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If You Wouldn’t Say It to a Doctor: Rules to Avoid Unintended Rudeness

“I’d like to pick your brain. Let me take you out for a beer” – many generally well-meaning individuals

A few articles ago I talked about how everyone loves to give advice – irrespective of whether they have any idea what they are talking about or not. Most people love to pontificate to anyone who will allow them to – and do so completely free of a charge. Someone listening to them is payment enough.

Perhaps it because of that trend that there is an unintended act of rudeness by people asking for free advice from someone whose business is to charge for that same advice.

As an example, I have some clients who do high-end business consulting ($20,000+ minimums per consulting contract). With surprising frequency they get messages along the lines of the quote above. In some cases people have even admitted to not wanting to or being able to pay their fee while asking. “I can’t afford to pay you $20,000, but would love to buy you a beer and talk to you.”

On the surface, that might not seem offensive. It’s a pretty innocuous request to hang out with someone and ask some questions, right? But let’s take a step back for a minute.

The entire livelihood of the professional being asked to do this is based on people paying for the exact thing someone else is now requesting for free. A person who is clearly successful at what they do and whose services the market has put a nice premium on – services other people value enough to pay the full price for. And this person is probably pretty busy.

A good rule of thumb in these situations is this: if you wouldn’t say it to a doctor, do not say it to anyone. Imagine these having conversations:

  • “Sorry, doc. Your appointment fees are pretty steep. Could we talk about it for free once you’re out of the office?”
  • “I can’t pay you for surgery. But I would love to buy you dinner to just get a quickie operation on the house. I’d really appreciate it.”
  • “I have an issue I really need to talk about but just can’t afford to pay you. How about you call me once you’re done with all your paying patients? I know it normally costs $200, so here’s a $10 Starbucks card as a show of gratitude”

Any one of us would be horrified to say any of that to a doctor. So why should we feel comfortable saying it to any other business?

Really, treating someone like a doctor is pretty good advice for most aspects of our interactions. We wouldn’t cancel an appointment at the last minute, pull a no-call/no-show because we couldn’t be bothered to put it in our calendar, speak down to the doctor, talk to them as though they work for us, etc.

A portion of that has to do with financial consequences (late cancellation/no-show fees from the doctor) but the other piece has to do with respect. We respect physicians because they have expertise and perform a service that we are unable to perform ourselves. So most of us treat them accordingly.

And when we ask someone to give us something for free or in exchange for a beer, we are pretty much saying: “I don’t respect you.” Or at least that we don’t respect them as much as they are charging. Depending on the price of the meal we are offering vs. the cost of the service – we are basically saying that we place a value on their services somewhere in between 1-20% of the sticker price.

And if that’s the way we feel, that’s fine – no one is forcing us to buy their services. But it is an odd thing to in essence “say” while asking them for a favor.

Any accounting, business, or tax advice contained in this communication, including attachments and enclosures, is not intended as a thorough, in-depth analysis of specific issues, nor a substitute for a formal opinion, nor is it sufficient to avoid tax-related penalties.