Business purpose

Is giving away free advice a thankless task?

- March 13, 2012 2 MIN READ

Kevin, a fellow soloist, has been experiencing a strange trend over recent months. He’s avoiding helping people. Helping people by giving away free advice, that is.

Some would say this is good business practice. I can hear them right now, chiming in with “Value yourself! Charge by the minute!”

But Kevin is feeling a little sad about it.

When I ran into him in a café, he was slumped over his flat white. Apparently another soloist, just starting out, had sent an email asking for some advice on a specific problem. Kevin had emailed back a considered, step-by-step response explaining how to tackle the situation. It was the kind of thing he usually gets paid for, but this time he thought it best to help this guy out.

Kevin didn’t get a reply. Nothing. Nada. Not a “Ta, man,” in sight. “I’m not going to help that guy out again in a hurry,” he said to me.

We’re often told “People don’t value your work unless they pay for it”, and there is definitely some truth to that. However, it’s not totally grim out there – the Flying Solo forums are a great example of soloists giving free advice to each other.

There is a fine line between giving yourself away for free when perhaps you should be charging, and simply helping another person out.

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We live in a community. Granted, it can be a busy one. But the odd bit of free advice or a free idea is part of a happy business equation.

I knew how Kevin felt. I had recently helped a soloist with a business card design. She asked for my advice and I gave it, including creating a quick concept design to ensure my points were clear. It’s the kind of thing I get paid for, but thought I’d help her out this once.

I did get a reply – a month later. She apologised for not replying sooner and thanked me. Better than Kevin’s experience, but not great. I doubt whether I’d go out of my way for her again.

But the experience had me wondering whether I’ve done the same thing. Have I forgotten to tell others in business how grateful I am?

Gandhi said “Be the change you want to see in the world”, so I’ve decided to make a point of walking my talk. It gives me the warm and fuzzies sending a nice email simply saying “Just wanted to say that I’ve really got a lot out of our chat. Thanks a bunch!” (I didn’t want to get too soppy about it, being Australian and all).

I saw Kevin again the other day and he was smiling. He never did get thanked by the start-up, but he did receive a beautiful card from a colleague he had recently helped out. The card made all the difference. There’s no doubt that Kevin would be happy to help that person out again – anytime.

Have you had similar experiences when giving away free advice? What do you do in this situation? (And thanks in advance for your comments).