Sometimes you just have to pay

I was reading a post over on the Motivated Networker blog. They talk about a recruiter’s difficulties with people who probably thought they were networking, but in reality were trying to get free advice and work without bothering to even establish a relationship first. This is a danger for every networker. After all, we’re supposed to be “making friends”, right? And friends do favors for friends, right?

Yeah, well friends don’t take advantage of friends, either.

So, how do we make sure that we aren’t one of these — let’s call it for what it is — users? Here are a few rules for our first meeting with another person, whether it’s at a networking event or a one-to-one:

  1. Don’t lead with your need. Unless someone referred us to this person because we have a need that they can meet and we are sincerely interested in paying them for their services, our initial conversation should be about them and their needs.
  2. Ask about their business, not for their effort. Asking them about their experiences as a tax accountant is an entirely acceptable path for the conversation. Asking them for advice about our particular tax issue is not.
  3. Person before business, not the other way around. Remember that, though we might need tax advice, we are still speaking to a person. If we are only chatting with them because they are a tax accountant — unless we know we can refer paying business to them — then our motivations are suspect (and they will know).
Even after we have an established relationship, we have to be very careful about asking for advice (or effort) which might fall under the umbrella of Things They Do For Pay. There are only a few ways which I know of to be sure on this.
  1. They offer to help. Even if this is the case, be very careful not to exceed the level of the relationship.
  2. We ask permission and acknowledge the imposition. I would recommend something like “Bob, I know this is a terrible imposition, but I have a few questions about my tax situation. If this is something that I need to pay your for, please tell me right away. Our friendship is far more important to me than getting some free advice.” Make sure they know you mean it.
  3. We agree on some sort of barter. Perhaps we are running a business where we can be of service to Bob. If that’s the case, and Bob is amenable, then trading services can work. After all, we are trading value for value.
Most folks are generous with their time and effort and most are more than willing to dispense advice or even a little bit of effort gratis. Where we have to be careful is making sure that we aren’t cultivating the relationship solely for our own benefit and that we aren’t asking for more than the existing level of the relationship can bear.
Photo credit: Charlie Ambler