The Simple Tricks Experts Use to
Always Get Paid For Their Time

image of stopwatch

When I think about it, I still get that feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I was chatting with a woman with an interior design business about the changes she needed to make in her website. The conversation was going well — she loved all my ideas and was ready to rebuild her site.

I started getting excited, thinking I had found my next project. I was already putting together her proposal in my head. Then she uttered those dreaded words …

“I’d love to take you to lunch and pick your brain sometime.”

I didn’t know what to say or do. I felt my face turning red and I stammered out an excuse about getting back to her when I checked my calendar.

Requests for “brain-picking” are rampant in any business, and they’re never fun if you’re the one whose brain is being picked. It used to happen to me so much that I found myself becoming resentful.

Every time I spoke with someone new I heard a little voice in the back of my head saying “Ugh, I bet they’ll never hire you, they just want a bunch of help for free”.

That little voice was not very helpful for landing clients

If you’ve ever been in this situation, there is a way to turn this around. There is a way to handle these situations with grace and without frustration.

There’s even a way to make those freebie requests go away — or, even better, turn into paying clients.

It is your job, and your job alone, to set appropriate boundaries and clear up what you’re happy to give for free and what you charge for.

That might be hard to hear. But if you want to move through these situations with grace (and encounter them less often) you have to stop placing blame — and start making it a policy to get paid for your time.

Sound impossible? It’s not. Here’s how:

1. Take full responsibility

The most important thing you can do is stop being angry at the prospect for asking.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. If you were given the choice between getting a new computer for free or paying for the same computer, you’d pick free every time — and you’d never think about the company who doesn’t get paid for the sale. Why would you?

I know free is my favorite price for everything.

It is your prospect’s prerogative to ask for your time for free. Let me say that again — it is their prerogative to ask.

In fact, they’d be missing a golden opportunity if they paid for something when they didn’t have to. You can’t blame the prospect for taking the smart route.

You’re also missing the subtle compliment that goes with being asked for advice.

When someone asks you for your time for free, be grateful that they view you as someone who can offer valuable advice. Gary Vaynerchuk constantly says how grateful he is to get thousands of emails a day — he doesn’t take it for granted that every one of those people thinks that he is worth taking time out of their life to write to him.

Everyone asking for your time is already “sold” on you to a degree — they must be or they wouldn’t be asking you for more! Instead of viewing them as a dead-end cheapskate, see them as someone who is so invested in you that they’ll either be a potential client or a source of referrals.

2. Clearly establish your service offerings

Sometimes people ask you to work for free because you haven’t given them anything to buy.

When I offered web design I didn’t have any packages for ongoing support. I charged clients a per-project fee, and considered the project done when the client signed off on the design.

Invariably, people would contact me after the project was officially “over” with some tiny request — things that literally took 5-10 minutes of my time. Crafting a new invoice for this small request seemed silly, yet all of these requests were starting to seriously eat up my time.

I started to feel like I had to provide free service for life for each one-time purchase, and I felt like people were taking advantage of me when they asked for these small favors.

Looking back, I can see that they weren’t taking advantage of me. The issue was mine. I should have had a clearly-defined ongoing support package to offer in response to those requests.

That would have made things clear — either you had purchased my ongoing support or you hadn’t. As it stood, everyone was in the grey zone.

If you don’t like people asking for your time for free, but also don’t have any sort of well-defined offer in place to charge them for that time, the blame falls squarely on you.

3. Decide what you’ll give away …

What are you willing to give out for free?

This is where content marketing is your friend, because you offer plenty of valuable free resources like your blog or newsletter.

It also may be appropriate to do brief introductory phone calls, or host one group in-person session per month for people who are interested in working with you.

Whatever it is for your business, get clear.

For the record, you do not have to offer any time for free. It is possible to get hired without any kind of free consult beforehand if you do a great job building the relationship ahead of time with your content marketing. In my business people sign $5,000 contracts with me without any kind of free introductory consult.

4. … but don’t assume that free advice is all they want

We often make the mistake of assuming that someone isn’t willing to pay just because they ask to “pick our brain.”

Again, they’re asking because we all love free. That doesn’t mean they’re unwilling to pay, it means they’re hoping they won’t have to.

They’ve expressed interest in learning more from you, which means they are a potential client and should be treated as such.

Remember that you are in business here, which means that you exchange value for money. Don’t let “free” become your default mode. It is your job to take the lead.

If you lead them down the free path that’s exactly where they’ll go. Lead them down the customer path instead.

5. Respond with confidence

Here’s a script for how to handle someone asking you for coffee or lunch to “pick your brain”:

I’m glad to hear you’re interested in getting deeper into this. The next step is my one-hour consultation. Would you like me to tell you how that works?

Notice that you’re asking permission and putting the prospect in the driver’s seat.

You’re also using the clear service offering that you established in step two. You’re not explaining why you’re charging, because there’s no need: your time is valuable. That’s a given. Even if you’re not used to thinking of it that way yet, get used to responding to these queries as though you are.

If they want to hear more about your consult, that’s great! You have the green light to sign a new client.

Some people will backpedal and start saying they’re tight on money. Here’s another script you can use in that scenario:

I completely understand, you have my card so just get in touch with me when you’re ready. You can also take a look at the articles on my blog if you’d like some more general advice that can tide you over until you’re ready to embark on this project.

What you don’t want to do is hedge, waver or discount. Stand firm with full respect for your business and you’ll find that the prospect will share that respect.

Hold firm and freebie requests will fall off

You’ll notice that the people at the very top seem to struggle with this topic less, even though they get the most requests.

Why? When you’re clear and confident in what you offer, paying for your time becomes the natural progression.

