Your expertise may be a byproduct of the hours you put into your business, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t capitalize on it.
Let’s make one thing clear: There’s nothing wrong with clients who want to pick your brain once in a while. It’s also fine when prospects want to schedule a “brain-picking session,” buy you coffee or lunch, and ask for expert advice.
The problem starts when these sessions become a regular thing or they expect you to part with your best ideas on a certain topic—or even give up a full-fledged strategy—for free.
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Learn How to Spot the People Who Want to Pick Your Brain
Your best line of defense against the kind of person who wants to “pick your brain”—instead of compensating you for your knowledge, expertise, and industry experience—is being able to sniff them out from a mile off.
Here are some red flags you should look out for.
1. A Brain Picker Doesn’t Care About Your Time
Notorious brain pickers ask for “just 5 minutes of your time”—but then push the envelope, taking as much of your time as you’ll allow. They send inconspicuous email requests with just a handful of “at your convenience” questions—but they write incessant follow-ups, ping-ponging the conversation until you’re exhausted.
Folks that are only interesting in picking someone’s brain—and not engaging their business or reciprocating any value—will monopolize your time. And time is your most valuable asset! There’s no reason to spend it frivolously when you have a business to run and personal matters to attend to—so if someone isn’t respectful of your time, consider it a major red flag.
2. They Use Flattery to Win You Over
Consciously or not, brain pickers often use flattery for leverage. They might say, “That website design you did for X was amazing.” Or, “We can see that you did great work for Y, care to share your thoughts on our approach?”
When someone asks for your professional opinion and attempts to stroke your ego at the same time, that’s a red flag. While not every kind word comes with malicious intentions, be wary of calculated flattery.
3. Brain Pickers Ask Vague Questions
Some brain pickers have no specific agenda. They prefer to ask open-ended questions, probe your brain and make you explain your thought processes, and see what they can learn from you.
You throw them bone after bone, but they’re never satisfied with what you have to offer. Once you’ve shown all your cards, they just ride off into the sunset: “Sorry pal, but that’s not what we’re looking for.”
Why It’s Tempting to Let Somebody ‘Pick Your Brain’
There are several reasons why small business owners fall victim to brain-picking, even when they see it coming. The goal here is to learn how to turn these situations into sales so you don’t have to give up your ideas for free ever again.
You’re Afraid of Losing a New Business Opportunity
Take this garden-variety scenario: You receive a call from a potential client who heard about your work from a mutual contact. They are thoroughly impressed with your portfolio and want to discuss how you could help their business.
You’re pumped and agree to give them some pointers for starters. After all, it seems like a great opportunity to score a gig and sell your services. (Pro tip: It is!) But as the conversation unfolds, you realize their intention might be to get free information rather than hire you.
So, what do you do?
Intuition tells you to pull out, but the urge to prove your work is worth their money is too strong. You go all in and try to impress them with your expertise by providing information they would typically be paying you for. Of course, the offer never comes up.
You Don’t Want to Upset Your Clients
Brain-picking can happen with regular clients as well. Except when an existing client reaches out and wants to pick your brain, there’s even more pressure to keep a valuable business relationship intact.
If they request work that goes beyond the usual scope, use that situation to upsell. Your clients should know the value you’re bringing to the table, so be comfortable with discussing that point-blank.
You Try to Please Everybody
Once you’ve made a name for yourself and achieved some recognition in your niche, fellow business owners will notice. They will find your work, appreciate your content, and maybe even reach out for business advice.
Being viewed as an expert in your field is, by all means, a good thing, but it can also lead to unsolicited “can I pick your brain” requests streaming in. Professional courtesies aside, responding to those requests won’t pay your bills.
You Enjoy Talking About the Thing You Love Doing!
The most human reason to unwittingly let your ideas slip is that you’re simply passionate about your work. When somebody wants to talk about it, it can be engaging and exciting enough for you to open up too much.
These conversations can make you feel smart and accomplished. You might even enjoy grandstanding a bit. But afterward, you walk away realizing that you got caught up in the moment and gave away valuable advice and information to someone with self-serving intentions—which never feels good.
The most human reason to unwittingly let your ideas slip is that you’re simply passionate about your work.
Develop Tactics to Turn Brain-Picking Into a Sale
If you struggle to hold your cards close to your chest, you need a solid plan for when people start pushing for freebies.
1. Create a Point of Reference
One of the most effective ways to fend off brain-picking requests is to create reference materials you are willing to send to prospects.
