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How Much Should You Give Away for Free During a Coffee Meeting?

How Much Should You Give Away for Free During a Coffee Meeting?
Image credit: darwin Bell | Flickr
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I'm told that doctors, attorneys, and financial advisors get asked for free advice all the time. But I didn't realize that all entrepreneurs are targets in one way or another.

Three years into having my own business, I find that strangers, friends and even family, at some point, want me to share advice about television production, TV placement, and of course, social media. Don't get me wrong: I am open to sharing information. However, there is a limit.

I am sure many of you have been asked to meet up to have a cup of coffee, which somehow leads to a "pick your brain" session. If you are like me, those coffee sessions sometimes go on for much longer than needed. A half-hour meet and greet for coffee can easily turn into a one-hour conversation where you end up providing more information than you planned -- information reserved for paying customers. These meetups are tricky since, as an entrepreneur, you are walking a fine line between nurturing a potential client or someone who takes your free advice and has no intention of using your services.

Related: 3 Reasons Why That 'Free Consultation' Is a Losing Strategy for Entrepreneurs

Boundaries are necessary. It is important to remember that your time is money. Your time and expertise are valuable commodities that you should monitor carefully. Here are a few helpful tips on ways to set boundaries when it comes to those coffee meetups:

The first 30 minutes are free 

Schedule a 30-minute conversation at no charge. Stick to 30 minutes -- no more, no less. In that time, you will answer the potential client's top three questions. They should come prepared to the conversation by sending you the questions ahead of time so you can get right to the point when you first meet.

In these 30 minutes answering their questions, you should be able to determine whether this person is a good client fit for you. As he or she is talking, you get insight into who he or she is and what the person is doing. It is a great way for you to either engage the individual in another area of your services or point them in the right direction toward someone who can help fulfill their needs.

Be aware of when the clock hits 30 minutes. There is no harm in spending an extra few minutes, but at 30 minutes, it's time for you to bring the conversation to a close. You can politely tell the person that you have to go, but if they would like to continue the conversation, direct them to your website for more information. Make sure your website has a section for consultations, pricing and time options for anyone who wants to talk to you.

A retainer is required 

Recently, a potential client sought me out and was scheduled to make an appearance on a television show. She wanted to know how to get media exposure for her brand, advice on what to wear, how to handle her conversation and how to plan out her segment. These are the services that I offer when a client hires me to provide television placement.

Related: The Only 2 Good Reasons to Work for Free

I ended up spending a lot of time with this potential client who, by the way, expected me to start the placement process before she deposited a retainer. The retainer was to be delivered to me in a couple of days. Needless to say, I never got the payment.

However, she did get a lot more from me. Our 30-minute initial conversation turned into two additional calls where I spent close to an hour at no charge reviewing information. I should have put a limit on my time. I answered her questions about what she needed to prepare by sending a couple of links to blog posts that I'd written on the topic and a note instructing her about the cost of my services and how I would like to receive payment to get started. The email had a friendly tone, and she got the information she wanted. I made it clear what I needed in order to move forward. Hopefully, she will come back and hire my company's services.

A little give and take

I understand that not every entrepreneur can afford to pay for services. With that in mind, I do take time out to have coffee and exchange information, but this is on a case-by-case basis. I'm open to bartering if one has a service or product that I can use or the potential's client's useful information can be exchanged for mine.

Have I ever asked to have coffee with people in order to pick their brain? Absolutely! But I come prepared. I know what questions I want to ask, I pick up the bill and I find out if there is a way the other person can benefit from the information or the project in question. 

Coffee or casual meet-and-greets are not always used as a chance to gather free information. For any entrepreneur, a friendly coffee meetup can be valuable. It's a great way to network and expand your business base. At first, it might be difficult to discern the valuable coffee conversations from the not-so-valuable ones, but in time, you will help everyone understand that your expertise and time is worth every penny.

How do you handle it when someone tries to pick your brain?

Related: How to Stop Offering Free Advice and Make the Sale