How to Give (and Receive) Free Advice, Coaching and other Professional Services… But Should You??

Giving away products is a well-known method of marketing:  Companies are always giving away free samples for consumers to try:  food, drink, office supplies, pet supplies, deodorant sticks… usually in a small, consumable “trial size” format.  In a crowded marketplace that gets even more crowded with brand new Purple Cows every single day, the free sample is one of the most efficient ways for consumers to decide whether they like what a producer has to offer.

Knowledge is being given away too, in small “snackable” bits of insights and “how tos” in magazine articles, blog posts, podcast, seminars and so forth. Chris Anderson’s flawed-single-idea-manifesto-published-too-quickly-into-a-book which came out last year, Free, was devoted to this concept of “giving away the content to sell the service.”

It’s not about the gift as much as it is about the way the gift is given, and received.

But what about that?  What about giving away the service?   Unlike deodorant sticks and three-hundred-word essays, true professional services are a little harder to give away… especially professional development services such as consulting, training, coaching and advisory services such as tax and legal advice.

This (free, longish-but-still-snackable) post will explain why that’s the case, and give  some tips on how to overcome those difficulties — both for Givers (Professional Advisors, or “PA”s)  and Would-be Receivers (“WBR”s). After all, gracefully receiving a gift is sometimes harder than thoughtfully offering one.


  1. Why Would You Want to Give Away Your Professional Advisor (PA) Services?

  2. Five Types of Would-be Recipients (WBRs)

  3. Five Barriers to Gracefully Giving & Receiving Free PA Services (and how to overcome those barriers)

  4. Maybe This Is Not A Good Idea, After All?

1. Why Would You Want to Give Away Your PA Services?

Giving away professional advisory services is not easy.  As the PA, the unit production cost of your time is much higher than the 15 cents is costs to produce a miniature  stick of deodorant. Also, unlike a consumable product,  the value delivered by your PA services is theoretically permanent — this is especially true in the worlds of legal advice and professional development services.  So the fear of freeloaders-who-never-reciprocate may be especially high for you.

So why bother giving it away for free?   I’m going to limit this post and NOT discuss two common, “easy” reasons for giving away PA services:

1) The “try before you buy” demo: This is something that professional service firms will do when working with a clearly identified, prospective client. It’s simply part of the mutually agreed-upon purchase process.

We’re also not going to be talking about 2) The services that’s aren’t really services:  We’ve all been to seminars that were just one big advertisement for services (or worse, a soapbox for someone’s misplaced ego), with only a tiny bit of real, actionable value.   It would be like opening a free sample bag of chips only to find it had the SMELL of the chips inside, but nothing to eat except a few crumbs.  This post assumes that the PA is actually delivering real value as a pure expression of the service itself.  No mere advertisements.

Here is the one and only reason I think you should give away (and receive) free PA services:   

You’re giving it/receiving it  as part of the networking or “giving back” process.  

Simply put:  What goes around comes around.

Can you think of any other reasons to give away PA services?   Other than as an old-fashioned marketing demo, i.e., part of the client sales process?

2. Five Types of Would-be Recipients

Here are five groups of people who you may want to consider offering free PA services:

Group #1)    People who are your friends, who you  like and care about: These are people who you have a purely social relationship with, but every once in a while they are in a situation where they could benefit from something that you do professionally.   A common example for me is helping a friend with their presentation or interviewing skills as they are going through a job search or seeking general career advancement.   Another example from my world is coaching a friend on their  negotiation/influencing skills in some particularly challenging circumstance.

Group #2)  People who aren’t your friends, but you like them anyway. These are people who appear to “get it,” the “it” being that notion of “what goes around comes around.”  More often than not, the interaction provided by your sharing will create a lasting relationship.  Personally, I have a soft spot for geeks and aspiring entrepreneurs, because I was once one of those.  Being generous with my time over the years has opened up some very enjoyable friendships.  So group #2 can become group #1.

Group #3) People who you want to barter services with: This is fairly easy to do, if you know what you’re bartering for in advance.  However,  mature networkers would tell you that true networking — helping folks out with no expectations for return — is all one big barter anyway.  For me, the best things that have happened professionally were the result of bearing in mind the old proverb,

“A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle”

..which to me is a great expression of what Stephen Covey has labelled the “abundance mentality.”

Group #4) Existing clients:  This is simply “over delivery,” aka, going above and beyond the call of duty.  It’s the Baker’s Dozen, plus two.  It’s tipping in reverse — as if the restaurant waitress and chef decide that the patron has been courteous, so they give them an extra dessert.  Most (but not all) clients appreciate a freebie now and again, and are happy to say ‘yes’ to an offer for something extra that won’t cost them anything except maybe a bit of their time.  As a consultant, not only do I consider such “over-delivery” a standard part of my job…  it’s one of my favorite parts of my job.