Get clear, get confident and start being honored by those “freebie” requests. That’s how you become an expert that always gets paid for their time.

If getting all of those requests because you’re the top expert in your field is a problem you would like to have, check out my course Creating Fame. It’s a step-by-step guide to making you and your business famous using social media. Enrollment opens for a limited time on Thursday, October 7th.

About the Author: Laura Roeder is a social media marketing expert who teaches small businesses how to create their own fame and claim their brand online. She lives in Venice Beach, California, where she video blogs, makes frequent trips to the library, and volunteers with local middle schoolers.

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Reader Comments (150)

  1. says

    I’ve learnt how to put a value in the time I take reading blog posts by taking something out of it I can actually put to use. THIS post is VERY useful and I WILL be using this to think about how to value the time I spend with these requests from clients. Thanks Laura – for the free info too 😉

      • says

        Hmmm… I think your brain is equally beautiful as you. LOL.:)

        Thanks a lot Laura. This one really helps. Sometimes, we really neglect the value of time. And I think that’s what we miss all the time, specially the service providers.

    • says

      I’m a big fan of this idea as well Sherwin, I’ve always thought too, that the value in posts, was more in the comments than anything else.

      MOst of the time, I make posts thanks to questions people ask in other websites and blog posts.

  2. says

    Putting a script into place definitely made a huge change in how I responded to request for my time. For the longest time, I was afraid to say anything but yes — it felt like the only way to land some people as a client was to give them a free initial consultation and lunch counted. Just having a way to respond really made it a lot easier on me.

    I do sometimes still go along for a brain-picking session, if I think that the person who is asking for it is going to be good for brainstorming. I’ve come up with some great ideas, just by listening to the questions people ask. I don’t do it often, but that’s how it goes.

  3. says

    If you’re starting out and don’t already have content to burn, you can turn these requests into gold by saying yes to them and using the conversation as the basis for a podcast, blog post, or article. You can afford to be generous with your time if you are simultaneously building valuable intellectual property. Just be sure you repurpose your answers in a form that you can use in content marketing or even in retail products and programs.

    • says

      Jon Morrow did exactly that — he solicited a good chunk of free consultations here on CB, then turned those conversations into market intelligence for further blog posts and a product.

      • says

        If the person looking forward to pick your brain:

        is a newbie = See if both of you can collaborate together

        is a veteran = Get to know what the pressing points are. This will help you know how to crack good deals with others

        is an expert/master in his niche = Grab him! Testimonials, referrals and good chunk of advice awaits you!

        Finally its not about the picking brain issue, its about what solution do you derive out of tht.

      • says

        When I first started my marketing consultancy, I did a lot of freebies. I used it to research the market, find out what business owners in the area wanted and took it from there.

        What I didn’t do then, which I would know is to turn the research into articles. I’m a writer and the content was there in front of me. I just didn’t use it.

        I do now, but the folly of business youth, eh?
        Lessons learned.

    • says


      That’s a great idea!

      I do a lot of Forum responses and I was just thinking about using any of those troubleshooting issues on my blog as a catalyst for helping people see I know what I’m doing.

      Thanks for sharing.


      Thanks for this post. It’s one of the best nuggets of truth I’ve read lately!

      • says

        Chase, making those forum responses into blog posts is genius. Great for SEO too, if people are posting about it you know others are googling how to do it! And you’ll have the exact words your prospect is using to ask the question.

    • says

      Excellent point Molly! And it brings up a larger issue – when you DO give away time for free have that clearly defined as well. How long are you going to help the person? What do you want to get out of it? What do you want them to get out of it?

  4. says

    I’m in the process of creating the consulting section of my business, and I found this to be VERY helpful.. Making the offer has been the hardest part for me.

    thanks for the great post

  5. says

    Super helpful to me for having a little script to go by. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words. (And I definitely have more trouble with that f2f than on paper, when I can revise and rework for an hour or two.) :)

    • says

      Yeah the script is golden!

      Now that is a product idea Laura, or do you already have something like that in your back pocket to share?

      Perhaps a recommendation on where to find scripts like those you offered?

      • says

        I won’t be coming out with a product like this but someone should! If anyone has a resources like Marlee is looking for please let us know! I agree it’s a great idea.

      • R David Baker says

        I would be honored to discuss rates for developing custom scripts for you in whatever business situations catch you flat-footed. Having several years of telephone customer service experience, I *know* what a good script looks like, and can also offer coaching on how to deliver scripted responses without *sounding* like they’re scripted.


        (Now I’m going to start working on a “What to say when you’re asked to work for free” article.)

  6. says

    This post was super helpful, I appreciate the time you took to write it! I am a private educator and as my love for information borders on obsessive, it is difficult to not share everything with my clients in casual conversation! If I did this, I would never get paid for anything. Thank you specifically for the little script, I will give that a try this week.

    • says

      Kimberly, I’m with you. I’m a natural born teacher and I love to give information away to help others…often to my financial detriment! {More than once a prospective client or non-active client who’s emailed me to “pick my brain” will come back and say, “Wow! Thank you! Shouldn’t I be paying you for that?”} It *doesn’t* always pay to overdeliver…especially when nobody’s paid to begin with.

      Laura, your post here gives me a framework for how to look at these requests. Thank you!

  7. says

    Thanks to Molly Gordon for tweeting this… wow, what great information! And written in just the kind of supporting but firm tone some of us need–“there’s no need to explain why you don’t work for free, it goes without saying.” Right. I keep forgetting that.

    I wonder if people who’ve spent the majority of their career working for a paycheck have a harder time adapting to the no, let’s not do lunch, let’s make you a client approach?


