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Free Advice!

Does giving advice without a fee pay off in the long-run? Should we help for free? Debatable, isn’t it?

As a professional who makes a living by giving advice I have often wondered whether it makes sense to throw away a money making opportunity?

In the 21st century, business is about being smart and being professional and it is said that free advice is not considered worth much; hence my query would seem redundant, or worse still, downright stupid.

I met a Project Management specialist at an industry forum; after “Hello!” and preliminary questions about what each of us were doing the talk veered towards moved to how we were faring as Consultants in the Kerala market.

He said something that struck a chord with me – “There are so many occasions when I conducted demo programs hoping to reap a bigger deal from the effort. But it’s only later I realized that this guy was using me to train his team for free. He painted a rosy picture of what I could gain and then used my service for free. The pitch usually goes – We have a team of 50 (or 100) people who need to be trained this year. Currently we are looking for a suitable trainer and as a first step they are being asked to conduct a demo session (which would be 1 to 4 hours long). I prepare the material and conduct a smart session and the man is all smiles. He thanks me profusely, but other than that I have not received anything – they did not even offer transportation to the venue and back. I called after a few days but the man was busy and did not say when we could discuss the matter further. I felt cheated. I guess it takes all kinds.”

I have had people speaking with me about their concerns – it could be an issue in the Sales Process or something to do with the Sales Personnel. They would tentatively offer a possible solution and then ask for my opinion about it. I would provide the necessary advice and then suggest a next level meeting at their office to study the process or to meet the team. The man would nod with a lot of enthusiasm and even suggest a date. And then he would drop off the edge of the world.

The market for Training & Development Consulting is fragmented and unstable – very few organizations have a proper learning and development program. The local units of some of the larger national organizations and a few of the locally headquartered ones have a structured talent development initiative. The rest did it in fits and starts.

In these difficult waters the unsuspecting Consultant would encounter sharks that could eat them up if they aren’t wary. There are many clever guys out there who can take an eager training provider for a merry ride by showing them a glorious vision of the possibilities.

A Consultant has to play his cards right. He cannot be reticent or rude, but at the same time there is need not to give away too much and to smartly inform the smart-alec that advice can be offered once all the information is known and mutually acceptable terms are decided upon.

Still there are times when you may have to give inputs without gaining an immediate monetary return for it.

Give inputs and advice if you are sure about the purpose and the consequence:

  1. Help the genuinely needy

There are students or start-ups or new folks out in the market who are cash strapped – totally new and in need of guidance but unable to pay for it. The support you provide to such people can be considered a service or a social obligation – your contribution to the society.

I am sure such people will remember you and probably pay you back somewhere along the way by putting in a good word for you or by sending a potential client to you. Even if this does not happen the effort is worthwhile.

But don’t continue offering free advice when they have achieved stability – make them pay for any additional support that is offered. Would they offer their product or service to you for free?

  1. Use it as an investment

There are accounts in the market that you wish to work for. Having them on your client list builds your credibility and brings you more business.  In such situations you can offer a demo or some free advice to create the right impression or to win some brownie points. It will keep you alive in their mind, build influence and credibility for you and probably bring you business subsequently.

But don’t give your best material away – offer a scaled down, but smart version. If there is any printing or purchase of material or travel involved you have to ask the client to pay for it. Just offer your advice or service for free – it is a trial run that can result in business.

  1. It’s a Proof of Concept or Confidence Builder

Maybe you are a new player in the market and this client has not seen you in action before nor have they heard about your programs; or maybe you are offering a service or training program that is new and is not very popular.

In such situations you can offer a demo to show the client how the program works or how you can help them solve a problem. This time it is more time a Business Development activity.

  1. You know it is a freebie

Maybe the client who is asking for the service is an influential person or is a friend / relative. You know you can’t ask for money or probably don’t want to receive any. You are doing it just as a goodwill gesture – for reasons other than business. Maybe it could bring you some business later but you aren’t doing it with that objective.

Make sure that you tell them it is a one-off gesture and nothing is expected as fee the first time; but if they expect more it makes sense to charge for it.

The clever guys we countered earlier in the article can be discouraged from taking you for a ride by asking them to pay a fee for the Demo session – you can offer to reduce the amount from the sessions they would sign you up for subsequently.

Play it by the ear – get a sense of how it’s going, understand the prospective client’s intentions and analyze what kind of impact your pitch has made. Also consider what you stand to gain from offering the service or advice for free.

I have offered this advice for free – Did you found it useful? Make no mistake, I have been offering ideas these last few months to find new clients.

Here is that hoary old chestnut – There are no free lunches!

  1. August 18, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    Omg, i have experienced this too. As a writer, working for an ad firm, people keep asking me for ideas! and i can never manage to say no! Now, learning the art. 🙂

    liked the article, hopefully can put it to use! :))

    • JayadevM
      August 18, 2012 at 6:37 pm

      Hi Lucille

      Welcome to the blog. Yes, it is tough to say “No!”, but we have toughen ourselves up and do it.

      Many of them wouldn’t even show the decency to acknowledge your work.

