IT Employment

Poll: Is it OK for people to expect free IT advice from you?

Every IT pro has been asked for some kind of technical advice from friends and family members. But when near strangers in a social environment ask, is it out of line?

Years ago, I dated a lawyer, and it always irritated me that when we would go somewhere socially someone would inevitably come up to get some free legal advice. One time I said something to someone who then responded, "Hey, if he's in that line of work, he should expect that kind of thing."

Well, yes, in a way for friends and family. But why should anyone give away a service for which he or she would normally charge? And why should someone be expected to do it in a social environment?

Of course, this is a question faced by IT pros as well. I can't imagine that there's an IT pro out there who has not been in the position of mentioning what he or she does for a living and then having someone casually say, "I've been having some problems with my computer..."

I'd like to get your viewpoint on the subject. Please take the poll below and let me know how you feel about giving free tech advice to near strangers in a social situation.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

136 comments
michaellashinsky
michaellashinsky

When the person becomes a PITA, I just say, "I work on computers for people all the time. My rates are reasonable." That separates the freeloaders from the people that want real help.

reisen55
reisen55

It can be a way to get new business. This falls under the discussion of FREE SERVICE which should be done ONCE and only ONCE as a door opener. I found a new client about 0.5 miles away from my home by doing that. If the questions are easy, fine. If they involve severe tech analysis, the answer must be prefaced with I WOULD LIKE TO SEE THAT before offering advice, and that too is a business opener. Friends are a special case, they can be damning when it comes to invoicing - you can lose friendships over that. Family is always THERE and if you are lucky, they are few in terms of service requests and great for dinner.

ITonStandby
ITonStandby

If you are a life long computer person and your family and friends know it, you're gonna get asked for advice. It would be rather odd if they didn't unless you smell really bad or have a truly terrible personality. So, rather than see it as a curse, turn it into a marketing tool. If you don't have a website for your business, then perhaps it's time to set up a free blog somewhere and start writing the occasional post about questions you get a lot. For instance, I get quite a few questions about switching from Windows to a Mac. So I wrote a short article summarizing the three scenarios I've been asked about: Business, college students, and personal. Business I usually say stay with Windows unless there's a business case for the Mac. College students - I always defer to what the campus computer guidelines are. Sometimes universities don't play well with the Mac at all but you won't know until asking the campus computer store. Personal - it's whatever you can afford but I always suggest the Mac is better if there's a real frustration level with Windows already. And now I have a place to refer people to that ask for advice on that issue. Give them a 30 second overview, hand them a business card with my website address and I'm on my way. Hope this helps someone.

daphne.jeffries@us-egi.
daphne.jeffries@us-egi.

I politely refuse at social events with relative strangers. The reason being in a social environment, there isn't enough time to get all of the details about the issue and giving corrective action advice without a full understanding of the problem may cause more problems and you'll be the one they'll blame.

zentross
zentross

I have learned through personal experience that knowing the person first saves frustration in the long run. Inevitably, the advice given sets precedent and opens a social contract for further 'favors' or makes you responsible if they only heard the part of the advice they wanted and ignored the pitfall warnings altogether.

webgov
webgov

As a technology professional for more than 25 years, I am used to family hitting me up everytime I visit, but those who would normally be a client like friends and family of coworkers or businesses or churches seem to think that not just my advice but long hours and work are free as well. Although some often act like they really never knew either how much time it takes or how much your time is really worth - don't believe it. Why do you think they are trying guilt/con you into doing it? If you really want to teach them a lesson they won't forget, when they ask you to dinner only to spring a request for computer help that "will only take you a minute", help them out but insist that they sit and watch you (so they see it never really takes a minute of two) and then spring the statement that as a computer professional, you're sure that they understood you will be sending them your bill in full hours at the going rate of $150.00 per hour and carry through on the promise. You won't have to do that too often.

jasmine2501
jasmine2501

I simply explain how the business works... "I am a *programmer* and my time is spent writing code. When we have problems with the OS, we have servants who take care of that stuff for us." This makes the point that fixing computer problems is not your job, and that your job is so important that you have your own pit crew. Of course this is not how I really feel about the people who keep me in business day to day, but it's a good way to explain why, if I fix your computer, it's gonna be expensive.

