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Networking Tips (and Traps!): Preventing Brain Picking

Heidi Thorne is a business author with 25 years of experience in marketing/sales, including a decade in the hotel and trade show industries.

Get some advice about avoiding traps during networking events.

Get some advice about avoiding traps during networking events.

Consultants, Beware!

Say you're a consultant (or coach) and your networking 1:1 (one-to-one) meeting with a new connection is going great. You're chatting about your shared affinity for a favorite pop star, where you went to college, your crazy pets, that new restaurant in the area and, of course, what you do for work. Your new pal starts talking about some of the challenges she's facing in her business. And then, here it comes:

"I'd like to pick your brain about . . . "


"What do you think I should do about . . . "


"I'm working on ____, could you just take a look at this and see what you think?"

Ugh! You've just walked into a brain picking!

Brain Picking Makes You Forfeit Billable Hours

This scenario is all too familiar for those in the consulting professions. I can't tell you how many billable hours I've forfeited due to being brain picked! Many people cannot distinguish between what's friendly conversation and what's consulting or coaching. Even worse is that consultants often don't know how to politely respond to these requests for input, whether they occur on the phone or in an in-person meeting as the one described above. They're afraid of hurting the other person who could be a potential client. So they usually cave in and comply.

From another perspective, the networker asking for advice has not officially hired the consultant. So is the consultant liable for any advice given?

Creating Boundaries and Possibilities for Brain Picks

As a consultant active in the networking scene, you will likely receive invitations for coffee, meals, or phone meetings with new connections. These meetings can be very important for building rapport with potential clients and referral partners. So, yes, accept invitations from those you feel could be relevant connections.

From my experience, these meetings are usually very enjoyable and deepen important friendships. But you need to be extremely vigilant and listen carefully for statements like those highlighted at the beginning of the article. When they occur, you need to sidestep answering and suggest that those issues be addressed in a separate (PAID, we hope!) session dedicated to addressing the person's needs. The best way to be ready is to have a response script prepared and practiced.

Brain Pick Script Elements

  • Acknowledge the person's need and the importance of addressing it.
  • Stress that limited time and attention exists in the current "networking" meeting.
  • Invite them to a paid consulting session. Indicating how much it will cost can help ease their minds. Alternatively, if you offer a free initial assessment or consult, invite them to book it so that you can get them into your sales funnel.


"That's an important issue that could really affect the future of your business [health, family, or whatever the issue is]. Since we have limited time in our networking meetup today, let's plan to dedicate some time to your issue in a consulting session. I charge $ [insert details on costs and booking]. Should we take a look at our calendars and book that session now?"

You may find that interjecting an offer like this—and setting a healthy boundary—may completely disarm your network buddies. They may decline your offer initially, but will likely keep it in the back of their minds. Or they may feel that you are opportunistic, selfish, etc. That's THEIR problem! But you'll have planted a seed that:

  1. You have knowledge, skill and experience to address their concerns; and,
  2. Your time and talent are valuable—and that you respect their time, too.

Brain Pick Redirect: Referral to a Networking Colleague

If you cannot address these people's concerns, that's fine. And you don't want to stress out your brain trying to find an answer that you don't have, especially in the short period of time in a networking meeting. You are much better off referring inappropriate opportunities to another networking connection who can help. In that case, the script would be altered a bit:

Brain Pick Script Elements for a Referral

  • Acknowledge the person's need and the importance of addressing it
  • Indicate that you don't have the skills, experience, etc. to competently address their needs.
  • Ask if they would be interested in being referred to one of your colleagues.


"That's an important issue that could really affect the future of your business [health, family, or whatever the issue is]. However, since I specialize in [insert your specialty here], I'm probably not the best person to talk to about this. Would you mind if I refer you to a colleague of mine who's better qualified?"

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You'll look like a well-connected professional, and your network pal can get the help they really need. I've successfully done this on a number of occasions!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 15, 2016:

Hi Lawrence! Your wife is absolutely doing the right thing by referring the "pickers" to a competent friend still in the biz. I've had to do that myself over the years. It saves relationships and can create some new ones, too. Thanks for adding that insight to the conversation! Have a great day!

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on March 14, 2016:


We can relate to this hub, my wife was a Chartered Accountant (CPA in the US) and people were always wanting 'free advice'. Even now after she gave the qualification up five or more years ago they still ask!

Her reply is simply "sorry but I'm not current on the latest tax law but here's the name of a friend who is"


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 28, 2016:

Indeed they have, FlourishAnyway! I think we get messed up as business pros because we feel that we're only "selling," not "serving" like doctors do. That is an important insight into the issue. Thank you! Have a great day!

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 28, 2016:

Physicians have mastered it, so why not other professionals? Great advice, as always!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 27, 2016:

Billybuc, I'm glad if you even take the time to wander by my "marketing class." :) Thanks so much for reading. Actually, I've had a TON of posts in almost-finished mode for a while. So I'm catching up on those. Have a new business book in publish mode and am working with a few authors. So I totally understand about other pursuits calling. Enjoy the farm! It's sunny here in CHI today, too. Yay!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 27, 2016:

I shut it down on weekends and that's when you begin with the writing, so it's always going to take me a little while to get to your articles....but I make it eventually. Thanks for letting me sit in an audit your marketing class...great appreciated, my friend.

Sunny skies urban farm is calling me...have a great weekend.

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