This week, my colleague Ashley Milne-Tyte, who publishes a fascinating blog and podcast series The Broad Experience, reached out to ask me my thoughts about women who are beleaguered by people asking for free help, and how to best handle it. The question got me thinking more deeply about the situation, and when I did, I realized that over the past few years, I’ve evolved beyond my initial anger and resentment over people reaching out with their hand out, asking for help.
I remember when it first started to happen in a bigger way to me – that strangers by the hundreds would ask for free help. Two years ago, a Forbes post of mine about LinkedIn and busting the 8 damaging myths about what it can do for you, went a bit viral, and that week, I heard from over 900 people asking for help to review their LinkedIn profiles, resumes and career directions. I was stunned, and frankly, really pissed off. I thought, “Don’t they understand that this is how I make my living, as a career coach and consultant?” And I also scratched my head at the audacity of people to reach out to a stranger asking for help, hoping for it quickly, without offering anything in return.
Now, I feel quite differently. After speaking with Adam Grant and reading his amazing book Give and Take, I was struck by the shame and sadness I felt at not being willing and happy to help more people in deep need. I realized that I didn’t just want to be of service to the affluent; I long to help people of all socioeconomic levels and all walks of life. So I got going building free and low-cost programs and resources that anyone and everyone can take advantage of, and be supported. And I feel so much better because of it.
Many of us who run service-related businesses (and many who don’t), want to be of help in the world. Yes, we run businesses and need to earn money through these ventures, and we have to learn how to charge fairly and appropriately for what we offer, but we also want to use our talents and abilities to move the needle in some important way. I’ve found that creating free and low-cost programs (that cost me very little to produce) as well as offering my top-level services is the way I can move the needle.
Below are 5 key lessons I’ve learned these past few years about how to view, experience, and handle being asked to give free help:
Stop being mad – it’s a waste of energy.
It’s best to simply get over being mad and resentful that people reach out for free help. We need to realize that people don’t necessarily understand our business model, and aren’t trying to be disrespectful when they ask for help. We need to educate them on what we offer and what we don’t, and be clear, without apology.
We actually can be of great help in just a few seconds or minutes of time.
Judy Robinett (author of the great book How To Be a Power Connector) demonstrated to me that you don’t need to spend hours with someone to be of help. Just a few minutes, an email intro, a powerful connection, an opened door – that’s all it takes. Finding ways to help people without exhausting yourself to the bone is the way to go.
No, I no longer let people “pick my brain” for free, but where I can, I offer quick tidbits, insights and ideas.
Developing free or low-cost programs that help people who can’t afford your services is a WIN/WIN.
I’ve now created an array of great free and lower-cost resources that I point everyone to, when they’re asking for free help. I’m excited about these resources because I’ve seen that they move people forward. The free materials include Career Path Self-Assessment, Career Success Readiness Quiz, Resume Guide, LinkedIn Primer, Study Guide for my book, etc.). I also have more affordable training programs that a larger number of professionals can take advantage of.
I’ve found that having these resources to point people to allows me to be of service at the level I wish to for folks who can’t pay my coaching fees. It also allows me to protect my private time and my private coaching work, which comes at a premium. I recommend this step — developing great, free materials that you’re happy to give away — a teleclass, newsletter, an audio, a video, downloadable guide, etc. — to all folks in the service business who want to help people in the largest way possible. And the kicker is that the free materials always generate a great return of some kind for me as well.
Craft an authentic, personal response that works.
Because I hear from hundreds of folks a month, I can’t respond personally to each one. But I’ve developed communications that I’m able to customize and send out to folks who reach out to me wanting free help, explaining that due to the high volume of requests I receive for free help each week, I’m unable to offer tailored recommendations to folks who aren’t my clients, because to provide effective help I’d have to know much more, and that requires time and commitment. But I’m happy to point them to my free and low-cost resources that will be of service.
I value connecting with my community and with most everyone who writes me, but I’m not developing each response from scratch.
Helping people who need it doesn’t make you a doormat.
Read Adam Grant’s book Give and Take and you’ll see that many of the most successful people in the world are the most outrageously generous givers. Giving something for free doesn’t make you a loser, it makes you a giver. The key, however, is to give in ways that nourish, enrich, and support you, not break you down. That requires clarity, commitment, systems that work for you, a well-defined vision of what you want to achieve in the world, and powerful boundaries to support that.
In the end, I’d ask this: What would you rather feel – resentful and angry or happy to be of service in bigger ways than you ever imagined?
What’s your biggest challenge in addressing requests for free help?