Here are several assets you should have at your disposal:
- A solid online portfolio for showcasing a cross-section of your best work
- Curated social proof samples like testimonials and business reviews
- Case studies to prove a successful track record with previous clients
- Free content (blog posts, Q&As, tutorials, whitepapers) to back your expertise
- An estimate or proposal template to outline your services and prices
When you’re just starting out and have no previous experience to show, sometimes you have to share a substantial piece to impress. That said, you should aim to build up solid reference materials as quickly as possible.
If you don’t have a business website or an online portfolio yet, be sure to check out this FreshBooks guide on how to create one.
2. Conduct Client Research
Before you decide to dedicate 15 minutes of your time to discuss ideas with a prospect, take the time to determine if they’re a good addition to your portfolio in the first place.
If you’ve been in the business long enough, you already know that not every lead you make contact with is good client material. In fact, very few are.
If they receive consistently positive feedback on business review sites (like Trustpilot) and social media, there might be the potential for a healthy business relationship. You can also use Crunchbase to gather intel on recent investments in the company to see if they can afford your rates.
3. Send Compelling Estimates and Proposals
Your time (again) is precious. It’s in your best interest to make a quick, confident assessment, see if the prospect checks all the boxes, and move down the sales funnel. If they’re just stringing you along and trying to get free ideas, move on.
Once you’ve sent an estimate, it’s paramount that you follow up with a proposal. Don’t know where to start? FreshBooks lets you create a professional proposal in a few easy steps. Jump over here for more details.
4. Maintain an Atmosphere of Generosity
Whether you’re dealing with prospects or existing clients, people don’t want to feel you’re miserly or withholding. That might put them off your business altogether.
Part of forming and nurturing relationships is a natural exchange of information. The trick here is to create an impression of generosity and sharing without giving away *too* much.
Here’s how you can create an atmosphere of generosity:
- Throw them a bone casually. Share useful tips (even links to articles) that you think might be useful to clients.
- Start a newsletter. Newsletters are a great controlled way of sharing. They simultaneously build your authority and make you look like a person who shares. The extra value of running a newsletter is the ability to collect email addresses and generate leads.
- Look for quid pro quo opportunities. For instance, if a client asks to pick your brain about content strategy, see it as an opportunity to pick their brain about what their needs and pain points are. Come with your own questions prepared.
5. Don’t Undersell Yourself: Charge Appropriate Rates
The best way to avoid being taken advantage of is to charge your worth from day one. When you’re pitching a new client, you should always take the time to understand their needs so that you can craft a comprehensive estimate or proposal.
Brain-picking clients will often try to scope creep this phase by asking you for information or due diligence that would actually be part of the project. If your estimate/proposal is clear, you can easily push back and simply say, “That will all be covered in the first phase of our project.”
You can test the commitment of potential clients by:
- Asking for a deposit. Asking for a percentage of the project total upfront is a savvy choice for more complex projects and/or new clients. This reassures you of their commitment to the project and to your services.
- Collecting payment in installments. For longer projects that span many months, it’s good practice to put milestones in place at which an installment payment is due. This has the same effect as asking for a deposit. But it also reinforces with your client that changes in project scope will impact the cost.
The more often you do this, the less cumbersome it becomes. And once you’ve created a template for each of these scenarios, you’ll just rinse and repeat the process for every new client and project.
Many small business owners feel awkward thinking about rates, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Be confident about discussing money with prospects and clients, and never sell yourself short.
But Sometimes, Be Willing to Say No
Not every brain-picking request has to lead to a sale. In fact, you should move away from any deal or conversation that gives you bad vibes.
If a prospect agrees to hop on a 15-minute call but pushes for more when the time’s up, that’s a red flag and a sign to give a respectful reminder that someone’s time (yours) isn’t free. If they don’t respect your time now, chances are nothing’s going to change down the road and you’ll hear from them again wanting free advice.
Put non-extendable limits on calls and meetings and see if potential clients follow through. Make them play according to your rules to test their commitment before taking the relationship any further.
The bottom line is, awkward conversations happen so learn how to handle them. Be willing to say “no” and let the prospect slip away when the situation becomes uncomfortable.
Since you run a for-profit business, your ultimate goal is to earn money and benefit from the connections your make along the way. Your experience and talent are what sets you apart from the competition. And as a professional, if you give that up for free, you eventually lose leverage and the position to negotiate.
“Busy day? Can I pick your brain?” Sure, but it’s going to cost you.
Have you ever wanted to pick someone’s brain? If so, let us know in the comments how you approached it.
This post was updated in March 2022.