How to Stop Giving Away Your Ideas for Free

How do you show your prospects you’re capable of helping them? You show them how you’ve helped someone else. You use the power of story.

The ideas you have to help your clients solve tough business problems are great—except when you don’t get paid for them. That statement summed up Deidre’s problem. Deidre is a brand consultant, a really good one. But she would often go through periods of struggle—secretly because she never wanted any of her clients and prospects to think she wasn’t a success. It was a secret she’d been keeping since she started her business almost ten years ago.

An ulcer gives birth to a new business

Back then, she quit her corporate job as a branding specialist to escape a toxic work environment, one that had literally given her an ulcer. To guarantee her next workplace would be easy on her tummy, she decided to open up her own brand consulting practice. She did a great job of branding herself (surprise, surprise), which helped make sure her phone rang frequently. Unfortunately she often had trouble turning those callers into clients. Her unpaid bills would pile up like little haystacks on her desk and she’d worry she was closing in on another ulcer.

A prospect comes a calling

A mutual friend who knew what Deidre was going through sent her to me. When we got together, I asked Deidre to tell me about some of her calls. After listening to her for a while, I noticed a recurring theme. One of her typical calls went like this.

A guy named Tom who’d heard about her from a client called her up. Tom recently joined a food service company that had lots of potential, but was struggling to market itself properly. He knew branding was a problem and he was excited to get referred to Deidre, who his friend said was a branding superstar.

Throwing the client a bone, and then some

In their call, Tom asked Deidre to pull up his website. After she did that, he started asking her what she thought of their current branding and what she would do differently. She immediately saw what was wrong and what to do about it, but she knew not to give the farm away. Still, she felt she had to throw Tom a bone so he could see the value she could bring. After he chewed on that first bone, he asked for more. With some hesitancy, she gave him a second bone, telling him that his company’s values of taste and nutrition should inform the brand. He loved those bones, but was still hungry. Worried she’d lose the sale if she didn’t feed him more, she dug deeper into her treat bag, giving more and more bones away as she developed examples of imagery and messaging that could convey the brand themes. In the end, Tom told her he absolutely loved her approach and said he would be in touch.

The dog never comes back

That first call was the last time they spoke. A few months later, she checked Tom’s website and saw that he’d actually implemented a lot of her ideas. That pissed her off. But it wasn’t the first time something like that had happened to her.

It’s show don’t tell…. But how? 

Deidre’s no dummy. She knew she shouldn’t have given away so much, but she didn’t know what else to do. “I’ve tried not giving away any ideas, but that doesn’t work either,” she told me. “You can’t just tell somebody you can help them, you have to show them.”

Dirty dogs 

I told her she was spot on. In fact, showing a prospect how you can help them is essential. They’ll rarely work with you unless you do. But it’s how you show them that matters. Most people who run a service business provide two things—ideas and execution. Both are valuable to your prospects and they should be paying you for each one. If you give your ideas away during the sales process, the only thing you have left to offer is your execution of those ideas. Sometimes your prospects can do the execution themselves, or use someone else. It stinks when your prospects take your ideas but don’t use you for the execution. People who do that are often dirty dogs, but not always. They might not realize what they’re doing—after all, it was you who gave away your ideas for free. So, what should you do?

Think of it like solving a termite problem

As I told Deidre, first, you have to consider what your prospect needs to know in order to make the decision to hire you. They don’t need to know how you’re going to solve their problem, they only need to know that you can. Imagine finding evidence of a termite infestation in your home. You’ve never had this problem, so you call an exterminator. You don’t need the guy to come to your house and get rid of the termites before you decide to give him the job. And neither do you need him to show you how he’ll do it so you could do it yourself if you wanted. You just need to know he’s successfully done it before. You probably also want to know he’s trustworthy and affordable, but those issues aside, all you need is the exterminator to show you he’s capable of solving your problem. Same goes for you toward your prospects.

The power of story

So, how do you show your prospects you’re capable of helping them? You show them how you’ve helped someone else. You use the power of story. When I told Deidre this, she immediately thought it made tons of sense, but then wondered about crossing a confidentiality line by revealing what she did for a client. “You certainly don’t want to do that,” I said. “In fact, you don’t even have to actually give the name of the client away.” As I explained to Deidre, you can change the names and any telling details (like I’m doing here with Deidre’s story). All you need to do is make sure your story reveals your client’s problem and how you solved it. And, of course, what the wonderful result was. You do have to watch out for stories that express the same idea that you would use with your new prospect. It can often be tricky. Sometimes, you have to give a little hint here or there of the solution. That’s okay. Just don’t go too far and solve your prospect’s problem. Make sure they’re a paying client before you do that.

You’re a problem solver

The main thing your story must communicate is that you’re a problem solver. In her conversation with Tom, Deidre could have said that the challenges he faces are similar to the issues a client of hers had. Then she could have gone into more detail on how she developed themes and imagery and messaging for that particular client. She’s not giving Tom ideas for his business, but she’s showing him how she delivers powerful solutions.

A grab bag of stories

I advised Deidre to go away and develop a minimum of five branding stories she could pull out in her sales calls and meetings. Each story should convey a different problem and/or a different type of client, so she would always have an appropriate story.

Deidre did her homework and started to experiment with the story approach. At first she had trouble resisting the urge to directly help her prospects. She realized part of her problem was her inborn desire to help, so holding back wasn’t easy. But she found that if she stuck to her stories her prospects were eager to see what their own story would be. Wisely, she would make it clear to them that to get their story, they would have to pay up. And many of them did. More frequently than they ever had before. And go figure, the year she started telling stories was the first year she didn’t struggle. No more pressure to keep secrets and no more tummy problems either.

If you’ve struggled with giving away your ideas or have any other approaches that can help you get paid for your ideas, please let us know in the comments section below, or shoot me an email at donald (@) freshbooks (dot) com.

The big takeaway: Stop solving the prospect’s problem during the sales process. That goes for conversations over the phone, in-person meetings, proposals, presentations…. anything you’re doing to try to turn a prospect into a client. Instead use stories to prove to your potential client that you have what it takes to help them. Once they’re paying you, you’re all set to deliver the goods.

Author’s note: this post is based on a brand consultant I’ve coached. I’ve called her Deidre, but that’s not her real name.  

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about the author

Former Staff Contributor Donald Cowper is a best-selling author and head of content at ClearFit.