ManoaHI
ManoaHI

It took me quite a while to read through everything. Most have been good ideas or sometimes funny, and some that I have to do as well. The one thing that I would like to hear is what the people who want help think about asking relatives or friends to "have a look at...". I never ask my doctor friends for medical advice. I don't ask my mechanic friends to have a look at my car. Just never occurred to me to ask. Try ask the question the other way to a wider audience. "Why do you expect to get free IT advice from friend or relative who works in IT?" I think the oddest things that I've gotten in the past: "you know electronics, can you fix my microwave/TV/stereo/refrigerator/washing machine/circuit breaker that keeps tripping." True some of them now have quite a bit of tech in them, but give me a break.

HypnoToad72
HypnoToad72

1. "PCs have to be replaced every 3 years, no so with tablets - this is more economically friendly" (until people upgrade every single year, oops...) 2. "PCs don't need maintenance" - very true. Now watch a number of businesses go under, and the ones that adapt will be reduced to hawking these gizmos along with shifty-eyed extended warranties (with enough limitations to make those an effective waste of money) and other tactics... 3. The more dense tablet screens get (e.g. 2048x1536 screens at 300PPI or higher), the more people will want websites and other media to take advantage of the density. This means higher imagery... if Siri was sucking the life out of your limited data plan, just wait... 300PPI vs 72PPI is going to be a huge drain... I could go on, but I think this concept of "is it ok for people to expect free advice" is both out of date and eternally relevant. PCs are going to become out of date, at least for content consumers (those who do the work, for ever smaller profit margins, won't be able to do the work on tablets (yet))... but at the same time, I already hinted at why nobody should expect anything for free. Those who want everything for free are cheap, lazy, greedy, uncivilized, devolved, and selfish - incapable of understanding how much time and effort people put into things, because they're too busy to do it themselves, or wondering why everybody else thinks they're overpaid in their job... And that is what makes all this timeless...

SktrJksn
SktrJksn

I have no problem offering advice or suggestions. I work for myself So I look at it as a way to drum up business. I'll even offer to fix their problem for $20 to $50 plus parts. In January I did virus removal for someone who I only know from shopping at walmart for $40. Since then he has referred 3 people to me who have paid $150 for virus removal.

stu.field
stu.field

I don't mind as long as the advice is for a home or personal problem. If it is for their work place they need to pay. I can't get free medical or legal advice, nor will a mechanic diagnose my car for free.

vampyreapocalypse
vampyreapocalypse

My mom, sister, dad, fianc??, and her mom are the ONLY people that get IT support from me. They each understand that I am the ONLY person they are to ask for advice and/or help with their problem. I do not expect anything in return since they all have nothing to offer me as a trade for my services and I won't accept money from them. Under absolutely no circumstances will I even talk to anyone else about computers this or that, since it inevitably leads to the "I've been having this issue" discussion. This is a known fact so I'm rarely bothered at family get togethers.

harleymonk
harleymonk

I don't mind talking shop but with two conditions. However I say it, I let people know that, without my hands-on analysis, my advice is, at best, a suggestion and should be acted upon at one's own risk - a condition that satisfies my cynical bent mindful of a litigious populace. Secondly, after giving one my suggestion, I politely refer them to the IT professional of their choice for further informed analysis. As a rule, I do not entertain protracted, technical, back-and-forth discussions. Here I must emphasize my cynicism: I think "good-Samaritan" laws should apply to suggestions made over old fashioneds and Swedish meatballs. Monk

nichola.dinnoo
nichola.dinnoo

My mother paid for some of my tech education, therefore my house gets my knowledge. This is used by my discretion between my sisters, however, they are tech savvy, so it isnt a bother...wider community on the other hand is a different issue.

webmaster
webmaster

... continually "volunteers" me to fix her coworkers computers despite how many times I've asked her to stop. If they offer to pay I really don't mind it that much and usually charge much less than they'd pay ordinarily but it amazes me how many people expect me to do it out of the "goodness of my heart" (really, they just don't know me very well do they?). This is my JOB people. Do you do yours for free?

mattohare
mattohare

When someone goes on and on, or demands help, I don't like it. If it's a casual friendly request, especially from someone that replies in kind, i'm only too happy to help.