Group #5) Worthy organizations:  This one, together with the previous, is the easiest. There are innumerable organizations out there that can use your help.  Give them some of your time… use your powers for the forces of Good instead of Evil, for a change. You’ll feel like a superhero.

Any other groups you can think of?

On the surface, it may seem like a no-brainer to give free PA services to the above five groups… but in all cases, there are major barriers — even pitfalls — do giving and receiving too freely.

3. Five Barriers to Gracefully Giving & Receiving Free PA Services (and how to overcome those barriers)

aka, “Here’s Where It Gets Tricky…”

Barrier #1 )  Time : Professional advisory services, particularly training or coaching,  take up a lot of time for both parties — the Professional Advisor and the Would-Be-Recipient. WBR’s may feel too busy to take up a PA on their generous offer, especially if the offer involves sacrificing a large chunk of a workday.

How PAs can overcome this barrier:  Find the “snackable size” that works for your WBRs, but also maintains the integrity of your service.   For example, once in a while a free seat becomes available at a one-day or two-day training program run by my firm… while I think these programs are fantastic and will deliver great lasting results for my WBRs, I don’t always have friends who can take that amount time off, especially on short notice. I find a one-to-two-hour informal coaching session to be far more realistic in terms of time commitment and useful to the WBRs if there’s a well-identified performance objective.

How WBRs can overcome this barrier:   Decide how much time you’re able or willing to devote to whatever it is your friendly PA is offering and then communicate that clearly.

Barrier #2) “If It’s Free, It Must Not Be Valuable” :   We all fall victim to this law of psychology. We attribute greater value to things that cost us more. If something is given away for free, we often think (even subconsciously) that is must have no value.   Combined with the previously described  Time barrier, a  freely offered PA service may therefore  have a perceived negative value to a WBR!   So the PA’a offer to give free services may doubly backfire:  The WBR reject the PA’s free offer and also develop a perception that those services are of limited value, or even worthless.

How PAs can overcome this barrier:  You have to demonstrate the value clearly, as you would with a paying client.  If it’s research-based advisory services, you need to point out the quality of your sources and depth of experience.  If it’s technology-based services, it’s the quality of your organization, tools and know-how. If it’s coaching, it’s the degree to which you will be able to focus on them (the WBR) and give them specific, actionable steps they can take to improve.   The barriers to entry are so low in many PA fields  — everyone and their uncle is an “online social networking” expert these days… same goes for a “personal branding consultant” or “career coach.”   As a PA, you want to let you WBRs know that you’re the real deal (assuming you’re actually the real deal), so give them a sense of the quality of your work, who your clients are, your track record, and most importantly, what’s in it for them.   Having said that, be careful with how you go about proving your value in a situation that is not a sales meeting, as you may come off as bragging or being too pushy in something that should be simply a goodwill gesture.  See Barrier #5, Too Much Too Soon, below.

How WBRs can overcome this barrier:   First, realize the inner psychology of “if it’s free it mustn’t be good.” Maybe you just got lucky.  Or maybe not.  As for a well-meaning PA who is coming across a bit too strong (yeah, mea culpa), don’t let them irk you.  Smile and say “no need to pitch me so hard!”   Simply take what they say at face value, as you’ll have ample time after the initial encounter to think about it and consider their credentials.

Barrier #3) Fear and Apathy :   Not everyone is ready for the earth-shaking advice / self-improvement you have to offer them.  Maybe it’s them. Or maybe they’re just not drinking from the same pitcher of Kool-Aid as you are… or maybe, just maybe, they don’t realize how incredibly smart you are. Yeah, that’s right, not everyone can see your brilliant halo.  In any case, your offer — free or not — will fall on deaf ears.

How PAs can overcome this barrier:  As with barrier #2 above, using an ethical “sales” approach gives us a good model for tactfully developing an interpersonal relationship: Effective relationship builders will engage in conversations and listen carefully to understand the other person’s needs. If you spot a need that you can (and are willing to) help with, you can indirectly indicate to the WBR how you’re willing to help and then see how they react.   If there’s a glimmer of interest, continue. If not, just leave it at that.  However, just as with the previous barrier, you’ve got to tread very carefully here:  Some people’s fear or apathy are part of a much larger insecurity complex. Some folks will be very well-tuned into even the most subtle implication that you might have some valuable, constructive advice (read: criticism) for them.  If you become aware of this, back off immediately — see the next barrier (the Self-Esteem / Narcissist Complex) for more details.

How WBRs can overcome this barrier:   Get over it. If it’s knowledge-based advice, don’t be one of those “yeah, I already know everything about that” people.  If it’s professional development advice, recognize that a top performer is continuously striving to improve. In the words of Ben Zoma,  “Who is wise?  One who learns from every person.”   