    • says

      Interesting Mark, I’m not sure what makes paying for services harder to swallow for some people. I suspect it’s their own issues with boundaries and money.

  8. says

    I think that “pick your brain” lunches and other incidents are an awesome time for entrepreneurs to use that as a verbal sales letter for your services.

    Just like with any copywriting, you want to bait the hook 95.638% of the way. Give away ALMOST the whole answer to the picker and then explain how you make a living.

    Show them that you have a TON of ideas for their business if they are willing to make a legit consulting appointment, or show them how hard you’re willing to work for them if they will hire you.

    …tell them that’s the way they will find the rest of the secret, just like a sales letter.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

      • says

        Thanks for that information Laura and Josh. I’ve received two calls this week looking for ‘pick my brain’ lunch and coffee.

        I’ve decided to go on the day that I look after my little baby son. That way, it’s an informal chat but at the same time, I’ll have my selling hat on.

        Take care,

  9. says

    Perfect timing! This exact thing happened to me yesterday. A potential client “picked my brain” then promptly gave the contract to someone who bid lower than I did.

    I was mulling over how I would handle this in the future and then this article came through my email. This is great information and the timing couldn’t have been better.


    • says

      You’re welcome Joanne. I wrote the article because I was in your position so many times in my web design business and I understand the frustration!

  10. says

    Thank you! I am very guilty of ending up resentful because people get so much for free. This article could not come at a better time. I have never actually had a site for my web building and social media services. It has currently been word of mouth. But I’m in the mist of building one now and i am marking this page to reference as I clearly outline my rates, etc.


    • says

      I think resentment is a natural reaction, Kris. And yet it is so costly. It eats away at our energy and confidence. And it can create an ongoing mood that makes us much less attractive and engaging, even to people who are interested in paying.

    • says

      Kris having a page like that is so smart and makes your life much easier. It makes your prices firm and clear, instead of feeling like a number you just pulled out of the air.

  11. says

    Great post! Getting paid for the true amount of work I do is usually where I get quite frustrated. For some reason I get this guilty conscience when I’m creating a quote or invoicing so I never get back what I put in. My business is young so reading articles like this really helps with my pricing confidence.
    Thanks for the great advise! Karen

      • says

        Haha so true Gobala! Karen I think money confidence just comes from practice practice practice. One someone pays you an amount you’ll be confident that you can get that much, then you just keep bumping it up. That has worked for me anyway.

  12. says

    This is a similar issue, and I would be interested in feedback. I recently did a small trade for services with another consultant. It’s clear to me that I provided a great deal more time and value than I received in return. That would have been ok if the consultant had decided to hire me for PR services, but when I gave her a cost range, she said even the minimum level was far too much for her budget. I think I know the answer to this dilemma, but again, I’d be interested in comments!

    • says

      Chris, I suspect you know this. ‘-) When negotiating a trade, it is just as important as when negotiating fees to state specific and equitable terms for the exchange. I specify retail for retail when I do trades, and I make my fees clear. I do allow some leeway in the time frame for exchanging services, so I may deliver coaching in three months while receiving body work (for example) over a period of six months.

      I don’t think I have ever done a trade in the hopes that someone would later hire me, though it has happened. And I don’t trade except for products or services that I would have paid cash for anyway.

    • says

      I think Molly answered this beautifully. I also want to add that someone will almost never pay your rates after you’ve given them a barter – again, why would they? You’ve already set your price as “free”, they aren’t going to pay more. At this point I would just make it clear that you’ve both fulfilled your ends of the bargain and move on.

      • says

        So true, Laura. I think of pro bono work as an exchange of my services for specific value. It could be the opportunity to road test a new product or program while getting substantive feedback. It could be a way to support an individual or program I would otherwise support with $$$. In any case, whenever we provide products and services, we should be treating the exchange the same way we would a sale.

  13. says

    Very true, people always want to get free stuff. The other day someone came to my office and started asking about Internet marketing, and I shared as much as I could but when I felt they were taking up too much time, I did suggest my personal coaching option.

    To which they replied that they didn’t have money (pure nonsense) so I suggested they subscribe to my blog and politely ended the conversation.

  14. says

    What a great post and so well-timed for me too! I’ve found myself almost cowering at the thought of meeting a prospect and I realise now it’s all because I haven’t set boundaries.

    Thank you for the easy script. I have a meeting with 2 prospects tomorrow so I’ll test drive it and see how it goes; I already feel more confident going in.

    • says

      Awesome Claudine, please report back after your meetings! Yup, without your own boundaries you certainly can’t expect your prospects to set them for you.

      • says

        I tried it with one client and cringed inwardly waiting for her response but she said she was happy to pay for my time. We ended up having a really productive meeting!
        The 2nd one wasn’t even an issue. We met to discuss other business and I sowed some vague seeds suggesting what she might implement. I wanted to test this, I guess – nothing like jumping in the deep end. She said she wants to book a proper consultation with me. I was prepared and didn’t need it!
        So it went really well. I feel more confident having the scripts in my belt and I think just being more aware to watch out for what I give out makes a difference.

  15. says

    Nice thinking here! Always helpful to provide the words someone can use to properly and politely suggest you do have a living to make!

    Keep up the great posts. Good stuff here, Daddyo!

  16. says

    What an excellent article.

    “Remember that you are in business here, which means that you exchange value for money. ”
    “When you’re clear and confident in what you offer, paying for your time becomes the natural progression. ”

    Those statements tell me all I need to know about my business relationships.

    My attorney even charges me for adding up the bill and sending the invoice. He charges for every minute of his time.

    If you think about it, our most precious commodity is our time.
    We can always make more money but we can’t get any more time.
    I believe that if we are doing something for someone in a business capacity, we should trade that time (value) for another type of value (money).

