I can’t help being amazed at how clueless people can be when they approach experts asking questions and trying to pick their brains, in other words, trying to get a free consultation, either by email or in person.
That may not be their intention, it’s just that they don’t know the workings of this type of business, they don’t realize how busy consultants, coaches and writers can be and especially, they don’t realize they are not the only ones asking and expecting to get some free advice, insight or opinion. If you’re on my side, you’re an expert in your field, struggling to deal with increasing queries, this article may give you some arguments you can use when dealing with this type of request. If on the other hand, you’re someone wanting my help, please don’t feel offended or rejected by what I’m going to share! It is important, however, that you understand that I value my time as much as you do, as well as my expertise and insight.
Experts, coaches and consultants’ assets rely in their minds, their opinions. When you contact them asking what they think about this or that or ask them to help you with your issues, you’re literally asking them to provide the service that others have paid to receive, for free. How fair is that? It’s not! It’s not fair to the expert and it’s not fair to the people that have paid for that same advice. And then there’s that elusive thing called time! Time is precious, but time spent giving advice related to your expertise is money, since that’s what you actually do for a living.
For me personally, it’s not so much about devaluing my expertise, but the time I can’t afford to put into one-on-one connections. Most of the time, I’m so busy that I can’t accomodate paying clients.
A lot of people twist how they see their approach, they’re not trying to steal anybody’s time or devalue their work, all they want is some help, a simple opinion or an insight into their situation. But the reality is that there’s a lot of clueless people out there that will blatantly try to get you to do what you do for a living for free. For instance, I get a lot of emails in the lines of: I’m so lost in my life, I love your stuff, can you help me? or I really like your life planning ideas, but I don’t know how to plan my life, can you help me? And no, these people are not expecting to pay for this help.
People perfectly understand that a doctor may help them, they may even save their lives, but the doctor won’t do it for free. That’s help, isn’t it? But it’s not free (I’m not talking about pro-bono here). Somehow people have trouble understanding that help and charity are two different things! When they approach an expert for advice, they might have trouble understanding that it won’t be free. Some people believe that if they need the experts services, then it’s understood that there will be a charge, but since all they want is information, maybe just a quick insight, it should be free. It doesn’t work like that! When it’s something so simple that it’s not about the expertise, then it’s about time, it takes time to think and craft answers. I, for one, am not a robot!
But I have only one simples question! I’ve heard it so many times! I understand most people approaching experts are innocently just trying to connect and some are really interested in his or her opinion. What they don’t realize is that they are not the only ones! They might think it’s nothing to just respond to a simple email, answering a quick question. They have no idea there’s other 20, 30 people that are thinking the same thing, on that same day…
From the experts perspective it is very detrimental to his time and work to answer 20, 30 emails per day. There’s also a catch! If you respond to one email, you open a door, people take that personalized email as an invitation for an ongoing conversation. That one person you responded to will then think that you’re available to answer anything, anytime, and obviously, for free – now, why would they pay you for your time, if they have found a straight and open channel to your expertise? Soon enough, you’re facing the regular daily 20, 30 emails from new people, plus 5 or 10 that have already established contact with you in the past. Over time, it snowballs. Before you know, you’re dedicating 3, 4 hours to handle all the requests for free help, menthoring, simple opinions and insights about their “situation”. It becomes unmanagable. At this point you have to start telling people you’re sorry, but you can’t answer their emails anymore. They get angry! You’re buddies! You’re friends now! How can you tell a friend you’re not helping them anymore? Most people in this situation will feel rejected and will turn against you, unsubscribe to your newsletter and tell people that you suck.
But it takes only 2 minutes to answer my question! Ok, let’s go back to the ‘you’re not the only one’! YOU’RE NOT THE ONLY ONE! Your email may take only 2 minutes to answer, but all the emails together may take 3 hours! Got it?! However, in my line of work I tend to receive complicated queries that would require a long and well crafted response.
It all comes down to productivity, if you want to get things done you must learn to say ‘no’, even if upsets some people. Trying to play nice and please everyone usually backfires. You may be an awesome person that just wants to help people out and will try to accomodate every request that comes your way, answering every email and comment on your blog, meeting people that want to pick your brain in person and you will do that until the day you’re so burned out and so behind on your work that you’ll come to realize you need to get organized and manage your time appropriately. At this point you will agree with me, you can’t be everything to everyone, all the time. Being a good person and helping people is not doing everything they want you to do for them all the time.
I’ve heard things like: if you answer emails personally and help people for free, you may be nurturing future clients, you should never refuse a request for help, especially if it’s just a simple email question or blog comment.