. Avi
. Avi

Hey, IT is a big general word for what we do, I work in IT i'm responsible for managing thousands of desktop by means of SCCM/BigFix, I'm also responsible for the company application delivery services Citrix and SCCM, Other people who work in IT are working on BI systems, some are DB administrators, When you ask me what i think about someone asking about IT my opinion is divided, - asking a question about a personal computer - That is not IT, and those annoy me, but i still try to answer after making sure the person who asked knows that what i actually do for a living is in different field to what was asked, i usually answer in a very general way, more with tips to how i think they should diagnose or troubleshoot the issue. - asking about an upcoming IT project or more complex IT questions - those i'm happy to answer because i like to think of it as if it's a business opportunity, for me or for someone else that i may know, and could lead to a business opportunity.

Trentski
Trentski

I like investigating and resolving issues, even when I'm not at work. Its fun learning new stuff, I'm yet to have someone bring there computer to me or anything, I just give advice mostly

manicmark
manicmark

I think of it like asking your doctor friend about a problem over drinks. They may tell you, "yes, you have a problem, go see your regular GP about it". However, it's unlikely they'll give you a detailed prognosis and explanation on the spot. I work much the same way when asked IT advice in that I'll happily discuss pros and cons of new gadgets on the market or some great tool I've discovered. But if someone says, "I think my laptop has a virus, it's doing xyz", my response is usually "okay, sounds like you have a problem, you need to take it for a service".

Bob Jnr
Bob Jnr

It's part of our human nature to help or advise someone in need. Albeit most requests come from family and friends, this does not mean that we should restrict helping or advising when someone needs it. If you knew CPR and saw a stranger suffering a heart attack, your instinct would be to help. The same principle should apply here too.

Komplex
Komplex

But I will use it to hold it over there heads forever. "Remember that time I installed a new HD for you..." In Social Settings, talking with acquaintances or strangers I'll tell them to google the problem, because 9 out of 10 times that's what I do first.

andrew232006
andrew232006

I don't mind when my friends and family ask for help with computers. Many of them have helped me over the years with things from moving, to carrying rocks, to wiring. However, if it takes me more than 20 minutes to fix the problem. I'll usually stop and suggest they try somewhere else or if it's bogged down with malware backup their data and reformat.

sparent
sparent

is that because my work involves computers, people think I can fix their problems. Yes, i did technical support work. 25 years ago. I have not kept up with all the nuts and bolts of today's technology. I am not the person you want opening up your machine. Stéphane

tchall
tchall

Sometimes I charge for my labor even if they ask nicely... but I ALWAYS charge if they had someone else in to muck up things first Friends and family that don't understand that they coulen't afford to do what they do for a living free don't need MY help anyway...

marc
marc

I don't mind having a conversation, especially if I'm enjoying it, but when I am done having fun it is time to change the topic. I would socially ask a docotor what he thought about the latest diet but I wouldn't think about pulling down my pants to ask the same doctor if he thought the spot on my rear was cancer. Likewise I enjoy certain aspects of my work and don't mind sharing them but I would don't want to be bothered with the details of somebody virus problems. If we get into the detail I either bow out with, "I mainly deal with corporate system, so your facebook problem really is not my area of expertise" or offer them my bill rates and tell them I would be happy to schedule a time to help. An upside is this can lead to a nice barter situation if you are really willing to help--I have gotten paid in chiropractic treatments, accounting services, and gourmet meals to name a few in exchange for the services I offered.