  17. says

    Hi Laura,

    This is a great post. I’ve been considering lately whether or not to start offering consulting services for marketing based on all of the stuff that I’ve been learning and working with. One of the initial questions that I had was whether or not I needed to give away any free consulting. Based on this post, I think I’ll try to do everything as paid consulting and directing people back to my blog for free content.

    It seems to me that even with free content on a blog, people will still want to pay for consulting because they won’t feel confident enough to do it themselves or they may just not have time. This means that content marketing is incredibly valuable because it proves your proficiency.

    Also, the #1 rule of selling is to ask for the sale. Most people feel uncomfortable with this, but it’s a must. You won’t make a sale without asking for it. Even if you don’t say anything incredible, simply asking for the sale makes a huge difference.

    Thanks for the great post! I’d love for you to stop by my blog sometime.


    • says

      Agreed, even with tons of free content people will always want to know how you think it applies to their situation. And excellent point on asking for the sale! That really gets lost for most people when it comes to “brain picking” territory – they think their opportunity to ask for the sale has passed but that’s really not true.

  18. says

    Laura, Excellent topic and well written take on the matter. I agree whole-heartedly that a little “attitude adjustment” on behalf of the would-be consultant is usually in order when we find ourselves getting bitter about people asking for free (been there a few times).

    I also think it’s true that most of us do some work for free, it’s just a matter of how much, and only we can know and set those boundaries.

    As for people asking to “pick my brain”.. that saying still rubs me the wrong way, especially when people offer lunch or coffee, I don’t get mad about it but I know what it means (in my head anyway). Typically they [subconsciously] think of that as “payment” for the hour and where I find that situation a little dangerous is in the old pricing argument that once you discount your price you “set” the buyers expectation to that price, thus adding a barrier to getting them to pay the “real price.”

    The fact that it was “discounted” doesn’t stick in their head so a $15 or $20 lunch for an hour can subconsciously set your brain-pickers expectation that $20hr is what your time is worth (or what they could be paying for it). I’d rather do coffee (show up early and buy my own) and GIVE them an hour. During the conversation I’ll let the know what the real rate is. That way, when when I hit them with triple-digits, they don’t freak out (or keep wanting to do lunches).

    Just my take on it but I try to avoid compensation that isn’t actual payment to keep things from getting cloudy.

    • says

      Great point Scott, I totally agree. I actually love helping entrepreneurs for free, and I do that for several people. But there’s no barter, no lunch buying, like you pointed out I’d rather just give it out when I want to no strings attached.

      • says

        Helping someone for “free” for me doesn’t exist. I am quite willing to do the little things for clients like making a minor change, but I always remember to ask for a referral in exchange. I equate it to asking for their business.

    • says

      I agree with you Jason. I’ve been doing consulting work for over 20 years and talking money is always interesting.

      In my experience there are a number of different scenarios:

      1. you are asked to present a proposal [creating it is unpaid] … and you know you’re pitching for a contract that exists. You win some …

      2. Someone asks what you do and after a short chat they do the ‘let’s have lunch’. I have had these lunches and was really clear that if they wanted any work done it would cost a certain amount. I see these lunches as potential pitching opportunities and have been hired a few times. It’s a kind of ‘get to know you’ session on both sides.

      3. I am asked to give free time to a person or organisation that I value … and I decide whether I give the time or not.

      And then there’s the times when I’m chatting with people [online and face to face] and I see that they are trying to solve a problem.

      They don’t ask for anything … I’m the one that makes the decision to offer information, support, advice and links.

      I was in a cab last week and the driver asked what I did. I told him about my online business and he said ‘will you build me one?’. I asked if he’d explored online … had a blog … did online courses … used FB/Twitter … read blogs … nope.

      I politely told him that my business partner and I were really flat out launching our own business and it wasn’t really a service I offered. I encouraged him to go online and read blogs like this [and yours Laura] … and get a feel for how online businesses were run.

      I think it’s about being clear what you are prepared to give for free and to whom … and then be brave and show you understand the economic value of all your skills and experience.

  19. says

    This is great. Especially for a guy who’s known to do nothing but give free advice. And on that note: Once I started charging money for it, people actually started taking heed of what I said! Curious, no?

    • says

      Curiouser and curiouser! 😉 It’s true Martin, the more people pay they more they get motivated to actually get their money’s worth by taking action!

      • says

        Hah, yes. I know I paid attention when I hired JohnnyBTruant. And it did me a world of good.

        Curiously enough, I’m working with a client who hired me as a writer, but he needs a marketer more. But since it’s on a reasonable hourly rate, he’s disregarding half of what I tell him. Tough. Wish I’d been hired as a consultant, he’d have already been kicking ass big time.

  20. says

    Hi Laura,
    Great post! I get that all the time. People frequently come out with:
    “I’d really love for you to edit my book/dissertation/website but I just don’t think I can afford it right now.” If the chat about their work has lasted more than three minutes then I always left feeling guilty about not helping them on their way for free.
    Now I’m building the blog to put the free advice out there where it belongs. I’ll be sure to add a consultation service for those looking to buy an hour of my time rather than hand me a 20 hour project.
    It’s nice to read your writing for a change; I’ve been watching your videos and I love them but I do like wisdom I can print :-)

    • says

      @Jax: People don’t know they need your services. Or, they do and ignore the need.

      If those people you mentioned have blogs, take one of their previous blog posts, do your thing with it, and show them what’s possible.

      Should take 10 minutes and will prove your worth. I’ve done this countless times.

  21. says

    Excellent advice. It’s nice to hear that other people have this problem, too, and have found constructive ways of dealing with it. Thanks for posting this!