Barrier #4) Self-Esteem Issues and Narcissistic Complexes :  There’s an old saying, “Tell a person their faults and they will correct those faults, but hate you forever.”   I’ve artlessly violated this principle with friends and other WBRs in the past, when I should have known better based on my read of their in-the-moment psychological state.

How PAs can overcome this barrier:   Don’t. If you sense that the other person has deep insecurities, just leave the matter alone.  Move on, don’t turn back.  Why, you ask?  At best, you will be dealing  with someone who has some slight self-esteem issues… and probably it’s a temporary thing. If you make an overture, those people will simply regard you as having behaved insensitively (which you have, Dan you insensitive dolt) and with time, you can make amends.    At worst,  you will be dealing with a bona fide narcissist, and they will construct a delusional fantasy of victimization which portrays you as a villain who desperately wants to be part of their lives.  This is not something you can overcome and you should stay away from these folks at all costs.  Understand that if they approach you (or accept your approach to them), it’s not because they’re interested in the quality of your services — they are only  interested in being associated with you because they’ve decided to put you on a pedestal and think you will improve their image.   Be very, very careful of these folks — best to charge them a fee like any other client and keep a professional distance.

How WBRs can overcome this barrier: Realize the PA was just being friendly. It’s not all about you.

Barrier #5)  Too Much, Too Soon :   There’s a level of gift-giving that is appropriate between strangers, and another level of gift-giving appropriate among friends.   Different people have different beliefs of what is appropriate to offer as a free service, depending on the intimacy of the networking relationship.   The acceptability of offering free PA services also differs by context and culture.  Even within a given region there can be massive differences. For example, let’s take three East Coast cities that I’ve spent a lot of time in: Montreal, Boston, and New York City.  In New York City, it’s never a problem to do business or share ideas with a stranger… particularly in Manhattan where it’s all about exchange and commerce.  In Montreal, you’re aren’t a stranger for very long, so once again, easy place to connect and share with others who are not in your immediate circle of friends. As for Boston, well, unless your father grew up in the same town and went to the same school as my father, how dare you try to do any sort of business with me.  Ok. maybe I exaggerate.  A bit. Bottom line, this is just one of those intuitive areas you have to figure out on your own.

How PAs can overcome this barrier:  Take your cues from your environment, to determine what’s appropriate or typical.  Also, recognize the profound difference between giving unsolicited advice, versus offering to give advice. Does a person giving out perfume samples let people smell the sample first?  Absolutely.  Do they spray them with the perfume as they walk by?   Ugh.  It’s a fine line sometimes.   Some people recommend not to even offering to give advice.  Those are the people who are either a) anti-social,  b) in a position of power, and/or c) really good at baiting others into asking for the advice before giving it.  As with the Fear and Apathy barrier above, try to become a good conversationalist. Do less telling and a lot more asking and even more listening.

How WBRs can overcome this barrier: This one’s about tact, and while it’s mostly on them (the PAs), you’ve got some responsibility too.  Say “thank you,”  even if you have to decline their offer… and try not to decline the offer simply because the PA doesn’t meet or exceed your academic / country club pedigree.

The above five are the one’s I’ve seen or experienced, though I’m sure there are more.  Your thoughts?

4. Maybe This Is Not A Good Idea, After All?

With all these barriers and pitfalls to giving away free PA services, you’d think it’s better to avoid it altogether.  Well, that’s mostly true, and becomes even more true as you gain more experience. The reality is, every year I have less and less time to offer my time for free, because I get more and more “repeat customers” for goodwill.   The folks who mentor me — some of them have been in their respective fields for decades —  they are swamped with requests from within their massive networks of contacts. I know this, because I’m one of the many people who requests and occasionally benefits from their guidance. I’m grateful that they have made space in their lives to share with others and it’s a behavior that I aspire to.

Regardless of the immediate time constraints, I still make attempts to offer free services to people who aren’t already in my social circle — and I think it’s wise for the recipients to go outside their comfortable circle of friends to get guidance, from time to time too. More than anything else, in this free exchanging of ideas, both the advisor and recipient will learn as much from each other.   And that’s what it’s all about.


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on January 13, 2011, in Communication Skills, Learning, Networking and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. An amusing, related meme, from LifeHacker (HT @KirstenW):

    “Designer Jessica Hische has created a flow chart (which you can see in its entirety here) that guides you through the decision of whether or not to work for free.

    “This chart assumes that you’re relatively established and don’t need to need to work for free to establish yourself, so if you’re new to the game consider it advice for the future. If you’re already working, I’d say this chart is all but guaranteed to make the right decision for you.

    “Saying no to people in need and people making lofty promises can be hard, so sometimes you need a pretty flow chart to help you out.”

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