TechNDN
TechNDN

I always answer simple questions, usually with "turn it off and back on then see what happens". Or if they are persistent then I say "sure bring it over and I'll look at it right now". That sure discourages people. I agree that if you give advice then later, sometimes months later, the asker of free advice will be blaming you for their problems since you gave them free advice.

steve
steve

I have been doing this for years, My own business and then I took job with a former client. I still have people offer to feed me, like I am malnourished and need a "Free" Meal. The problem is I am diabetic and limit myself to low carb foods. I have no problem eating, I would do it for free if I wanted to do it. Family has always been easy, i usually get them running or buy them a new machine. so much easier for me and no headache. I too get the questions about phones, TV's, Bluray and anything electronic. Whats the best computer, the cheapest, but I want to look at porn, oh the most expensive then. I for years have joked about any naked pictures, one firneds said no, but the last time there was- Her uncle found them....(no charge there I guess)

rfolden
rfolden

the recipient of the advice or even paid service now "owns you" and you are responsible for every little technological failure that occurs in their home or office. Your best response is "I don't know a thing about what you are talking about." Save yourselves, boys.

eryk81
eryk81

There are a few ways to look at it. 1) Your a technical person and you do it for a living. Someone coming up to you asking questions shouldn't be an annoyance, it should be a business opportunity. Give them a little bit of your expertise and then you flat out tell them that you would need to see the PC. You then give them your card and hourly rate. 2) Your a technical person and you do it for a living. You should look to this opportunity to talk about your line and possibly learn something new; whether it is how to deal with a different type of user or how better to educate a no-technical person. When the conversation has drawn on or you feel that you should be charging, steer the users to a point where you can give them your business card and hourly rate. Everyone is always networking and advertising who they are and what they do regardless of the situation. Consultants need to look at these situations not as a hassle but as an opportunity to generate business and word of mouth.

asitnik
asitnik

After all, free advice is worth every penny!

tvshub
tvshub

I quickly evaluate the situation with this in mind, "How can I turn this freebie into a payee". And with that approach, I have disarmed any frustration or qualms I have (because everyone is or can be a potential customer, even family). And then I can calmly proceed to explain how simple their problem is (which makes them feel really dumb) and it would be to their advantage to Google for a solution or stop by my shop if it is really critical. I hardly ever give a straight-up answer, but it just depends on who, where, and what.

fillmoreb
fillmoreb

Something I had to explain to my kid who felt that as an IT Professional (or "computer guy") that he and all his friends and our neighbors were entitled to my services for free... If your friend was a plumber, would you expect him to fix your plumbing for free? Or what if they were an auto mechanic; should they fix your car for free? Should the Doctor neighbor perform free surgery for you? Of course not. As IT Professionals, we should be given the same respect and expectations. Just because our skill set is more intellectual than physical does not mean it is a free resource or should be taken for granted..

MartyL
MartyL

I work for trade if the customer wants to trade something I need. Usually, I need my light bill paid, so I trade work for money. Many of my customers are on limited incomes and really need to "work something out," but that's usually done by phone before I get in my car. I don't evaluate a customer's needs outside their own frame of reference - I give the same priority to someone who has to wait until their Social Security check arrives before they can have their email fixed as I do to the theatrical production consultant who wants me to de-glitch his teleconference gizmo. I had exactly one neighbor try to take advantage - I made an adjustment to his laptop and he sent his wife to pick it up and give me $20 - "for my effort." I gave her back the twenty and told her, "my starting fee is $50 - we'll just call this my favor to you." Word got around - everyone else on my street offers my full fee in cash, or dinner. My policy on "free" is: no charge for telling you - or reminding you - simple things, like Shift+F7 does not mean Shift, then F, then 7. However, if I have to do any "work," and that's a judgment call I get to make, then there will be a fee. If a potential customer gets irate for some reason and wants to invoke Geek Squad, that's okay, too. I don't mind cleaning up after those guys - they're good for a couple of jobs per month. The sad part is - quite a lot of the Geek Squad techs would actually be competent if their managers' business model didn't rely on lying to the customer as a matter of course.