      Thank you for the kind words. Best wishes.

      • August 21, 2012 at 8:34 am

        yep, totally agree!
        gotta survive in this big bad world, gotta say NO 🙂

  2. August 19, 2012 at 4:19 am

    I agree with every dot of that article. I have been through worse than that. I wrote a couple of forceful marketing presentations for a coaching institute in my old city for a promised compensation. My pieces became so popular they are being used by them year after year and also many others are trying to imitate them. Unfortunately, the coaching institute went back on its words and refused to pay even a single penny to me citing financial constraints. However, they offered me ‘a long-term association’ with promises of rich fruits towards the end of the year. But I had my lessons already for which I am still grateful to them.

    • JayadevM
      August 19, 2012 at 5:13 am

      There you have it, Umashankar!

      One more instance of the proverbial carrot being dangled in front of one’s nose … only to see it being flicked out of sight.

      People can be crass and so it’s best to be careful – get a formal commitment from the other party when you have somethign good to offer.

      Thank you for reading and for sharing that hugely relevant, albeit disappointing, personal experience.

  3. August 19, 2012 at 5:03 am

    This post struck a forceful chord with me. As an editor, I often have people asking me edit project proposals for free, with the promise of sending more (paid) work my way. It took me a while to wisen up to their tactics. I also have students of my academic writing courses expecting me to edit their M.Phil. and Ph.D. theses as a matter of their right!

    I don’t mind doing work gratis, but I should be the one deciding which one I want to offer free and to whom.

    • JayadevM
      August 19, 2012 at 5:15 am

      Hi Sudha

      You are right. In this country people tend to take kindness for granted and there is no value accorded to Intellectual Property.

      It’s best to be smart even if it irks some folks – better them than us.

      Thank you for sharing that illustrative experience.

  4. August 19, 2012 at 7:05 am

    Oh yes! I agree. This has become a raging epidemic. This ploy To get free advice from a professional. I’ve read the accounts of experiences of editors, copywriters, marketing professional in the comments above and can understand their frustration! Can I add one more profession? Doctors! I feel sorry for doctors whose ” friends” ask them for advice, diagnosis and even prescriptions….all in social settings where it is extremely bad manners to talk shop!

    • JayadevM
      August 19, 2012 at 11:01 am

      Ha! Ha!

      Yes, the disease is raging all over.

      Raji, thanks for stopping by to read and comment. Cheers!

  5. August 19, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    Charging a fee for the demo as well seems to be the way out Jayadev. Here for some classes that I came across for kids, they have a trial class for a chargeable fee. If the people go ahead and sign up for some programme after the trial, then the fee for the trial getswaived off in the final payment. This could apply to your scenario as well rt?

    • JayadevM
      August 19, 2012 at 3:42 pm

      Hi Jayashree

      Yes, that is a good technique. We can discourage the nuisance bunch with that, but there are situations when we really need to give a free demo.

      Thank you for stopping by.

  6. August 20, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    You should have a public kit- standard stuff you’d repeat- use only these during an unpaid demo

    • JayadevM
      August 20, 2012 at 12:18 pm


      Welcome to Sales Coach BLOG.

      Good idea! That is a useful input.

      Thank you – look forward to seeing you here again.

  7. Jamy
    August 23, 2012 at 7:08 am

    Free advice eh? Remember when I was working in Abu Dhabi and this Omanian General Manager called me into is office and asked me what recommendations I would like to make to drum up more business in the 3 main restaurants- I was excited and dove straight into the project eager to impress my GM as well as make myself useful to the company not just as a Supervisor but also as someone who likes to think outside the box. Took me about 3 days to compile my report and submit to the GM for a discussion. Guess what, I was called in to the GM’s office and given my termination notice citing my inability as a supervisor to drum up business in the restaurant as the reason for immediate termination. I actually laughed at the GM as he announced the decision and asked him if he saw my recommendations and took those into consideration before deciding that I was unworthy of being employed there. His response was that I am playing politics within the restaurant and kitchen staff and creating an unhealthy environment to work and therefore my recommendations are insignificant- I was quite baffled by that response because I have always hated politics and all the deceit / double standards that come with it and finally realised that I was royally hoodwinked. In fact , following up with some of my ex-colleagues, the mean / double-crossing GM and the F&B Director actually went ahead and implemented 2 of my main recommendations which I had mentioned within a month of joining up. I am still proud of the fact that I could give free advice to people more experienced than me when I was still finding my way up the ladder.

    • JayadevM
      August 23, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      Hi Jamy

      Must have been a rude shock for you at that time. Working with a manager who is nasty and unkind can sap your energy and kill creativity.

      This man must have been political and insecure too – must have seen a competitor in you and so conveniently eliminated you from the system.

      But you have done well in spite of that bad deal – and got a good lesson in the process.

      Thank you for sharing this anecdote.

  8. September 30, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    nice article jayadev … very useful too ..

    • JayadevM
      September 30, 2012 at 7:46 pm

      Thank you, Haroon.

      Am glad you found the message useful.

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