tempted to offer excuses. Just state your intention clearly, saying, “I’d love to say yes, but I’m not available.” (Or, as Oprah says, “no” is a complete sentence!) If you can do so easily, send the requestor to another source likely to be able to help them: “Have you asked Colleague Y? She regularly gives talks in your area and may be available.” Or point them toward the information: My Pinterest boards show how I share ideas with clients. I’m at pinterest-dot-com-slash-Geralin.

And if the questioner really does need your paid professional help, don’t hesitate to say so. (Doctors and tax accountants, who are so often asked for professional advice in social settings, are among those professionals who have learned many graceful ways of handling these requests.) You might reply by saying something like, “That’s a very good question, and it’s one that can’t be answered quickly. This is the kind of consulting I offer to my professional clients. If you think you would like to be my client, I’d be delighted. You can schedule at your convenience on my website. Or if you prefer, I’ll call you first thing Monday to schedule an appointment and answer any questions you may have about working with me.”

A Final Thought For the Coffee-Buyer

If you’ve been asking for free help, consider whether you really should be investing in your professional success by paying for the expert help you ask for. I don’t just say this as someone who provides paid coaching to professional organizers. I say this because you, too, want to always be involved in fair exchange. By asking to get for free what you really should pay for, you tempt fate to bring you “clients” who will ask YOU to work for free by staying a little over, doing unpaid research between appointments, donating your services to their pet fundraiser, and so on.

We all want to stay in the happy middle of fair exchange, neither taking nor giving more than our share.

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