  22. says

    A couple of times I have been called up after a networking meeting by someone who is a friend of a friend of someone I met there who has heard that I am good at what I do. But then it turns out that they are a charity or a person in desperate need of a freeby and just need a little advice. I am so happy to get the compliment but less happy about being landed in a place wher I feel I have to do it for nothing.

    • says

      You never HAVE to provide services for nothing, this is your business and you get to choose how you operate. Keep that in mind Lucy and start practicing a graceful no for those free requests! The more you do it the easier it gets.

  23. says

    You can also view this opportunity as a way to show the person just how involved and complicated your work is. No need to give them all your secrets, just enough to let them know that your expertise and skills are valuable and they would be crazy to try to do it on their own or hire someone with less experience.

  24. says

    Definitely like the advice of “don’t get angry.” It’s a normal response, but it’s great to put yourself in the shoes of the prospect – everyone wants something for free!

    A friend of mine in the fashion industry recently had a post about how she manages her time better – she consults fashion types on how to run their businesses, and her time is her biggest asset! Her post:

  25. says

    Laura, this is an excellent post with really useful solutions. Nice to know it’s not just me has that problem.

    What finally helped me value my time for the requests that seemed insignificant was installing a time tracker. I couldn’t believe how much time some of those “insignificant” requests were taking. I use OfficeTime and it works brilliantly.

    I’m still happy to give free advice to clients and genuine prospects when it feels right but using OfficeTime has stopped me worrying or feeling guilty about what i invoice. My charges are more than fair.

  26. says

    This is one problem that I don’t have. I think that so many freelancers respond to this question–request–with undue rancor that it does deprive them of business. “Free” is the first step in a negotiation. It reminds me of the monty python “haggle” part.

    I think that this hits it. Wanting to be respectful and not get offended when someone wants a brain picking session.

    The other part is this: it’s the responsibility of the vendor to communicate and express his value. It’s not the responsibility of the client to see it, but yours to persuade. That doesn’t mean begging or listing non sequitirs like overhead and time in a project. It means show what your value is.

  27. Kevin Tomasic says

    This article is exactly what I needed! I have one client in particular who is also a friend. I have a hard time charging him (or saying no to freebies) for small brain-picking sessions or for quick tasks. I consider them “favors for my friend” rather than business tasks. You gave me some really strong inspiration, not to mention ideas, on how I can be more professional.

    Thank You!!

    • says

      @Kevin — I think working for friends & family is probably the HARDEST issue I’ve dealt with.

      They expect to get a golden treatment but have no intentions of usually reciprocating your generosity. Do you think these tips will help you be more confident in charging friends for your services?

    • says

      That is a lot of my issue as well! Clients are friends and I end up doing services, and someones even when I mention $$ they don’t follow up and pay. I currently have a couple of friends that owe me that I have been waiting on for a long time.

      • says


        The real crux of the issue is this, if they’re your friends, they’ll understand and pay you what you worked hard for.

        Send ’em a bill. You might be surprised at how they respond.

  28. says

    This was a very helpful post. I have been working at moving away from too many freebies. Defining what I am willing to give away for free will help me to stand firm. I also begin my initial meeting with prospects with an agenda for the entire sales process. The agenda immediately sets the expectation with the prospect as to what they will get before and after a deal is signed.

  29. says

    I just want to personally thank you for this advice. I have such a hard time saying no to people, but the strategies you outline are awesome. Thanks again!

  30. says

    Great entry.

    Many “picking your brains” lunches can be easily turned into a client. They obviously see you as an expert and you can always just “tease” them with giving them just enough information to let them understand they don’t have capability to the do the project themselves or to let the neighbor’s son do it.

    I found that if you don’t charge for something, it doesn’t have value. It might be silly to charge for a 5 minute project (nothing takes 5 minutes) but for a good customer it’s worth as a “favor” or good CS. But that’s your call and your relationship with the customer.

  31. Shiiko says

    Great timing! Was just writing a message to someone explaining that a part of a job had morphed into another new job and that the new work required compensation. It is not strictly the ‘pick your brain’ scenario but it is similar in nature where job boundaries blur and all of a sudden one becomes participant of something else and there is an unspoken sense that one has to handle it within the original compensation. Plus there is a sense of guilt (or self loathing) for not having the courage to speak-up to ask for additional compensation. I started writing the message without a clear sense (of justice?) but your well timed article gave me clarity and direction. Thanks!

  32. says

    This post is so synchronous. This week I’ve had so many free advice requests. At first I was getting annoyed but then I realized that people wouldn’t be asking if they didn’t think I had something valuable to offer.

    I think you’re right in that I need to clarify what I offer. I had a client who kept asking more and more questions, that took time to answer. Eventually I felt like the follow up questions ate up all the money I earned on the initial consultation.

    • says

      “At first I was getting annoyed but then I realized that people wouldn’t be asking if they didn’t think I had something valuable to offer.”
      Exactly! They’re actually halfway into the sales process already.

      As to your second point, yup you need to get clear on if you allow follow-up questions or not. Either the floodgates are open or they’re closed. Because it’s gotta be one or the other.

  33. says

    Yes. It’s amazing how people treat services differently than products. If someone was to walk out of a candy store with their pockets full of Jelly Bellies they would know they were shoplifting. But, these same folks have difficulty realizing they are performing the same injustice when it comes to pilfering expertise. As a social marketing agency, we’ve done well in educating our clients on the value of what we do. I don’t think people should pay for a sales consultation, and we offer them freely (packed with excellent freee advice). But, from that moment on, our time is on the books and we only work with clients who expect this. I’ve learned to filter out the others.

