A few months ago, I felt a sharp pain in my ribs. It hurt when I sneezed or laughed—and eventually, when I moved at all. I thought back to what I might have done that could have resulted in an injury, and other than an incident involving an overexuberant child and a not-so-sturdy sofa, I came up empty. As it got worse, I thought about going to my regular doctor but then came up with a better idea: A friend of mine was a podiatrist, so I’d just ask him to take a look for free.
OK, that last part is a lie.
I really did have a sharp pain in my ribs, and there really had been an incident involving a sofa. But I didn’t ask my friend to take a look. Instead, I made an appointment with my regular doctor, who promptly scheduled some tests.
I did that for a couple reasons. First, while my friend went to medical school, his area of focus was feet, not ribs. And while we’re friends, he doesn’t know my medical history—except as it applies to my feet. But most importantly, his time and expertise have value, and I wouldn’t want to take advantage of him by asking him to work for me for free.
Not everyone draws those boundaries. Increasingly, I’m hearing from my fellow professionals, especially those in the tax, legal, and accounting fields, that they are expected to provide services for free for friends—or worse, friends of friends.
You know what I’m talking about. It typically starts with a variation on “Can I pick your brain?”
It can be hard to say no. But it can also be exhausting to say yes to every ask, as well as potentially damaging or risky to your career. Before you offer a response, here are a few questions to consider.
Who is doing the asking?
It’s easy to tell yourself that you won’t answer any questions, but everyone has exceptions. The key is to figure those out in advance.
For example, I can’t say no to my mom. But I can say no to a high school classmate I haven’t seen in 20 years. I have an informal “Christmas card list” test—if I don’t know you well enough to be on your list or have you on mine, I probably don’t know you well enough for you to ask me for free advice. So friends of friends? Typically not appropriate to ask for free advice.
It can be a little more tricky when it comes to fellow professionals. I’m generally happy to answer questions from my colleagues because it’s my experience that most are happy to reciprocate. I am wary, however, of professionals who come back to the well a few too many times without making themselves available.
What’s the scope of the question?
Tax is a huge subject area. Ditto for law and accounting. There are many kinds of taxes, and they can be implemented widely from one geographic area to the next.
I’m almost always happy to answer general questions. But I don’t know the specific sales tax laws in Anchorage (trick question: they don’t have one) or the details of Florida’s farmer exemption. And if you follow me on social media, you know that partnership law is not my strong suit.
You may be in a similar situation—you’re happy to answer payroll questions but not nonprofit questions. If the question involves something you’re not familiar with, don’t feel bad about saying so. A kind but firm “I’m sorry, but that’s outside of my area of focus” is always appropriate.
And while I am comfortable answering general questions, those that require a lengthy answer or research are typically off-limits. Consider having an informal time cutoff. I usually use my billing threshold at work, so if it’s something I can’t easily listen to or read and respond to in under 15 minutes, then I’ll politely decline.
Can I retain control?
Just because you may be generous with your time and expertise doesn’t mean you have to agree to be a doormat. If you do say yes to answering questions, make sure that you retain control.
If a friend asks you for 10 minutes of your time and you agree, set a timer—or better yet, use an online scheduler that allows you to cap the call or meeting. At the end, explain you’ve only scheduled that amount of time to address the question, and suggest they make a formal appointment if they need more time.
Similarly, if a question veers outside the original scope, explain you aren’t prepared to answer a more detailed question. And if there are a lot of “just one more” questions, suggest they make an appointment. Having a cutoff tied to your schedule—especially at your place of business—is a good reminder this is something you do professionally.
If you like answering questions on social media or your website, don’t be scared to establish some ground rules. As a lawyer—and a middle child—I love rules. So, when I realized taxpayers were reaching out with questions on my blog, I created a separate email address and outlined my “Ask the Taxgirl” requirements on the site. Having a direct line helped to eliminate random calls and emails.
What’s in it for me?
It’s nice to be sought after to answer tricky tax questions. But the realization that you’re liked enough to be asked—but not paid for your answer—isn’t always terrific. However, that doesn’t mean answering for free is always a bad idea. It’s totally appropriate to ask, “What’s in it for me?”
If you think the conversation has the potential to lead to a representation, it might be worth it. I’ve landed more than one client after a tax-related chat at a cocktail party or reception. In most cases, the potential client introduced themselves in a way that suggested they might be looking for long-term help.
I also consider whether answering a question could lead to referrals or a professional working relationship. I’ve helped financial planners, insurance brokers, and accountants out of a jam on occasion, and in return, they’ve been kind enough to send clients my way.
And don’t lose sight of what, if any, the long-term payoff might be. Years ago, an editor asked me if I’d write something for her on an unpaid basis. I agreed because I saw the potential for exposure at that particular outlet as a big plus. I was right. That first piece—a comparison of tax amnesty laws—brought me attention and new clients. Now, I love to write and talk about tax so much so that I do it for a living.
Can I offer resources?
You don’t always have to give a definitive answer to be helpful. You might be able to point someone to additional resources, such as the IRS website or a particularly good article.
Depending on the circumstances, I may also suggest contacting the Taxpayer Advocate, a local tax clinic, or legal aid if it’s a complicated problem and I don’t think the taxpayer can afford to pay a professional.
But maybe the answer is the client needs to hire someone to help—and that someone could be you. In that case, explain you’re happy to help and offer an explanation of how you work, including fees and on-boarding procedures. If you steer the taxpayer toward your website or make a referral to a colleague, it also helps reinforce the idea that your work has value.
Is there another way I can add value?
If the idea of giving back is important to you, but you just don’t have the time or temperament to answer individual questions, consider other ways you can add value. Write an article, journal, or blog post. Be a guest on a podcast or a resource for a reporter. Sign up to speak at your alma mater, local bar function, or continuing education course. Volunteer at a tax or legal clinic.
Others may benefit from your knowledge and expertise if you make yourself available—on your terms, of course. It can lessen the potential guilt you might have over saying “no” to the occasional question when you can say “yes” to other opportunities.
There are so many demands on our time. And most professionals want to be helpful—after all, we really like this work, or we wouldn’t be doing it. That doesn’t mean you have to make yourself available for every question that comes your way—but be thoughtful and prepared about your response.
As for me, my rib ailment is resolved—thanks to a good doctor and a bone scan. Opting to ask the right person the right question at the right time made all the difference.
This is a regular column from Kelly Phillips Erb, the Taxgirl. Erb offers commentary on the latest in tax news, tax law, and tax policy. Look for Erb’s column every week from Bloomberg Tax and follow her on Twitter at @taxgirl.