Free advice, your firm’s focus & job security

NicheDr. Lynda Falkenstein is the expert behind Ask the Niche Doctor, a new business advice column that will regularly appear on our website, vbjusa.com. Do you have a question for the Niche Doctor? Email DrNiche@vbjusa.com

Q: Dear Niche Doctor, I started a small law firm and am faced with a problem that has been with me ever since I started law school. Wherever I go – social functions, wherever – people ask me for free advice. I’ll get introduced to someone and the next thing I know they’ll be saying, “You know, I have this problem…” I don’t want to be rude, but it’s my living and I get mad just thinking about it. And sometimes I feel guilty. I just don’t know where to draw the line. Thoughts?

First off, if it’s any help, know that you’re not alone. Dealing with the “free advice” syndrome is one of the biggest issues professionals have to navigate. The good news is it’s an easy fix and one that can turn into a new paying client.

When you get asked for advice that you know you should be getting paid for, just say, “You know, that’s such an important issue, I really don’t feel comfortable answering it here – it wouldn’t do justice to your situation. What I suggest is that you call my office in the morning, make an appointment and come in so we can address the issue completely.”

With respect to your feelings of guilt, think what would happen if you went to your favorite counter at Nordstrom, talked with the sales associate and walked off with your merchandise without paying. Obviously, you wouldn’t and shouldn’t get very far. The advice you sell should be looked at the same way.

Finally, keep in mind that the fix for this problem is actually very simple. It’s called smile and shut your mouth.

Q: I am a founding partner in a well-established public relations firm. My responsibility has always been to act as the firm’s “rain maker,” but with the economy going so sour, instead of rain, we’ve had a protracted drought. To make matters worse, it seems the region is saturated with others in the same business, which makes our slice of the pie very thin. Any ideas will be much appreciated.

Glad to help! You raise a few different issues, so I will take them one by one. First, the fact that your firm is “well-established” is both a plus and a minus. One of the biggest issues “well-established” firms face is that they often forget what made them successful in the first place. They take their presence for granted, assuming everyone knows them.

Make sure you know the answers to the questions: What is your firm’s focus? Who are your target clients? Who aren’t your clients? What do you stand for? What’s your approach? What’s your style? It’s more than okay if your answers to these questions have changed since the firm’s earlier years. The issue is making sure the answers match your intention – your purpose, your goals. If they don’t, you have some important decision-making ahead. And at least you know where to start.

On the issue of saturation, keep in mind that when you’re really well-niched, you have no competition. You’ve made a whole new pie and it’s all yours – simple as that.

Q: I work for a large public agency targeted for extinction. In a way, this is probably the best thing that has ever happened to me because I’ve wanted to start my own business for a long time. However, now that the opportunity is almost here, I find that I’m thinking more about getting a secure job where someone else writes me the check than risking it on my own, especially in this economy. Am I crazy to pass up this opportunity?

You are definitely not crazy, but you are getting some things confused. When you went to work with that public agency, it was probably the most secure job in the world. After all, who ever heard of a public sector job disappearing, short of some grossly immoral or criminal act? So much for history! If you’re really seeking security, be assured it doesn’t come from working for someone else. Security comes from inside you. If you have always wanted to have your own business, I suggest you get started now by refining your focus and laying out a plan that can turn your dream into a successful reality. Go for it!

Dr. Lynda Falkenstein is the author of NICHECRAFT: Using Your Specialness to Focus Your Business, Corner Your Market, and Make Customers Seek You Out. To contact her with questions or comments, email DrNiche@vbjusa.com or call 971.533.3815. Please note that we have the right to publish your letter or an edited version in all print and electronic media.

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