How and when to ask for free advice

I get a *lot* of requests to help people for free. I usually offer a few tips, because at the end of the day, I care perhaps to a weird degree about helping people exit bad relationships and find good ones. But I can’t and don’t always jump into Freebie Mode.

I’d like to take a minute to explain where I’m coming from, and guide potential clients through my side of that attempted transaction. I’ll also give you some COMPLETELY FREE tips on how to be a better freeloader, haha.

I’d offer ALL my services for free if I could.

I love helping people solve romantic problems. I really do. If I could, I’d do everything for free or let people pay what they want—however, my research and experience prove that purely donation-based models don’t allow me to stay in business. But you can still chip in if you like. 

My favorite and most effective way of helping people is by offering lots of one-on-one time and expertise, which is logistically challenging and sometimes emotionally draining. It’s not a service I can sustainably provide to the world’s single and/or romantically unhappy population without getting compensated in return. Annoying, isn’t it? See‽ We already agree on so much! ;)

Get to know me first!

I wish I didn’t have to spell this out! Remember that crappy transactional cliché “At least buy me a drink first?” You get the idea. Get to know me even a tiny bit before you demand free work. Follow and interact with me on social media. Debate with me about online dating issues. Comment on my blog posts. Send me links and articles you think I might find helpful. Introduce me to connections with whom you think I might have a business affinity. Refer me paying clients.

Generally engage in the social and professional pleasantries that make it less awkward and demanding when you then ask for what amounts to a $500 favor when we’ve (usually) never even met in person, ya know?

This is how I make a living.

I think sometimes people hear what I do and get excited about how I can solve their problems, yet they fail to think “and doing so is her JOB.” How often do you get asked to code databases for free, or design and build entire websites for free, or construct houses for free? OK, maybe you get asked all the damn time, but I bet it frustrates you too. :)

The most effective thing I can do to help clients succeed is work with them one on one, for many hours, over the course of several weeks. That’s not a very cost-effective business model, but the clients who receive that kind of help are by far the most successful romantically and the happiest about having hired me. They’re the ones who get into healthy relationships and even marriages.

Paying clients always have better dating results.

I most enjoy helping people for whom an online dating coach is a bit of a financial extravagance. Sounds weird, right? But clients who are conflicted about hiring me are the most satisfying and ultimately successful! They tend to be very highly motivated. They value my advice more earnestly, put it to practice more consistently, and generally work harder on their end to make the whole dating process more successful.

People who get free advice, however, are often lazy about implementing it, and therefore reap fewer rewards from it. They also don’t tend to ask follow-up questions or bring up issues, because they know it might be overstepping boundaries—but that means they don’t get answers or solutions. They just keep having a crappy online dating experience, and they assume that I’m unable to improve it because what little advice they halfway implemented didn’t have much impact.

Ticking clocks are stressful.

When I’m dealing with pro bono clients, I’m constantly stressed about time and so are they. If I’m not earning enough to make my business work, then I’m constantly aware of that client being a burden. I’m not able to prioritize that person’s support above other clients and tasks. Every email is clipped; response times are lengthened; every conversation feels rushed and limited.

Relationship stuff takes a *while* to dig into, so I vastly prefer working with people who have paid me money or gone out of their way to find a way to compensate me via bartering or some other reciprocation. Pretty much any sum of money will buy you at least one unconstrained conversation with me. Sometimes that’s all it takes. But if you’re trying to keep me on the phone answering your every needy question for free, I’ll be frustrated that you’re taking advantage of my genuine desire to help, and I won’t trust that you’re taking our business relationship seriously.

I don’t make much.

I don’t lead a lavish lifestyle or a high-overhead business, but every little bit adds up! My husband and I both work our asses off to pay for our Seattle mortgage and a reasonably comfortable lifestyle that involves very little travel or extravagance, let alone future saving and planning. Yikes. It’s also not like I get benefits from my awesome employer, or matching 401k contributions (ha!). Being self employed means a hefty tax burden, weird legal fees, and a whole bunch of other financial disadvantages.

Consider checking your privilege.

Let’s not beat around the bush: 99% of requests for free advice come from men. Most women, myself included, fight a massive gender bias in every aspect of our careers; we aren’t taken as seriously as our male counterparts, we aren’t compensated as well for comparable work, and we don’t stick up for ourselves in the face of these injustices because society has taught us not to. So I’m already at a gendered disadvantage when men ask me point blank to work for free.

