Friday, November 1, 2013

The Cost of Free Advice, For What It's Worth

Being asked for "free advice" is a bit like writers who are "Internet Slaves" because it can be difficult to place a value on the advice or on the content being produced.

Prompted by a reporter working on an article about the perils of free advice, I thought it worthwhile to look at "free advice" from the perspective of the person asking for the advice as well as from the perspective of the person providing that advice. 

From my experience, the people who ask for advice do need to ask several questions, including:

  • "Does this person have the requisite understanding of my problem and the expertise to provide meaningful advice?" After all, even if the person is an expert, he or she may not have enough understanding about my particular situation.
  • "If I follow that person's advice, will I need to hire her to implement it?" If so, the advice may be too self-serving to actually follow it. That said, you may get advice from your mechanic while always expecting him to service your car anyway.
  • "If other people pay this person for their help, why is he giving me free advice?" Perhaps the expert is doing so as a favor, to pay back advice you've provided or to pay it forward. Or, perhaps doing so to generate new business. It's important to understand why you're getting this advice to help in determining whether or not to follow it.
  • "If I listen to this person's advice, how should I respond to the person?" This is particularly important if the business owner doesn't like the advice -- you still have to respond to the expert's advice, even if it's to explain why you're not following the advice.

On the other side of the equation, the person giving the free advice should ask the following questions:

  • "Why am I being asked for free advice?" Is this part of a new business pitch, to help out a friend or relative?
  • "How will I feel if the person follows my advice and it succeeds?" If it succeeds, should I expect some kind of thank you (and how will I feel if I don't receive one)? Will I be happy knowing I helped someone out. (That's often how I feel.)
  • "How will I feel if the advice fails?" Will I feel guilty? Can I and should I make it up to the person?
  • "Do I feel I'm being taken advantage of by the person asking for advice?" It doesn't need to be a quid pro quo, but does this person ever help others?
  • "If I give free advice now, will the person continue to ask for more free advice?" It's one thing if the person is asking advice on something that's a hobby for you, and another if they're asking for advice that you otherwise charge clients.
  • "Could this turn into a paid engagement?" Giving some free advice during a new business process is one thing but in some cases, that process is endless so that you may end up giving away a lot of advice to a prospect who never intends to buy your services.
  • "What are the downsides of providing the advice?"For what it's worth, it's often a good idea to keep in mind the phrase "No good deed goes unpunished" because, even if everything goes well, there could be some downsides to providing good, free advice. 
I know this post isn't directly related to PR or social media. But I felt the connection between "free advice" and being asked to write something for free were closely related that it merited a blog post. After all, part of being a thought leader these days is to give away content and insight to a degree that business would not have expected just 15 years ago. Every day, and with most posts and tweets, we're giving away advice without being asked. So I figure it's worth discussing some questions to consider when asking or being asked for free advice.

Let me know what you think.

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