    • says

      Such a great point Michael!

      The “digital/services” age has really created a generation of people willing to horde as much free information as they can.

      The idea of packing your sales consultation with free advice is so counterintuitive, but such a great idea at the same time.

  34. Ken says

    As a photographer, I was the opposite – nothing was ever free. Then I started to offer two free photos to share on Facebook. These are photos that the customer chooses and I upload and tag.

    But, it still goes along with the premise of ‘giving them something to buy.’ Friends of friends would comment “I want a photo like that!” OK, they are $x.xx — when is a good time to schedule?. Like Molly G mentioned, it worked because I had some content to burn.

    • Mitch says

      I think in your case it’s a little different, in that someone came to you with a clearly defined request (ie. I want a photo like that). In that scenario, it’s easy to point out that a pic costs x amount. The general topic of this blog is clients or potential customers who want to pick your brain or use up your time without necessarily buying a certain product.

  35. Marianne says

    Hi Laura. Thank you! One question: how does your 1 hour consultation work? Do you charge for it? I’ve just finished a free (argh!) project, and have bookmarked your blog :)

    • says

      Hi Marianne! I don’t do one-hour consults myself, but you can just charge a flat rate for one hour of your time. It’s best to craft a specific offering for the hour based on the outcome they’ll receive. For example “spend an hour with me and leave with a calendar of topics for your blog”, some specific promise that will get them started in working with you.

  36. says

    Great article. I agree with all of the comments: although “giving away” information seems counterintuitive, it actually helps establish your own authority and problem-solving skills. The more interesting issue for me can be conveying this to my clients who have their own blogs; I believe it, but they often have trouble making that mental leap. Thoughts on that?

  37. says

    Great article. I particularly like the part about creating service offerings.
    As an independent accounting professional, I will always offer a free consultation to potential clients. After that, I track all my time meticulously (or at least try to), in 15 minute increments, and ensure that I bill clients accordingly. That being said, there are circumstances where I offer free advice (especially if they buy lunch) as potential clients and referrers are lurking everywhere…

  38. says

    Brilliant article. I’ve experienced exactly the kinds of conversations you describe and made the same mistakes (like assuming someone won’t pay for my expertise). I’ll definitely be incorporating those scripts and remember that it’s people’s prerogative to ask for something for free (I know I do it myself!).
    Early on (and occasionally I still do it) I would meet with people and use it as a fact-finding mission of my own. I’d find out what the common pain points were for them, what services they were looking for and how valuable a service might be.

  39. says

    Thoughtfully, tactfully put … thank you! I’m inclined to do ONE “brain picking” session as I’ve had several either turn into clients OR great referral sources … but there is that fine line of “know when to fold ’em.”

  40. says

    Great points here, Laura…more than 10 very good years in, and I still give away FAR too much. It’s a curse. But your point that it is essentially my fault, is dead-on: they only pay what I ask for, and when they expect to pay from the start, because they always have.
    I can say though, it happens to me only with existing clients now – over the years, I am getting much better at using price points to filter-out the tire kickers an wanna-bes, and keeping my client list pruned and pretty. I’ll trade quality for quantity there, every time. And pure freetards are not going to stay in my camp for long…there’s dues to pay when you want to stay.
    But this was a great read, and spot-on IMHO – thanks for it. Cheers!

  41. says

    This is exactly what I needed to read today. I’m in the process of expanding my business. Getting rid of ‘free’ appearances is one of the top priorities.

  42. says

    Congratulations Laura.

    As you know, having Michael Hyatt from Nelson Publishers endorsing an article, posting, book or web page is not an easy mission. However, you have had, this privilege and honor. Reading your paper, I have got a feeling that you are a kind of cybernetic digital marketing web developing and selling guru. Anyway as your insights in this moment are FREE, and as you said: everybody prefer of this way…I am taking advantage of your promotion! Really, it is a pleasure to see your sophisticated writing skills, and how you Laura got to call my immovable attention. Thanks!

    My congratulations, and have you a very happy nice one!



  43. says

    Fantastic read and straight to the point.

    In any freelance style busines it can be difficult to ‘ask’ to get paid because either the referral is too close to home or has yet to be proven that your services are of value to them.

    But I wholeheartedly agree that being confident and holding value for your hardwork is the best course of action.

    And really, if we are bitter because we feel duped on how little we make on a client, the quality of our work will suffer.

    Thanks Laura!

  44. says

    Just to take this a step further, I frequently give friends and family discounts for my services. But, when I give them discounts, they tell other people that I helped them for X amount of dollars.

    I solved that problem by always sending friends and family an actual invoice with the full value of the services, then subtract the discount they receive. This way they know the true value of the work performed, and when they refer me to other potential clients, they don’t quote them the discounted rate.

  45. says


    Great article, and I can totally identify the situation.

    My trouble is that:
    1. I’m not assertive enough
    2. I want to be helpful
    3. I want to impress
    4. I don’t want to offend or lose the customer

    Without bragging, my summary so far is, ‘I’ve always been good at what I do, but never been able to make enough money from it.”

    Maybe, just maybe, if I can apply some of the guidelines above, I can change all that.

    Thanks again


    • Mitch says

      Alan, you sound exactly like me. Those 4 points are my problems too, along with the summary! I suspect there are many others like us too.

      This article’s is great, and the comments are a testament to the fact that many people struggle with this issue. I wonder why lawyers are so good at charging for every damn minute, and you never hear them writing articles about stuff like this. I often wonder if they teach this stuff at law school because lawyers seem to have mastered it before they even graduate.