There is a TON of free advice all over my site. However, the men who ask for free advice invariably do so immediately upon learning what I do for a living. They ask for freebies without reading my free guides, signing up for my free newsletter, subscribing to free blog posts, following free social media accounts, scheduling a free intro chat, or otherwise taking advantage of the many ways in which I readily offer up my assistance. These guys just send me links to their profiles and ask for my detailed assessment (which, by the way, is a service level that begins at $99, assuming that’s the only problem, which usually isn’t true).

So fellas, if you find yourselves reading this sentence, I challenge you to think twice about whether you want to go straight to asking for free advice! Maybe there are some other steps you can take that will meet your needs without having to directly devalue the very core of what I do, ya know? ;) And if you *do* still come to me directly requesting a freebie of what’s normally a paid service level, at least show me you’ve done your homework by making use of the advice I’ve already put out there. I’m way more likely to help you for free if I see that you’re likely to find value in my help, put my advice to practice, and potentially evangelize my business. Show me your work!

Source: Know Your Meme (thanks @ibaki!)

Source: Know Your Meme (thanks @ibaiki!)

Use my preferred technology.

I help people best when I can get a sense of their personality. This is by far easiest to do via video or at least phone/voice chat; those forms of communication are inherently more intimate and realistic than just writing, especially if we’ve never met or spoken in person before. If you’re gonna approach me about free advice, I require that you take advantage of my clearly publicized desire and willingness to talk on the phone and get a sense of who I’m helping, with what!

I know it’s weird in modern times to make a phone call; we all hate answering our phones and prefer texting/tweeting/Yo-ing/whatever instead of more direct communication lines. But helping people with dating problems is based so heavily on personality and establishing trust, which is easier (and more efficient) to establish when I can talk to you more directly. Suck it up and use the right technology so I can better assist you! :)

Oh, and if you start telling me a relationship saga via seven DMs on Twitter, or via iMessage, I may ask you to email me. I need to be able to save drafts and mark stuff unread; awkward 140-character snippets are kind of a bad tech environment for big-deal discussions. Be willing to take it to email if I request it.

Don’t tread on me!

If I may borrow from the Navy’s delightful flag and phrase for a minute, don’t tread on me. Or on anyone else! It feels pretty damn dispiriting to have people imply that they don’t think the core service you offer is worth a cent, especially when the message isn’t otherwise polite or kind. Asking for freebies with no niceties comes off as mean and dismissive, and can make the askee feel trodden upon.

This is common to lots of knowledge workers and advice professionals, not just me! When you encounter someone who gives advice or coaching for a living, even if it’s a nutritionist at a cocktail party who seems totally stoked to discuss the relative merits of that artichoke dip, think about how you phrase your freebie request before you start soliciting a complimentary tailored diet plan to reach your target BMI by Christmas.

Here’s a template written in my own communication style. You can tweak it to suit your needs, for me or for any other advice-giver you wish to approach!

Hi so and so!

I really enjoyed [meeting you at Josh’s birthday party] [reading your commentary on that NPR blog post] [etc.]. I immediately looked up your site and [followed you on Twitter] [subscribed to your blog] [told all of my roommates about your business]. I’ve been meaning to reach out to you ever since!

I’ve checked out your services, and I found your [free resource] super helpful. I think what I need next is [specific service level]. However, it’s just not in my budget right now. Money is a tight time for me while I finish grad school and live on ramen, but I’m frustrated feeling like I have to keep my [love life] [physical health] [financial future] [or whatever the advice-giver’s domain is] on hold indefinitely.

Is there any way I can hire you to help me with ____ in a more limited way at ___ price point? No problem if that isn’t feasible; I will keep you in mind for when I graduate and get an actual job, but I figured I might as well reach out in the meantime! Oh, and I told my cousin about your services; her name is Emily and I hope she’ll get in touch soon. :)

Thanks,

A Kinder Sort of Freeloader

We’ve got pleasantries, enthusiasm, familiarity with my business, pragmatic defense of your financial need, referral goodwill, demonstrated ability to read existing advice and put it into practice, and willingness to be flexible about how we achieve your goals. This message is a whole lot more respectful and sensitive than just “got any free advice?” or “can u take a look at this?”

Even if their answer ends up being no, most folks in advice businesses will appreciate that you approached them with those extra sentences establishing that you’re not a total jerk of a freeloader. And yes, you should say all this stuff even though it won’t fit into a tweet. Send a couple tweets; send an email; pick up the phone. This is a *relationship* we’re forming here. It’s the least you can do when you’re asking not to pay!

Dying to give me money now? :)

Thanks for reading this! I hope it gives you perspective on where I’m coming from, both as a business owner and as a human being. :) If you’re now dying to book a session, donate a few bucks via PayPal, or just take me up on that free intro chat, bring it on! I look forward to helping solve your love problems. Thanks for being willing to read my business ones!

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