When Should a P.R. Pro Give Away Advice for Free?


Let the way a prospect couches his request determine your next steps.

Here’s a scenario all freelancers will bump into at some point: I recently completed a project running LinkedIn ads for a client. My client then referred me to a friend of his, who sent me the following email:

“I’d love to chat with you about LinkedIn when you have a minute.”

Here’s how I responded:

“Sure thing! Do you have a specific project in mind? In case you don’t have the link, here’s more about my services.”

I never heard back. Any ideas why?

Here’s my best guess: This guy didn’t want me to hire me. He wanted free advice.

Never Look a Gift Lead in the Mouth

On one hand, you might say that I should have taken the call. If someone wants a few quick tips, it doesn’t cost me a great deal to indulge him.

He might not have business for me now, but maybe he will later, or maybe he knows a guy. If you generate enough goodwill, it’ll ultimately pay dividends.

Always Qualify Your Leads

On the other hand, you can view this as a story about qualifying your leads. If you made time for every passerby who wanted only to sponge off your knowledge — well, giving away your limited time and hard-earned insights isn’t an ideal business strategy.

What’s more, my reply didn’t foreclose the conversation. After all, I agreed to chat; I just wanted to first clarify the parameters.

3 Criteria

Here’s my take: Both views are perfectly reasonable.

That’s because the smart salesman avoids a rigid rulebook (exemplified by words such as never and always). The smart salesman treats each scenario not as a process with blanks to be filled in and boxes to be checked, but as a unique opportunity.

How should you choose which view to take? Here are three criteria that have served me well:

1. Honesty
There’s nothing wrong in fishing for a freebie. We all do it. At the same time, the honest buyer doesn’t downplay his intent; he owns it. As Conrad Hilton tells Don Draper in Mad Men, “I want you to give me one for free.”

2. Specificity
A corollary of honesty is specificity. To this end, consider whether what you’re being asked is generic and open-ended, or if it contains evidence that the asker has thought things through?

In other words: Is your prospect at the beginning of the purchase funnel, where he’s shopping for info, or is he at the end, where he’s ready to buy?

3. Intuition
Never discount your gut feeling. We’ve all met someone we don’t click with. Maybe his background is sketchy. Maybe his tone is rude. While these signals aren’t disqualifying, you should factor them into your calculus for how generous you want to be.

How to Ask for Something for Nothing

So, using the above criteria, how could Mr. Freebie have made his message more palatable? Here’s a possible rewrite:

“While I don’t have a project for you at the moment, I’d love to learn more about how LinkedIn ads work. Might you have time for a 15-minute call next week?”

What makes this email laudable? Two reasons: First, the emailer is up-front about his situation. Second, he time-limits his ask. In short, he shows self-awareness.

Here’s another rewrite that rarely fails:

“Can I take you to lunch and get your advice?”

In this case, I’m not just being asked for a favor; I’m also being offered a trade: Food for info.

Indeed, even if I decline the meal, the proffer inclines me to take the meeting. Ask any pharma rep: It’s amazing what even the busiest people will do in return for free food.

Additionally, don’t overlook semantics. Ordinarily, I would have written “pick your brain.” But thanks to communication coach Dorie Clark, whose work I discovered in the course of researching this article, I replaced that gruesome cliché with a friendlier, more purposeful phrase.

The bottom line: If you want something for nothing, don’t try to paper over that fact. Acknowledge it directly. And if you’re able to extend value in exchange, all the better.

Know Your Limits

If you’ve read this far, you might think I’m inflexible or myopic. On the contrary, I believe in opening the kimono.

That’s why all my slide decks are available for free. That’s why I elucidate the intricacies of Wikipedia in a free white paper. That’s why I reveal the two biggest mistakes that executives make when speaking with a reporter. I’m happy to sing for my supper.

But there’s a limit, especially if there’s no supper in the offing. Because I make so much of my work public, if someone wants more, then he needs to give more. After all, this is my profession; it’s how I support my family.

When I employ that explanation, I’ve found that most people are receptive and respectful. If not, I rest easy; the prospect was a parasite.

P.S. The guy never replied.

Jonathan Rick teaches P.R. pros how to sell their services.

A version of the above article appeared in P.R. Daily on August 9, 2021.

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