I was having a conversation with a group of business people recently and the subject came up about people who ‘pick your brains’ and, effectively get free advice.

Some of these people don’t realise that they’re getting free consultancy – but some do and think the ‘can I just ask your opinion?’ doesn’t count as consultancy.

There are two problems for most of us who are specialists or experts:

  1. Mostly we are nice people who genuinely want to help and don’t want to be ’difficult’
  2. If you’re running your own business you’re probably passionate about what you do and get quite excited about sharing your knowledge (I know this as I have several soapboxes I leap onto from time to time!)

However, that leads to giving away your time – and that will have a direct impact on your profit line.  You’re not getting paid for the advice you’re giving and also using up time that is, for many consultants, what you exchange for money.

So how can you say ‘no’ without offending people?

I’ve been around a while and I no longer have a problem saying “I’m happy to give you a few guidelines, but this is how I earn my living so there will be a fee if I’m going to provide consultancy services.”  Some people find that hard to say so here’s some alternatives:

“I wrote a blog about that not long ago – give me your business card and I’ll ping you the link across.”

“Have you checked out my LinkedIn profile?  There are several useful articles on there.”

“I’m happy to give you a 15 minute free consultancy session to establish that I can help you, but there’ll be a fee for additional consultancy time.”

“I’d love to help you – let’s organise a meeting so I can focus on your challenges and put a proposal together for you.”

“Are you looking for a couple of pointers or do you need a more in-depth answer?  I probably need a bit more information to be of any real help – do you want to book a meeting?”

This doesn’t mean that I refuse to answer people’s questions – mostly I’m happy to give them a few ideas to get them started – but I do get people who are really trying to find out how to DIY what I do for a living sometimes.  At networking meetings I tend to give them a summary and suggest a meeting – and they rarely book time in.  However, I have had persistent people who get introduced via a networking contact and then ring me several times for ‘help’.  These are the ones I usually advise that there’ll be a fee during the second phone call!  I rarely hear from them again – but some apologise and offer to pay for my time.

As long as you’re polite and reasonable, most people respond well – and saying (with a big smile) “You do know that this is how I earn my living …” is often all that’s required!