A while back I got an email from someone who wanted to meet with me so he could ask some questions. Think about what he was asking: He wanted me to get in my car and drive somewhere to meet up with him, so I could give him answers–for free, of course–that he could have gotten by buying my book. But the book would cost him a few bucks, so that was not a good solution.
I thought I would be nice, so I asked him to email a couple of questions that I would answer for him. He insisted that we had to meet and discuss this in person. Well, I don’t even do paid consultations in person any more, so I told him we could set up a telephone consultation and told him my rates. His response? “Well, if you are going to charge me, forget it!”
That is the kind of “customer” that I am more than happy to see go. In fact, I would gladly have given him the names of a few of my competitors so he could waste their time instead of mine. (Nah, that would be bad karma. ;o) )
There is nothing wrong with giving away some things for free, whether you are establishing a new business or you have been around for ages. I give away a lot of free content, sometimes do free teleseminars and webinars, and answer the occasional question. However, it is important to know where to draw the line, and how to say no to people who want more than you are willing to give. For me, there is a firm line when it comes to giving away my time for little or no return.
Not sure when you should work for free? Take a look at this hilarious flowchart from illustrator Jessica Hische. (Note: The chart includes language some may find offensive.)
And here are some tips to help you figure out when and how to say no to free.
Set limits. There are always people who will call or offer to take you to lunch to “pick your brain.” That is called free consulting, and it is a mistake to do it. If someone calls with questions, and you want to help them, set a limit right up front by saying something such as, “I have 10 minutes right now. If you need more time than that, we can schedule a consultation at my regular rates.”
Leverage the free stuff. Spending a lot of one-on-one time giving free advice is probably not the best use of your time. When you are going to do something for free, look for the activities that will give you the best results and best reach for the time you invest. Instead of having lunch with one of those people who want to pick you brain, hold a teleseminar and invite everyone on your list. Record the teleseminar and give the recording to everyone who signs up for your email list, or sell it as a download or on CD. Spend that hour reaching thousands of people instead of just one.
Limit access. Have someone else deal with your phone calls and emails so you don’t get in the position of responding to routine questions that can become time consuming. That also gives you a buffer so that your assistant is the one saying no to unreasonable requests, not you. Set up a “help desk” (Many webhosting companies, including http://MyFavoriteWebHost.com/, offer free help desk scripts.) and get a virtual assistant to handle inquiries.
Establish a pro bono budget. Just as you set a budget for how many dollars you can donate to worthy causes, set a budget regarding the time you can spend on free work. It is fine to do some unpaid work to help worthy groups or individuals, but you will find yourself overwhelmed with “opportunities” to work for free unless you have a firm policy about how much free work you will do and how you decide for whom you will work pro bono.
Don’t be afraid to ask yourself, “What’s in it for me?” When you are asked to do something without pay, there is nothing wrong with choosing the unpaid work that benefits you in some way over that which does not. If you only have time for one unpaid speaking engagement this month, choosing the one that allows you to speak to a room full of potential customers while turning down another that is unlikely to result in any business for you is the only sensible thing to do.
Only you can decide how much you are willing to do for free. However, don’t get caught in the trap of giving away more than you want to because of the unreasonable expectations of others or because you are unwilling or unable to say no.
Establish a firm policy about what you will do without pay, and stick to it.