Getting out of the free consulting trap

Steve Simon


Someone on the Statistical Consulting Section message board asked a question about how to handle a situation where a colleague was repeatedly asking for advice. How do you make a transition from offering free advice to getting paid as a consultant? There were lots of good answers, and here’s the suggestion that I offered.

If I could offer a bit of additional advice on top of the many good replies sent already, I would encourage you to try to make the transition to a paid consulting job in a positive rather than a negative way, if at all possible. If you think about it from your colleagues perspective, he/she has been getting something for free and now you’re threatening to take it away. It would be hard not to feel hurt.

Take your next interaction? or just call them out of the blue. Then propose something new and bold. Say “I’m intrigued by your work and I think there may be an opportunity for us to expand our interactions. It will cost you some money, but I think that if you invested in a deeper collaborative relationship, we could accomplish some really great things together.” Be sure to have something to offer if your colleague asks for more details. If he/she doesn’t bite, then politely handle the current request and then provide very minimal help for any future requests. If you see an opening down the road, you can always say something like “Have you thought more about my earlier offer?” If they try to argue with you, keep the tone positive. “I’m excited about your work and it really deserves a lot more effort than I have been giving it with our current interactions. There’s great potential here, if you can find a way to fund this.”

You have to be sincere about this. If the work is boring and looks like a dead-end from your perspective, you really do need to go negative. “I know you are excited about your work, but I can’t afford the time that you need anymore. I’ve got a lot of competing priorities.” But if you can envision a good paid relationship that truly is an expansion beyond your current interactions, promote that vision positively.

And I wanted to post three links here provided by another respondent on how to say “no.”

Andrew D Oxman, David L Sackett. Clinician-trialist rounds: 13. Ways to advance your career by saying ‘no’ - part 1: why to say ‘no’ (nicely), and saying ‘no’ to email. Clinical Trials, 2012-12-09, 9(6):806-8. doi: 10.1177/1740774512463177. Article is behind a paywall.

Andrew D Oxman, David L Sackett. Clinician-trialist rounds: 14. ways to advance your career by saying ‘no’ - part 2: when to say ‘no’, and why. Clinical Trials, 2013-01-23, 10(1), 181-7. doi: 10.1177/1740774512467238. Article is behind a paywall.

Andrew D Oxman, David L Sackett. Clinician-trialist rounds: 15. Ways to advance your career by saying ‘no’–part 3: how to say ‘no’, nicely. Clinical Trials, 2013-03-28, 10(2), 340-3. doi: 10.1177/1740774513477934. Article is [behind a paywall][oxm3].

You can find an earlier version of this page on my blog.