When I think about it, I still get that feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I was chatting with a man with a teeth whitening offer about the changes he needed to make to his website. The conversation was going well — he loved all my ideas and was ready to rebuild his site.

I started getting excited, thinking I had found my next project. I was already putting together his proposal in my head. Then he uttered those dreaded words …

“I’d love to sit down with you at the show and pick your brain sometime.”

I didn’t know what to say or do. I felt my face turning red and I stammered out an excuse about getting back to him when I checked my calendar.

Requests for “brain-picking” are rampant in any business, and they’re never fun if you’re the one whose brain is being picked. It used to happen to me so much that I found myself becoming resentful.

Every time I spoke with someone new I heard a little voice in the back of my head saying “Ugh, I bet they’ll never hire you, they just want a bunch of help for free”.

That little voice was not very helpful for landing clients.

If you’ve ever been in this situation, there is a way to turn this around. There is a way to handle these situations with grace and without frustration.

There’s even a way to make those freebie requests go away — or, even better, turn into paying clients.

It is your job, and your job alone, to set appropriate boundaries and clear up what you’re happy to give for free and what you charge for.

That might be hard to hear. But if you want to move through these situations with grace (and encounter them less often) you have to stop placing blame — and start making it a policy to get paid for your time.

Sound impossible? It’s not. Here’s how:

1. Take full responsibility

The most important thing you can do is stop being angry at the prospect for asking.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. If you were given the choice between getting a new computer for free or paying for the same computer, you’d pick free every time — and you’d never think about the company who doesn’t get paid for the sale. Why would you?

I know free is my favorite price for everything.

It is your prospect’s prerogative to ask for your time for free. Let me say that again — it is their prerogative to ask.

In fact, they’d be missing a golden opportunity if they paid for something when they didn’t have to. You can’t blame the prospect for taking the smart route.

You’re also missing the subtle compliment that goes with being asked for advice.

When someone asks you for your time for free, be grateful that they view you as someone who can offer valuable advice. Gary Vaynerchuk constantly says how grateful he is to get thousands of emails a day — he doesn’t take it for granted that every one of those people thinks that he is worth taking time out of their life to write to him.

Everyone asking for your time is already “sold” on you to a degree — they must be or they wouldn’t be asking you for more! Instead of viewing them as a dead-end cheapskate, see them as someone who is so invested in you that they’ll either be a potential client or a source of referrals.

2. Clearly establish your service offerings

Sometimes people ask you to work for free because you haven’t given them anything to buy.

When I offered CRM integrations or media buy placements I didn’t have any packages for ongoing support. I charged clients a per-project fee, and considered the project done when the client signed off on the design.

Invariably, people would contact me after the project was officially “over” with some tiny request — things that literally took 5-10 minutes of my time. Crafting a new invoice for this small request seemed silly, yet all of these requests were starting to seriously eat up my time.

I started to feel like I had to provide free service for life for each one-time purchase, and I felt like people were taking advantage of me when they asked for these small favors.

Looking back, I can see that they weren’t taking advantage of me. The issue was mine. I should have had a clearly-defined ongoing support package to offer in response to those requests.

That would have made things clear — either you had purchased my ongoing support or you hadn’t. As it stood, everyone was in the grey zone.

If you don’t like people asking for your time for free, but also don’t have any sort of well-defined offer in place to charge them for that time, the blame falls squarely on you.

3. Decide what you’ll give away …

What are you willing to give out for free?

This is where content marketing is your friend, because you offer plenty of valuable free resources like your blog or newsletter.

It also may be appropriate to do brief introductory phone calls, or host one group in-person session per month for people who are interested in working with you.

Whatever it is for your business, get clear.

For the record, you do not have to offer any time for free. It is possible to get hired without any kind of free consult beforehand if you do a great job building the relationship ahead of time with your content marketing. In my business people sign $5,000 contracts with me without any kind of free introductory consult.

4. … but don’t assume that free advice is all they want

We often make the mistake of assuming that someone isn’t willing to pay just because they ask to “pick our brain.”

Again, they’re asking because we all love free. That doesn’t mean they’re unwilling to pay, it means they’re hoping they won’t have to.

They’ve expressed interest in learning more from you, which means they are a potential client and should be treated as such.

Remember that you are in business here, which means that you exchange value for money. Don’t let “free” become your default mode. It is your job to take the lead.

If you lead them down the free path that’s exactly where they’ll go. Lead them down the customer path instead.

5. Respond with confidence

Here’s a script for how to handle someone asking you for coffee or lunch to “pick your brain”:

I’m glad to hear you’re interested in getting deeper into this. The next step is my one-hour consultation. Would you like me to tell you how that works?

Notice that you’re asking permission and putting the prospect in the driver’s seat.

You’re also using the clear service offering that you established in step two. You’re not explaining why you’re charging, because there’s no need: your time is valuable. That’s a given. Even if you’re not used to thinking of it that way yet, get used to responding to these queries as though you are.

If they want to hear more about your consult, that’s great! You have the green light to sign a new client.

Some people will backpedal and start saying they’re tight on money. Here’s another script you can use in that scenario:

I completely understand, you have my card so just get in touch with me when you’re ready. You can also take a look at the articles on my blog if you’d like some more general advice that can tide you over until you’re ready to embark on this project.

What you don’t want to do is hedge, waver or discount. Stand firm with full respect for your business and you’ll find that the prospect will share that respect.

Hold firm and freebie requests will fall off

You’ll notice that the people at the very top seem to struggle with this topic less, even though they get the most requests.  Does your attorney or accountant charge you for their time?  Naturally you should do the same for your clients.

Why? When you’re clear and confident in what you offer, paying for your time becomes the natural progression.

Get clear, get confident and start being honored by those “freebie” requests. That’s how you become an expert that always gets paid for their time.