  46. says

    Great article, I guess we are all experts in a field and we are all called upon at some time for our advice, we need to be able to separate between a favor and when to charge for our time. I guess if it’s business related that would be the correct time to charge. We have to give to receive!
    best regards Steve

  47. says

    Like Sonia, I also appreciate having the exact words to say to respond in a situation like this. It’s too easy to get stumped and stammer something lame. I’m glad to have a script I can memorize and whip out when needed.

    Thanks for the tips, Laura!

  48. says

    Great post Laura – Having set guidelines in place before someone asks you to “pick your brain” makes the response automatic. It’s really easy after you make a conscious decision to answer requests in the same way.

  49. Paddy Ozyman says

    Laura, that story is a great lesson for newbie freelancers. As a semi-retired senior, and former freelance consultant in another field, I can tell you it’s not easy to take ‘business’ decisions at the spur of the moment. Unless of course you are a car mechanic, a plumber, or a lawyer; you know what I mean. In most cases, a whole gamut of emotions play their parts. So your remedy about being ready with a couple of ‘scripts’ (I call them weapons) is ok, but it wouldn’t be enough. The pricing structure should include two additional elements to compensate for situations like those Laura described. One is an allowance for business development, and the other is unexpected (actually not that unexpected) post-delivery services. These two, together with a small contingency allowance will add at least 20-25% to your basic fee. Then you can play with your competitiveness. One-hour stop-watch style consultation doesn’t work very well in all disciplines, but it’s a good defence mechanism. Of course each case will have to be handled differently and flexibility will be the key issue. It is good to bring it out at this ‘forum’ though, so a variety of experiences can play out to a common good.

  50. says

    Awesome post Laura. Thanks for sharing.

    That nailed a lot of the challenges I encounter with “let me pick your brain”. Also a lot of goodies in the comments. This will help me a lot in reducing the time I use on brain pickers.

    I also like to pick other’s brains (preferably for free), so I am not a saint.

    This post will certainly help me as a brain pickee and a brain picker.

  51. says

    I think this is a brilliant article, where I can seriously put into action right away in my daily routine even though I may not have a service to provide at the moment. Excellent keep it coming.

  52. says

    Great post. As someone who plans to set up a communications consultancy soon, these are tips that will help me go a long way. Thank you so much.

  53. says

    Had a similar situation happen to me just yesterday (luckily after reading your post here) and I thought about your simple email wordings. Worked well, great advice!

  54. says

    Great stuff here Laura.

    I really like the idea of having a script for “pick your brain” moments. I usually get lots of these from family, friends and those who are friends of friends as well as potential clients. I am one that needs things planned out, usually and having the right words to say helps immensely.

    I also like taking a “freebie” marketing packet with a few printed and other links to things I use for content marketing to give to the person I am meeting. I make sure it’s something that’s inexpensive to give out and not anything fancy. Then even if I get the “not right now” answer, they have something to take back, look at and possibly change their mind down the line.

  55. says

    Obviously you’ve really touched a nerve here Laura – good work.

    I think that this conversation also extends to the value of ideas and consulting work as they relate to projects after the sale is made. Often we’ll have a prospect who wants something simple like a business card or low-budget website and then sees those projects as opportunities to tackle their marketing strategy at large.

    One of two things then happen:

    1. We have to explain that a one-off project is unlikely to be effective in building their brand.

    – or – (more often)

    2. Our natural instincts kick-in and we do our best to provide advice, strategies and even work on the bigger picture

    Even after the sale we were giving away a ton of work for free!

    When projects like this come up we’ve started to position ourselves in a way that illustrates the value of our services if a client agrees to some consulting at the front-end or additional projects in phases.

    It’s a start, and a new way of thinking for us. In this new world our ideas and thoughts are the only thing that gives us leg-up over ever-cheaper labor.

  56. says

    I’m in the process of looking for products to sell. I want to offer something of quality, but I don’t know if I want to promote another brand or create my own. This is a very important decision and I want to make a good one. Reading your post has helped me to see the details involved with selling any product. It is going to help me define what I do when the time comes.

  57. says

    “Brain picking” at lunch is my pet peeve.

    You never get a client out of it.

    I usually say I have little time for lunch but I would be happy to have a short telephone conversation to see if there is a fit and then immediately tell them my hourly fee. And give them an appointment if they are for real.

    I do life coaching. For example, a woman called me to see her mother who is dying with a brain tumor.

    I immediately told her that was not my area but offered to take the daughter as a client to help her deal with it.

    Why are (mostly women) so afraid to ask for pay? Any ideas?

    PS I do brain picking for a friend’s kid who is looking for a job for free.

  58. says

    I went through a similiar situation not too long ago and have since been working on making sure i get compensated for my consultation appropriately. This article definitely sheds more more light into handling this delicate situation and I commend you on sharing your experiences and knowledge with us Laura. Thank you…

  59. says

    Nice Post! I guess you could say “brain picking” is similar to “content marketing” in that it’s good advice that’s FREE.

    The difference is that with content marketing, the advice is going out to a lot of people (via your website) vs. brain picking advice is going to one person at a restaurant. When you do the math, it’s time not well spent — unless of course your lunch date is at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.

    Well, maybe even then your selling yourself short…

    • anastasia says

      That’s exactly it, JC! (which is why when this brainpicking does occur we need to convert elsewhere)

      Great post Laura, you have inspired me to create and publicize my consultation rates. I’m not even in a traditional consultation business but am asked for guidance and advice so often this will either reduce the requests or make them worth my while. Plus, I’m going to conserve and share the info afterward so I don’t have to cover the same ground all the time (boring for me).

  60. says

    By jingo, Laura; what a ripper post! I haven’t been in Copyblogger Land for ages, but your headline, first line and entire article hooked me in a beauty as I glanced at my morning emails.

