Work & Purpose

Should You Let Someone Pick Your Brain For Free?

When (and when not) to charge for your expertise and time

Last week, I received an email from a friend asking me to lunch — and asking if I wouldn’t mind giving him some tips about his career.
I happily agreed to meet; he is an old friend and we were long overdue for a catch-up. But lately I’ve been overwhelmed by these “brain picking” requests. And judging by the social media flareup after the recent New York Post article, Why People are Now Charging to Network Over Coffee, I’m not the only one.
It’s not that I don’t want to help. Quite the opposite. I find it enjoyable to mentor, share information and “pay it forward.”
But my time and expertise are valuable and I only have a limited number of hours each day to devote to my business. The same is likely true for you. That’s why deciding whether to let someone pick your brain for free is so tricky.
(MORE: What to Say When You’re Networking)
Of course, people have been looking for free advice for years. But in the old days, they had to pick up a phone or send a letter to request a meeting. Now, anyone can Tweet, email or send a LinkedIn request for a brain-picking meetup over coffee or lunch. It’s no wonder the floodgates have opened.
As my colleague Jennifer Long, the editor of National Career Development Association Career Developments magazine, commented on LinkedIn: “It is a slippery slope with no ‘right’ answer, and it is becoming increasingly challenging with the number of portfolio careerists and freelancers on the rise.”
5 Tactics to Help Make Your Decision

So what’s the best way to handle these requests? While there is no one right answer, I recommend using the following five tactics to make your decision, as I do:
1. Create an exempt list. Kate White, the former editor of Cosmopolitan, suggested in the New York Post article that even those who charge for advice should have a list of people they’re willing to help gratis.
(MORE: When to Refuse LinkedIn Networking Requests)

“When you know your list, it’s easier to create guidelines for how to handle those who aren’t on it,” she said. “Maybe it’s denying the request, maybe it’s changing the coffee date to an email back-and-forth.”
I agree. The people on my exempt list include family members, close friends (and their children) and a select group of valued business associates and “old” clients.
2. Set boundaries. Just because you are willing to get together with a brain picker doesn’t mean you should give him or her carte blanche. You need to be clear about your intentions and the limits to your generosity.
Be sure to clarify the reason for the meeting. Not everyone will be transparent about why they want to get together, so if you’re unclear about the brain picker’s intentions, ask for clarification.
You could say something like this: “Great to hear from you, John. I wasn’t quite sure from your email if your request to meet was just a social catch-up or if there was a specific issue you wanted to discuss. Could you please clarify?” 
(MORE: Why You Should Mentor — and How to Do It)

If the request is from someone you don’t know or you don’t want to meet for free, you can be even more direct, saying something like: “Are you interested in becoming a client or do you just have a quick question?” After reading the response you receive, you can then decide whether to meet, decline or refer the person to your paid consulting services. (Don’t have a paid service? See my tip No. 4, below.)
If you will meet, choose a time and place that are convenient for you. Remember, just because someone requests a lunch or an early morning coffee doesn’t mean you need to agree to that specifically.
Don’t want to take the time for lunch? Suggest a phone or Skype conversation instead. I generally find it more convenient to speak with people by phone at the end of the day, rather then meeting in person during my prime working hours.
Let the person know how much time you’ve set aside for the meeting. For example: “Happy to speak by phone for 15 minutes. I’ll pencil you in for 2:30 to 2:45, at which time I’ll have to jump off for a conference call.” The same hard-stop technique works equally well when scheduling a lunch or coffee meeting.
While most brain pickers will be respectful of your time, some will push the limits, so be prepared with Plan B. For example, as a career coach, people sometimes ask me during brain-picking sessions to take a quick glance at their resumés. Because I know from experience that a “quick glance” often leads to a much lengthier conversation, if this happens, I’m ready to speak up. 
My response: “I’m happy to give it a quick look, but since the resumé is so important, it makes more sense for me to give this a thorough review. Would you like an estimate? I’m happy to provide a quote.”
As Sharon Greenberg, a New York City-based career coach, puts it, “Think of the initial meeting like a ‘free’ taste and then the clock goes on.”
3. Offer an alternative. If turning people down makes you uncomfortable, remember that you can still provide value by referring them to helpful resources and service providers.
Send the person a link to a blog with useful articles; a relevant how-to video or a helpful book. If you’re familiar with another service provider or industry pro who might be able to help, pass along that website. These type of gestures won’t take much time and the person who approached you will appreciate your effort.
4. Charge for your advice. If you find yourself flooded with brain-picking requests or burdened by ones that will require considerable time, consider charging — even if your core business isn’t career coaching or consulting.
For example, The New York Post article mentioned Anne Chertoff, owner of a boutique marketing agency catering to the wedding industry who also offers a “Pick My Brain” service on her website. For $500 a session, she offers 90-minute, one-on-one marketing sessions to fledgling startups in person, by phone or via video chat.
If you don’t want to create your own service like Chertoff’s, you might sign up as a paid mentor-for-hire at sites such as PivotPlanet.com, PopExpert.com or (coming soon) Coalexis.com. The amount you’ll charge will depend on your time commitment and expertise and the site — which will take a cut of your fee — will handle all the back-end administration and marketing.
5. Just say “no.” Finally, in those cases where you want to say “no,” do that. Just be polite.
For example, the next time a semi-social acquaintance asks you to lunch and you have neither the time nor the desire to meet, try this: “Thanks so much for your invitation to meet over lunch. That sounds like great fun. Unfortunately, my schedule is jam-packed these days, so I’m going to have to pass.” Short, simple and to the point.
How to Ask People to Pick Their Brains

One final note: If you’d like advice for the opposite side of the brain-picking question, I recommend the recent article that appeared on Forbes, How to Ask to Pick Someone’s Brain Without Being Annoying, by Erin Greenawald, an editor at The Daily Muse.
And now, I’m off to a grab a cup of coffee with a long-time client. She recently started a web-design service and I’m eager to ask her a few quick questions (very quick!) about my website.

Nancy Collamer
By Nancy Collamer
Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a semi-retirement coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. You can now download her free workbook called 25 Ways to Help You Identify Your Ideal Second Act on her website at MyLifestyleCareer.com (and you'll also receive her free bi-monthly newsletter).

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