Ciaran Blumenfeld-Maso, 40, figured she had the gig in the bag when she went to lunch with the PR reps for a major food brand. They wanted to hire her marketing and social media networking company, Momfluential, to produce an event that would publicize their client’s products. So Blumenfeld-Maso shared her ideas about how to engage bloggers and their families. The more she gave, the more likely they were to hire her, right?
Wrong. Not only did the reps not hire her, they produced the event in-house, using all the ideas she had shared, down to the smallest detail. They even sent her a thank-you basket of cheese.
“It turns out that ‘we would like to hire you’ meant taking me out to lunch and picking my brain,” recalls Blumenfeld-Maso. “My critical error was giving up the ideas before I had it in writing. I was being nice.”
This kind of “idea-jacking” happens to freelancers and consultants all the time. Since the economy tanked in 2008, the number of people starting their own new businesses has climbed steadily every year. And so has the willingness of larger businesses to take the goods for free. Because the service-based entrepreneur’s product is knowledge, it’s important for all parties involved to realize that there are boundaries, and something of value is at stake here.
Ann Evanston, owner of Warrior-Preneur, a marketing consulting and business coaching service, has been there and suffered that. Having seen her advice used by people who offered no compensation or even a favor in return, she now includes negotiating tips in her training programs and practices what she preaches. The keys to building a mutually beneficial relationship with a new client, she says, are to be proactive about your approach, and to be clear about your boundaries.
“The point of that first meeting is for us to get to know, like, and trust each other,” says Evanston. She makes the first move by offering a free 30-minute phone consultation to every potential client, during which she presents some suggestions but doesn’t get too detailed. That way, she establishes that a consultation is a service she offers for a price, and this initial phone meeting is a sample. “I compare it to Baskin Robbins’ little pink spoon,” says Evanston. “It’s just a taste that makes you want more.”
Here are some ideas that you should keep in mind when you set up that get-to-know-you coffee date:
- “Be upfront about the intention of the meeting,” says Evanston. If you are expecting your meeting to turn into paid work, indicate that in an email. Or are you meeting to build a relationship and offer suggestions to each other? Evanston suggests you try language like: "I am looking forward to our one-on-one and equally sharing ideas that will help us both."
- “Be clear and limit your time - it is easy to get sucked in and spend more time than agreed,” she warns.
- “You don't have to answer all their questions during that first meeting,” says Evanston. Remember the little pink spoon.
- End the meeting by openly talking about your services. “Tell them what you need in order to move forward,” Evanston says. Is that a contract? A letter of intent?
- “If you realize the meeting is moving to a pick-your-brain session, shift your focus,” she suggests. If the potential client shies away from entering into a paid agreement, ask for a testimonial or have them sign up for your mailing list. You have spent time and effort to meet - even if they can’t pay you, what would you like in return?
Indeed, the tricky part of the whole process is navigating the moment when the client pushes for more. Evanston notes that standing firm about your services is typically harder for women, who are taught to be givers, than men, who are taught to be negotiators. For either sex, it’s important to remember that “boundaries are a good thing,” says Evanston. “Most people are grateful for them.”
In the end, Blumenfeld-Maso recalls, the event she planned for free was a total bomb. By not hiring her, the clients missed out on her guest list and networking services, and many influential local bloggers stayed away.
The upside was the learning experience. Now when she meets with potential new clients, Blumenfeld-Maso knows not to give out specific creative ideas, instead focusing “on the end result and the good we can accomplish together.” If the prospect digs deeper, she’ll say “Let’s write a contract and discuss this further,” whipping out a boilerplate contract that she keeps handy. “I’m nice, but I’m not stupid,” she points out. “I’m happy to elaborate on the broader ideas after they’ve signed on the dotted line.”
Kim Tracy Prince is a freelance writer and editor in Los Angeles who lets people buy lunch all the time. Brain picking now costs extra. Find her on House of Prince.