    There’s a rare feeling you get when you read something that’s useful, authoritative, relevant and finely wrought. You just gave it to me in spades! With best regards and many thanks for the tips, P. :)

  61. Alexandra says

    I have some friends that started writing a blog and all of a sudden started requesting all kinds of things. I should write for them, do their logo, do website design. I was like fine, I’ll help them out a bit. So I start of some logos and then before I even have gotten started one of the blog starters are like, oh I need it something right away just to stick on the site temporaily. I send it to her, and it is GREAT and JUST WHAT THE WANTED. Then her next response she redesigned it herself, seemingly cause she wanted something less daintly. I would have felt like she actually valued my time if would have said that, if there would have been any dialog at all. Also why did she say it was so great the first time? There is no place for “white lies” in a client/designer relationship. So I understand being disillustioned about being expected to work for free.

  62. says

    Excellent article – thank you.
    Your ideas are well articulated, relevant, and a pleasure to read.
    This content will put a spring in the step of all those who don’t know how to handle the “brainpicking” request!

  63. says

    Laura, you mean it’s MY responsibility to draw the boundaries? I can’t just expect the prospective client to know (1) there is a boundary and (2) where it is. Phooey! You just spoiled the major resentments I’ve been copping!

    Seriously, your article could not have been more timely for me. Thank you!

    It helped dispel some guilt I was feeling by declining someone’s request for “just a little feedback” on something they had written. And it helped dispel some cynicism I was feeling when an enthusiastic prospect headed for the hills when money was mentioned.

    I’ll take responsibility, make an attitude adjustment, and use your scripts as springboards for those “uncomfortable” conversations.
    I’m looking forward to fewer of those conversations as I get clearer on my worth and my boundaries.

  64. says

    I worked as Customer Services Rep before and you would be surprised to how many times people would request “something” for free even though it’s clearly stated in the contract that they have to pay for it. They know they have to pay for it but they just ask because , as the saying goes, it doesn’t hurt to ask, right? If a company already states that a customer has to pay for it, yet customers still ask to get it for free. I wonder how small business owners deal with “freebies” requests if they don’t have clear policies of what can be free and what can not. Like many people here, I also believe a clear policy is need regarding “freebies.” It’s great you can help people for free but you are running a business here, you have to do something so your customers can get the services they want and you can earn a living.

  65. says

    This is definitely good advice! I have come up with a consulting package to avoid it as well and if people really want it, they will pay for it! The most important key is your confidence. If you don’t value yourself, your knowledge and your time, you can bet they will pick up on that and not value it either. You must absolutely believe that after working with you, they will absolutely be in a better position that by not working with you.

  66. says

    This is a really good entry! I was kinda lookin’ for something like this. Perhaps to show the cheapskates here in the Philippines about why I charge for my time. Thanks Laura!

  67. says

    I love how you turned the situation into an advantage and how you set an example on how one could be polite and bold at the same time. Thank you for putting these together Laura!

  68. says

    Thanks for sharing Laura.

    It is so easy to slip into giving free consultancy. Like you said, people can get general advice from a content site, if you’ve invested so much time building one. They are also familiar with the quality of your work through your articles site.

    Boundaries have to be in place. Most medical consultants won’t spend time with you so that you pick your brains. Their time is limited and precious. You either pay for it or you don’t get a slice of their years of expertise. We must value what we’ve got and not give it all away for free. The time could be spent creating an info product etc. That could be monetized later on.

    I’ve given others the same advice you’ve given here to other who approach me, yet I slip into the same mode of giving them free advice.

  69. says

    Well, I’m not sure i totally agree with this viewpoint. I like what Molly Gordan says, if you know what to do, you can use these opportunities to your advantage, even if you don’t get work from it.

    The person who wants to “pick your brain” probably knows someone who DOES need your services. So you can turn this in to a referral opportunity.

    And if you’re good, you can get just about any person who has a problem that you can solve, to give you money to solve it. If the problem is bad enough, they’ll pull out the money. It’s up to you to show them how much their problem is costing them. That’s the key.

    I think too many professionals allow their EGO to get in the way and think they are undervaluing themselves by giving out great information for free.

    I disagree! Great information is the price of admission today.

    I believe EVERY PROFESSIONAL should be having lunch with a new prospect every day of the week. You have to eat anyway. Why not get to know someone on a deeper level and share your best practices with them.

    My 3 favorite words are….”YOU NEVER KNOW.” You never know what that one conversation will lead to!

    Be generous with your content, and it will come back to you 10 fold.

    David Frey
    Author of the “Coaches and Consultants Marketing Bootcamp”

    P.S. Your comment, “They’re never fun if you’re the one whose brain is being picked.” Wow! I have fun every time I get to share helpful information with another person. Whether its in front of 2,000 people or one person over lunch. Have an ABUNDANCE mentality.

  70. says

    One of the things that I love most about this post is that it moves us away from blame, martyrdom, blame and shame, through understanding and right into proactive solution. I just moved through such a situation and my cortisol still hasn’t come down! Next time, I’ll employ your advice and stay zen. Thank-you for posting!

  71. says

    What can I say…

    This is an issue that plagues many people I know (myself included), and Laura, you have by far the most re-freshing take on it.

    Personal responsibility, set boundaries, put offers in place, get clear, and allow the prospect to drive from there.

    Love it <3, thank you

  72. says

    The easiest way to avoid this is the “upfront contract”. That is, setting the expectation in the first conversation with a prospect that the goal of the meeting is to have them initiate a business relationship with you. Set that expectation immediately. That way, your “pick your brain” meeting always closes with a signed contract.

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