No matter what kind of service you provide, odds are pretty good that someone’s asked you to give it to them for free.
How do you respond to those requests? One way, of course, is to go along with them. And sometimes it’s even the right thing to do. Then there are those other times.
I used to think it was only speakers. Organizations that will pay the caterer, the printer and the AV rental fee often tell the speaker, “We can’t afford to pay you. But it’ll be great exposure for you.”
Exposure. That’s when you die outside in the cold with no coat and no shoes, right?
Turns out we have plenty of company in being asked to work for free. It’s common enough that a lot of professionals have developed good answers. I hope some of these will help you when it’s time to say “no, thanks” to a non-paying “opportunity.”
A graphic designer got a request to “add some design ideas to the proposal.” Which is a nice way of saying “Give us your work and then we’ll decide whether to pay you.”
Joy Stauber is not having it. “We do not do ‘work on spec’ a.k.a. unpaid work. It goes against professional standards for our industry. Clients pay us for our work, as they would pay for any other professional service – such as accounting or legal services – because the work has value and supports their business or organizational goals.”
Leadership Consultant Trisha Squires doesn’t do freebies. “I vet them to make sure they are looking for my services before I sit down. I do not work for free. And nobody else should either.”
Neighbors want free advice from a landscape architect. “Every time I walk by a garden on my street I am asked for an opinion on what to plant, how to plant it, where to get them, etc.”
Does she give away her expertise? No. “I’m taking the day off today! Call me Monday in the office and we can set up an official consult so we can really focus on this.”
Susan Powell is an Interior Stylist who’s sometimes offered that opportunity for exposure. “When I’m approached for this, I refuse and ask if I can get their service for free too. Realtor giving up their commission, restaurant giving me free meals, or the dentist giving me pro bono dentistry. As if exposure will pay my bills.”
Sales consultant Shawn Karol Sandy says, “I just LOVE it when people say, ‘Hey, I’d like to pick your brain.’ After suppressing my internal eye roll I ask them if they want to simply brainstorm at my hourly fee or had a more complex project they’d like to see a proposal for.”
Shawn admits, “It’s hard if you like the person or if they’re friends but I have practiced it religiously no matter who it is and it clearly lets them know this is my business, how I make a living. There is no gray area.”
And what about people who say, “Let’s grab a cup of coffee and catch up?” Shawn is emphatic: “I don’t do long, lingering coffees with freeloaders anymore.”
A financial adviser deflects the requests for free money help by saying, “It depends…I’m not really sure of your situation and this gets kind of complicated so I can’t really give an answer on the spot since you’re not my client.”
Back to my fellow-speakers; this is a familiar situation for us. Bob Roitblat’s response: “I never speak for free, but will speak without a fee as long as there’s as exchange of value.”
That exchange of value is the key, right? Plenty of people provide a free presentation to promote their business; for them the exposure really is worthwhile.
And many professional speakers make more money on their back-of-the-room sales than they could on a speaker’s fee. It’s a completely legitimate model for those who have books, CDs or coaching programs to offer.
But there does have to be some value in it for the speaker somewhere. Which is why I turned down that invitation pompously framed as “pro bono and non-solicitation.”
Tell us how you handle it when someone asks you to work without compensation. And … I have a theory that there might be a gender thing at work here. What do you think?
I frequently get requests for donations of merchandise with “you can put your own logo on it as free advertising at our event.”
My answer — I’m sorry, our donation budget was used up early in the year. I would be willing to provide you a quote for those items. And, I do have a certain T-shirt process that I do provide special not for profit pricing. You will need to provide a copy of your 501C3 status.
Let me guess that they don’t all HAVE 501C3 status, Janice. I like your strategy.
Excellent response Janice Means! Catherine, thank you so much for sharing this Very Valuable information!
My pleasure, Paula. Glad it was useful for you.
Great article Catherine! I can completely relate! What about when a new client gets your bill (after signing a project agreement stating the fees involved) and then starts hemming and hawing about the fee because they feel it wasn’t worth it.
That would frost anybody, wouldn’t it, Susan?
I agree with Susan. When asked for “free” services without any exchange of value, I look the person in the eye and ask them what they do for a living, and if they would provide that service to me for free. That usually ends the conversation, or I see the lightbulb go on in their eyes. You pay the plumber or the appliance repair man; why not pay your (fill in the blank with your vocation)?
It’s funny, isn’t it, Larry, how people see professional services as different from plumbing or appliance repair. You’re right, I wouldn’t try to talk the HVAC guy into free work.
I was a little slow (!!!) in my professional life to figure this out, but the magic words to stop a request for free advice or a second opinion about a dental problem are “If you’ll call me in the office on Monday, I’ll be glad to schedule a convenient appointment for you!” Even the dimmest of dim bulbs understands “appointment” = “charge! not FREE.” (I’m reminded of the story about a gynecologist who at social events was besieged by women with questions. At a wedding reception, he could take no more! “Madam, if you’ll hitch up your skirt and climb up on this table, I’ll have a look.” Problem solved, at least in one social circle!)
Love the gynecologist story, Susan!
Fortunately, I was between coffee sips when I read your subject line. Otherwise, it would have spurted out my nose.
I enjoy the responses you provided. As a freelance writer, I favor the idea that it takes consultation to advise people wisely, which is why it can’t be done on the spot (or for free). Much better than crabby, accusatory statements about how I won’t let you exploit me. How awkward!
As a writer, I’ll give free advice off the top of my head but nothing that involves pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
When a professional writer commits to actual writing, it had better be top notch—always!—or you present yourself as someone not good enough to merit payment.
That’s why it is ill-advised to write for free unless you commit yourself to multiple drafts and perfection. (By the way, free is totally appropriate for family members and close friends who have done favors for us if it feels right to us.)
Diana Schneidman, author, Real Skills, Real Income: A Proven Marketing System to Land Well-Paid Freelance and Consulting Work in 30 Days or Less
Yes, Diana, crabby replies are awkward. But sometimes they’re understandable.
And I’m totally with you on free being appropriate for family and friends. I often say “yes” to speaking engagements because a friend is hosting or sponsoring the event. Of course it also makes me happy if they keep in mind that this IS a business after all and find some way for me to get some value from the experience.
(And about that near-miss in the coffee spewing from your nose? I consider that a high compliment.)
I do social media consulting – I have a general rule that *if* I’m available and IF it takes less than 10 minutes I’ll do a one time “freebie” for people.
One thing I’m thinking of doing is having a regular “ask me anything” program – where I do a 30-minute session and allow 6 people to sign up per session and allow them to ask me anything (then with 10 minutes of self promotion added in — you know it’s like those speakers that will speak for free as long as they have an opportunity to sell their book/program).
Interesting plan, Mary. Keep me posted on how that works out. And let us know how to sign up!
I have a whole process I require folks to undertake to get started with me and none of it offers free advice or work. I cover that process thoroughly on my websites and decline any offers inconsistent with my business process. Also, I don’t think gender is the only reason some people think I should work uncompensated. I simply say, “no.”
Well simply saying “no” makes it crystal clear, doesn’t it, Dahna? And clarity is good.