From my personal experience and talking to other consultants, this is not true. Most people asking for free help are either just looking for validation (they need to know that an expert like you agrees with them) or just want your help IF it is free (they will never pay for advice). I’ve been in this business since 1999. I’ve dealt with all kinds of people and back in the day, when the internet was still young, I used to answer emails personally and yes, I would give advice for free thinking I was nurturing relationships with my readers.
I was very naive, I was wrong and I learned my lesson the hard way. When I published my first book in 2001, I thought a lot of these people I had been exchanging emails for months would be interested in it (you’d think, right?), but no, only a few of them actually bought the book. And it was just a damn book! It wasn’t an expensive coaching program or something that not everyone could afford. When I finally stopped answering emails, these people just vanished. Suddenly they weren’t interested in what I had to say anymore. Some of them sent me angry responses in the lines of ‘now that you are “important” you don’t care about your old readers anymore…’ I agree that you would get some business by estabishing personal contact with ‘fans’, but then it comes down to your marketing strategy.
It’s always advised to avoid activities that consume too much of your time with very little return. As an author I’ve learned that things like blog tours, book signings and nurturing personal relationships with everyone that desires to connect with you is a terrible use of my time and will bring mediocre results. In the perfect world where we live forever and time is not an issue, maybe I would enjoy exchanging ideas with everyone that wants my opinions. Unfortunately we don’t live in that world!
Somehow people tend to think experts like me “live inside my website”, so they’re always available to answer all their questions. My website is up 24/7 so I might as well not sleep and eat at my desk so I’m ready to manage requests that come through my site at all times! It’s sound funny, but it true!
The other day I was talking to a fitness coach that is a friend of mine and she was telling me that people will email her with all kinds of requests, some very complex like asking for complete diet programs considering their age, gender, current and target weight and other metrics. She even mentioned a reader that added a ‘Ps’ to her request saying that she doesn’t eat a bunch of healthy stuff (listing all the foods), so her diet program would have to be tailored to her ‘special needs’! Oh, and she expected a response in 2 days because she wanted to start her diet on a specific day! I’m not kidding! Now, how clueless are these people?! When my friend emails back saying with nice words that ‘it doesn’t work like that’, you don’t get free help from experts like that, people will respond nasty things and unsubscribe to her email list.
I’ve had my share of unreasonable requests, including people that liked my website design, asking if I could build one for them! The majority of emails I get, however, are from reasonable people that just don’t realize they are not the only ones asking for my opinion or advice and just want my insight on something small. Still, I can’t answer those emails.
People don’t realize I’m busy and I’m making a living too. I have car payments, mortgages, bills, family, I need to invest constantly in continuous learning and what do, writing, is very consuming! All that takes time and money, so no, I can’t afford the time to personally answer emails from people trying to pick my brain (or meet for coffee, lunch, happy hour or whatever) and answering just a few is unfair to all the others that didn’t get a response and the people that actually pay me – how would you feel if you were paying for my coaching time and then you found out I was answering emails with the same questions you had for me, for free? I wouldn’t be surprised if you asked for a refund! If you still don’t want to pay for help, mine or whoever, read articles, Google your issues, read books, you’ll find your answers, but please don’t expect me or any other author or coach to take their precious time to craft a careful and thoughtful response, detailing all the tricks and solutions to your problems, because that’s not gonna happen!
If you’re in my situation, an author, consultant or coach dealing with unmanageable number of email and personal requests, watch Marie Forleo’s video (link above) and read Michael Hyatt’s tips. It will give you some ideas to craft responses that won’t piss people off! I particularly like one of Michael’s responses to a commenter that acused him of being arrogant in refusing personal contact with his readers:
I really think it is a matter of stewardship. Contrary to arrogance, I think it takes humility to understand that you have limited resources. You can’t meet everyone’s needs. To try to do so, is to develop a “messiah complex.”
The reality is that my time is limited, just like my money. To be a good steward, I have to apportion it among my priorities. I want to make sure that I am investing in my family, my friends, my employees, my business associates, my church, etc. If I say “yes” to every opportunity, I would end up de facto saying “no” to the more important priorities. (I used to make this mistake early in my career, and my family suffered.)
Another solution is to get an assistant, a virtual one if you work at home. Cutting off direct contact you with and establishing some gate keepers might stop some free loaders on their tracks. As for people that respect your work and genuinely just want your opinion, they will probably become clients, buy your books or whatever you offer if they’re really serious about your stuff. You can also follow the examples of highly sought after people like Matt Cutts and record videos answering some questions or writing blog posts. People get their answer, but it’s not a isolated response. Others will be able to benefit from watching the video or reading the article for the time being.
If some people think you’re arrogant and believe because you’re on the internet you have the obligation to accomodate the needs of everyone that reaches out to you, well that’s their opinion… you can’t do much about it. Just don’t try to please everyone, being nice and ending up burned out, pissing off your family and missing deadlines.