Monday, July 18, 2011

Beware the Brain-Pickers!

Beware the Brain-Pickers!

I had an experience this morning that I'm sure is familiar to many consultants, coaches, doctors, attorneys ... pretty much anyone who is considered an expert in their business or industry. A friend texted me a few days ago, asking if we could meet soon. She didn't say what about ... but I had a feeling I knew before we got together. My subconscious must really have known, because I forgot to put the meeting on my calendar, and as a result was late to meet her.

We are in similar businesses, but she's very new to this line of work. As I sat down at the restaurant, she explained that she just wanted to "pick my brain" a bit about a couple of things. And then she proceeded to do just that  not without my permission, I must add. I've been here before on perhaps two other occasions with the same friend, so this whole setup was not really a surprise to me.

One sentence in our conversation caught me quite off-guard, however. She was telling me about her challenges billing a new client, because the client has a limited cash flow right now and wants the work to proceed anyway: "I told her, 'Yes, but I have expenses. I have to do research, meet with people (gesturing to  me), and increase my knowledge so I can give you the best service.'" She did not even see the irony ... or notice my hackles going up.

I was unsure how to proceed. My inclination was just to decline the next offer for a "meeting." But as the check came and I found myself paying for my own breakfast, I knew that silence would not suffice. My friend thanked me for my time, which I used as an appropriate moment to tell her perhaps a little harshly that while she was welcome this time, if there was going to be a next time, it would have to be for a fee. A look of utter astonishment washed across her face. I then reminded her that she'd just told me she was charging her client for meeting with me, but seemed to be expecting me to share my expertise with her for free, simply because we're friends.

Those of you who've been there understand how awkward this can be.

The thing is, I bet we've all done it at one time or another, called on a friend for their expert advice. What we may not realize is when we begin to step over the line of "asking a favor" into the area where they normally and reasonably charge for the information we're after. For what it's worth, here are a few tips on this idea of "free advice."

  1. NEVER ask someone if you can "pick their brain" (or worse, tell them you'd like to).
  2. Respect your friends'/colleagues'/associates' expertise and recognize when your favors are traipsing into areas of information for which they would normally charge a consulting fee.
  3. At the VERY least, offer to buy them lunch/dinner for their time. More appropriately, ask if you can schedule an hour of their time (indicating that you will pay for this hour), and let them tell you that you don't need to pay them.
  1. Decide in advance if you're willing to gift certain friends with your time/expert knowledge and where/why you draw the line. Sure you're a nice person and you don't want to make enemies, but you also don't want to be a doormat.
  2. It's your time, and they're your friends you get to decide whom to help, to what degree, and how often.
  3. You might let them know that while you're happy to have one brief conversation, you normally charge a rate of X for a consultation on this topic.
  4. Have a standard answer prepared for those who want to "pick your brain."
  5. Suggest they call your office during business hours to schedule an appointment.
  6. If the "asker" has a product/service you can use, perhaps you might suggest a trade.
  7. Even if it's a difficult conversation, be willing to set boundaries.
Here's the thing both "Askers" and "Askees" should remember. Askees have invested time (perhaps many years) and energy and money and brain power becoming the experts they are. They now charge for that expertise, as they should. Askees must learn to set sensible boundaries; Askers must learn to respect them. 

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  1. You raise some key points! It's so powerful for the Askee to have a set of pleasant responses ready, so as to possibly enlist the Asker as a paying client, rather than alienating the Asker with cranky reactions.