The question I dread the most from business people is “Can I pick your brain?” While I believe in helping others and paying it forward, I am not even sure how this expression got started since it is so visually unappealing. Why would I want someone to literally look inside my brain and take whatever they want? Sounds like the first ever “business horror” flick!
While I understand that not every interaction needs to have financial return, there should be rules that are followed if someone needs "friendly" advice so there is still time to get your work done.
Here are six questions to ask if someone wants assistance without you losing track of your own time and goals:
1. Paid or peer advice?
Say: "Do you need help as a possible paying customer or just some friendly advice?" This sets expectations on both sides. In each case, you can determine if this a future paying customer or if they just need some casual advice.
2. Be specific
Say: "How can I actually help you?" This focuses the questions so the "brain picker" does not ramble on without finding the help they specifically need. In fact, you have more of a chance to actually help this person in a short period of time if you focus on just one area.
3. Use the phone
Say: “Sorry, I can’t do lunch. Can we talk briefly by phone?” I can't meet everyone in terms of time—and probably weight gain. It takes at least two hours to have lunch between getting to the appointment and having the meal. I know that things can be more productive in person, but in this case, just say no.
4. Make it convenient for you
Say: “This is when I can talk to you.” Take these calls strategically and conveniently. I typically do them while I am driving or waiting for a flight at the airport. These are times where I am not looking to accomplish heavy work, but can still focus my energies on helping the person with what they need.
5. Set a time limit and stick to it
Say: “I have 10 minutes.” I tell people that I have a limited amount of time and announce it at the beginning of the call. This will also focus their questions. If you haven't been able to help the person in 10 minutes, then they need to seek a free resource that is available or pay you for your time.
6. Set limits
Say: “If you have further questions, please e-mail me.” Limit another phone call. Tell them they can follow up by e-mail, but if more than a few e-mails are sent, see advice in No. 5. While there may be some people you want to invest in on an ongoing basis, these are the guidelines you need to follow for everyone else.
Do you let people pick your brain? Do you have rules that you stand by too?