5 Ways to Respond When Asked to Work for Free

This post is part of an ongoing series, Get Advice/Give Advice, where members ask for help with real-world problems, and we and our members share our insights and experiences.  

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Dear What Now What Next:

I was talking to a friend this morning and we both thought that WHAT NOW WHAT NEXT might be a good place to have a discussion about the fact that women entrepreneurs are always being asked to do things for free.   

I get a request for free design work every week (lately it has been twice a week).  What's with this?  Do men get this as well?  These friends, clients and colleagues start by saying, "I thought that you could come over for a glass of wine and give us a few ideas about our kitchen."  Or, "How about I make a couple of sandwiches, and you help me with my living room"? 

I've been in practice for over 26 years, and they know that I’ve worked with well-established clients, including developers, restaurant owners, schools, etc.  What makes them think that I will work for a glass of wine? 

If I called my friend the lawyer or accountant and asked them to come over for a drink to do my taxes or give me legal advice, they would think that I was nuts.  Most often it is artists, designers and other creative professionals who are asked to “donate” their work for free, at least in my experience. I think it is just disrespectful of the work that entrepreneurs do. Why does this happen?

Do you think that this would be something to start a conversation about?  This is not meant to be a rant!

Boston, MA

Dear KS:

I feel your pain. But fear not, I have some suggestions and ideas on how you might graciously deflect those folks who make requests for free work, and in the process develop some marketing tools that may convert them – and others - into paying clients! 

I agree that this can be a more common problem for entrepreneurs who work in the creative professions.  Often it stems from a lack of familiarity with what that creative work entails.

What follows are 5 key ways you can turn requests for free work into prospective clients, or at the very least, help them to understand that your work is more complex than they might think and your time is valuable. 

When I work with clients to create or refine their marketing strategy, these are some of the key ideas I cover with them. Not only can these tactics help you address the requests for free advice, more importantly, they also make it easier for any new prospective client to understand how to get started in working with you.

1. Point them to tools and content on your website

Do you have content on your web site that addresses frequently asked questions and common client scenarios? If not, you really should develop these key content marketing pieces, whether it be in the form of blog posts, case studies/success stories, webinars or e-books. This kind of content will help all prospective customers understand your skills and expertise at a deeper level. And, it's the ideal tool to leverage for those who want free advice. 

That friend who wanted to exchange a glass of wine for advice on her living room redesign project? I suggest you respond with, ‘I’m sorry I’m not free, but if you want some help with a DIY project, you should check out my blog post on ‘5 Key Questions to Ask When Considering a Home Design Project’”.  Or something along those lines – you get the idea.

2. Offer a ‘Quick Consultation’ package

This is a great way for new clients to experience what it’s like to work with you without a major commitment of time or money. It also offers a way for you to engage with those friends and acquaintances who may only need help with a small project or single question.  

What is it, exactly? Typically a Quick Consultation package addresses one task or issue in a finite period of time (usually one - two hours) for a set flat rate (with an additional hourly rate should the consult exceed the time you allot). You could provide this service in-person in the client’s home, or remotely via video chat. Publish the information about your Quick Consultation package on your web site and direct your friends looking for free advice on a small project to that information.

3. Offer Free Consultation via Phone

Some potential clients may want to discuss their project with you before committing. A free consult is not intended to be a session devoted to providing answers and expertise on their project. Rather, it gives you an opportunity to explain how you work and how your expertise will add value to the client’s project. And it gives the prospective client an opportunity to get to know you better. 

If you take this route, we recommend that you limit the length of the session to 30 minutes and conduct the consult via phone or video chat. Some professionals also limit the number of free consult sessions they offer each month by setting aside a  pre-designated number of time slots on their calendar at times in their workday that are not already committed to paying clients and active projects.  Provide a sign-up process for these free consults on your site, and direct those friends and acquaintances who ask for your advice there. 

4. Barter - or Ask Them to ‘Pay it Forward’

If you do find yourself saying yes to a friend’s request for a more substantial free consultation, you may want to consider asking them to reciprocate in some fashion, with free services of their own provided to you or someone else who can benefit.

This is a gentle way of helping them out while also emphasizing that you value your time and your work and would like them to do so as well.

5. Just Say No

And finally, sometimes the only response that works is a firm ‘no’. Delivered graciously, of course, but 'no' all the same. You could say your schedule is full right now with existing clients. Or you could point out that if you were to provide free services to one of your relatives/friends/acquaintances you'd have to do that for all, so to be fair, your policy is to decline.

We hope these tips are helpful, KS. Good luck!  And let us know what you think.


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