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Four smart ways we freelancers can handle requests for free help

What do you say when someone asks you for free professional advice?

It’s a touchy question and your answer may vary depending on the circumstances. But one fundamental principle always wins the day: We handle this question most effectively when we determine our policy before we are asked.

Speaker / coach Catherine Johns points out that requesters may offer payment solely in the form of exposure. “That’s when you die outside in the cold with no coat and no shoes, right?”asks Catherine.

Instead, she recommends a snappy offer of a scheduled consultation to consider possible solutions more fully. The person who asks then recognizes that a fee is assumed without us having to spell it all out.

Here are four ideas for how to handle these questions:

  1. Suggest that you collect more information and fully consider alternative courses of action to develop a responsible solution. Questions asked of professionals require professional problem solving. Simply suggest an office appointment as noted above. It’s tempting to get snarky and nasty. You may get a kick out of venting your hostilities, but you’ll be remembered at your worst. You will please yourself with your wit and forthrightness while insulting, even terrorizing, the other person. If you go down the low road, don’t expect referrals to their friends who could be actual prospects.

  2. Give as much help as you feel comfortable giving for free, without obligation. For instance, if the question is, “What platform do you recommend for a blog?” and your answer is “Wordpress,” simply say it. Your money is in the implementation, not the single word. If they can carry it out on their own, fine. If not, suggest your (paid) services.

  3. Don’t give half-baked assistance. As a writer, I may give free advice off the top of my head but nothing that involves pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). When I actually write, I write my best work . . . or I write nothing at all. When acquaintances get poor quality work, they don’t consider that maybe it would be better if they paid for you to put in more time. Instead, they pat themselves on the back for not paying for such crap and mark down their opinion of you forever more.

  4. Help out for free if it feels right to you. For close friends and family, this may be totally appropriate. If they do favors for you, you can do favors for them. Nothing at all wrong with this if it feels right to you.

Sometimes we have the totally opposite situation: A stranger phones or emails us with a single question: What do you charge?

They probably aren’t a likely prospect.

This is especially true if they are calling from a major company and likely employ freelancers such as us regularly. If their first—and sole—concern is money, that’s pretty sad. They know better. No use being intentionally rude but don’t waste time with them. In particular, decline to toil over a detailed proposal because it won’t go anywhere.

More likely they are a consumer or a brand-new self-employed person who has no idea what they are doing. They don’t know enough to formulate an intelligent opening question so they lead with the first thought that comes to mind: price.

You may wish to proceed with a helpful question: What kind of help do you need? What are you trying to achieve?

See if they follow your lead. If so, a useful conversation may ensue. If not, cut it short, politely.

Originally posted 9-14-16

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