How to deal with the dreaded question of “Can I pick your brains?”

Pick Your Brains

Can I pick your brains?As someone who works within the IT industry, you’ll be familiar with the phrase from friends, family and acquaintances of “Can I pick your brains?”.

You’re seen as the IT expert and with everyone using IT nowadays, that expertise will be in demand.

  • “I’m thinking about buying a new computer. What do you recommend?”
  • “I’m buying a new Smartphone. Which would you go for?”

… are two common questions.

Then there is the truly dreaded “My computer is running slowly. What do you think I should do?” query.

Because all IT people know how to fix a computer without looking at it, right?

'My computer is running slowly. What do you think I should do?' Because all IT people know how to fix a computer without looking at it, right? Click to Tweet

All joking aside, while you are used to these types of questions in your personal life, you’re probably equally familiar with them in your professional life.

When they come from paying clients – that’s part of your job. The client pays you to help them solve their problems.

But what about when they come from prospective clients who aren’t paying you. How do you deal with the “Can I pick your brains?” requests then?

Questions beget Questions

Can I pick your brains?Your first instinct is to try to help. When someone you feel is a prospective client asks “Which new computer should I buy?” you’ll helpfully offer them a couple of choices.

The challenge is, once you’ve offered them free help once – they’ll come back for more free advice.

It’s the same as writing proposals that spell out all the steps a prospect should take. It’s free consultancy. I’ve written before about why I think you should stop writing sales proposals and I think this is a similar situation.

“I’ve looked at the PC’s you recommend and want some advice on the options. Also, I’ve spotted a cheaper PC elsewhere. Is that a good fit for me?” is a common follow-up question to your helpful response.

And so you get drawn into offering more and more help – basically assisting the person in choosing their PC. Will they be grateful? Yes. Will it make them more likely to become a paying client? Absolutely not.

You see, the trouble with giving away free advice of this nature is that it sets an expectation of both your time and your value. If you give something away for free, the next time they come to you for advice and you want to charge for it – how will they react? In my experience, not well. The previous goodwill you’ve built by giving away free Consultancy will be replaced by an irritation that you won’t offer that free Consultancy again, and again, and again.

How to be helpful without giving away free Consultancy

The conundrum remains. You want to be helpful to the person who has asked the question, in the hope they will view you positively and decide to work with you, but you don’t want to give your time away for free or be drawn into a time-sucking spiral of questions.

In this scenario, it pays to have a set of stock answers you can give which helpfully point the person in the right direction and offer a paid alternative.

For instance, when asked “I’m thinking of buying a new PC – what do you recommend” you could offer up the response of “Whenever my paying clients ask me that question, I point them towards the PC Pro A-List. It lists the top reviewed PCs in a number of categories. You’ll find your best choices there. If you need something more specific, let me know – we offer a service for $100 where we help pick the right PC for you. You probably don’t need to pay for our help though – so I think you’ll find the A-List all you need”.

With this type of response you’re doing four things:-

  1. “Whenever my paying clients ask me that question” – you’re clearly stating this is a question that your clients pay you for the privilege of asking.
  2. “I point them towards the A-List” – even though the person isn’t a paying client, you’re giving them valuable advice for free.
  3. “If you need something more specific, let me know – we offer a service for $100 where we will pick the right PC for you” – if the free advice you’ve given them isn’t enough for them, you’re explicitly stating that they can pay you for more.
  4. “You probably don’t need to pay for our help though” – given they were cheeky enough to ask for your advice for free, you are now giving them a huge “out”. You’ve clearly stated you have a paying service, but here you’re stating you don’t expect them to take it.


Make sure you can remain helpful towards prospective clients but don’t give away valuable free Consultancy.

By formulating a stock response to the standard “Can I pick your brains?” questions you are asked, you are able to help the person asking the question to help themselves, giving a positive impression.

You’re also clearly stating that your time is valuable and so if the person wants to “pick your brains” above and beyond these helpful pointers – there will be a cost involved.

Value your time and expertise and your prospective clients will do the same.

Give away free Consultancy at every opportunity, and don’t be surprised if you’re never able to charge for your time!

What would you say is the most common question you’re asked as an IT Professional? What’s your stock answer that saves you time and giving away free consultancy? I’m intrigued to know! Please leave a comment below or get in touch!

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  • Richard Tubb2018-06-14 07:15:03

    Thanks, Jay. I'm glad to have been of help!

  • Jay Guerra2018-05-24 15:43:07

    This is gold Richard and solves a real PITA. Once, I gave 2 options for a laptop to some client. It came to bite me dearly when she went for a cheaper Chromebook and couldn't join it to the domain.

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