ed
ed

Went to my physician for something that had lasted too long and after he did his thing, he asked me my opinion of his upgrading to a 286. (I said it was years ago.) I told him that for his uses the difference would be it would wait for him to hit the ENTER key much faster. (The nurse thought that was a knee slapper.) He asked another question or two while he was writing up the chart. On a lark, I said, "I do this on the side for $60/hour." (Not my day job.) He looked at me, pitched the ticket into the chart and said, "We'll save that for next time." He was great. He said his accountant chewed him regularly because he didn't schedule as many patients in a day as other physicians. His thought was he made enough money he didn't need to. Unfortunately, he cracked a vertebra in a fall and has had to drop his practice and go to a desk job. Bummer.

rickf2
rickf2

It doesn't matter who you speak with. Providing the wrong answer can cause ramifications with friends and strangers alike. It's better to simply say, "I don't know" or "I'm not familiar with that problem" when you are not 100% sure of your answer. This is actually more important with family and friends rather than strangers. If you give someone an answer and it turns out to be helpful, great! If the answer doesn't help or is simply wrong, you may find yourself regarded as "guilty by association" for any present or future problems experienced by the person who asked the question. It happens, believe me. I once had someone call me up and tell me that I owed them a new computer and that I was to blame for it's very recent destruction. I had mentioned to this person that they could try reseating the Memory modules on the mother board if their computer was acting up. I never touched their computer mind you, but in their attempt to follow my casually provided "advice", they accidentally fried their mother board and could have been severely hurt or killed because I never imagined they would be silly enough to attempt to work on their computer while it was still powered on! I've learned that most older people are NOT computer hardware literate, and while younger people are more so, they still don't have some of the basic troubleshooting skills (or patience) required to fix their own compter. Software issues can be even more daunting. Telling someone to defragment their Hard Drive is one thing, but if the issue gets more complicated and requires some advanced guidance, it is usually safer to refer the person who is asking for advice to contact the store where their computer was originally purchased or to call support (if they have maintenance). If you still choose to advise, think carefully and consider the ramifications of your answers before you speak. This "advice" can be applied to any situation - computer related or otherwise. :)

CarmNeng
CarmNeng

I usually don't mind, especially if it's familiy or friends. If they ask [q]why?[q] or they don't agree with my advice, I change the subject or end the coversation. I truly hope it helps them, but it's my professional advice they asked for, and they can take it or leave it.

sslevine
sslevine

I barter. My lawyer and I swap services, and I've assisted a finish carpenter who reassembled a hoosier cabinet (beautifully) for me. My best friends? No charge. I can always count on them when I need them. And there are a few people I do help because I know they can't afford it - that's my pro bono work, and somewhere, if I pay it forward, I get it back. Other than that, everyone else gets the opportunity to reward me for my incredibly excellent services... :-)

XoomXoom
XoomXoom

I just keep the 800 # for the Geek Squad and if they're outside immediate circle I refer them there. There is always a location close by and they can come out to their home as well.

brettwar
brettwar

Giving limited, generic, advice I dont see as a problem. But working on the PC, research, or actual thought provoking answers should be conducted in a more business style.. Hey, my PC is running slow... Check your AV, Spyware, think about a reformat, etc.. (generic)

TGGIII
TGGIII

I give advice away. Often, the person cannot implement - which is why they are asking for advice - and I have a foot in the door. If nothing else, Advice is a form of networking. I agree with the comments that giving the service is strictly pro bono to friends and family and then only in the context of relationship...dinner anyone?

tim_weber
tim_weber

When I am presented the all mighty question; Hey since you're here and you know something about Technology, I have a problem with my home computer. I am always cordial and I tell them that I offer personal tech service for a fee. This helps weed out the everyday moochers and those who really see that it is a professional service. I also express to them that my costs to them is less expensive than the local Computer shops or to buy another service agreement that they may have let expire. And to date, I have not found anyone expressing to me that I have offended them with the offer.

maj37
maj37

A new to town podiatrist that mother used to go to, called me at night with some questions on his office computer systems a couple of times. I answered them and gave him some advice which he of course never volunteered to pay for. I heard that later at a social gathering he was hitting one of the local photographers up for some free advice and the guy told him he had a studio which the doctor was free to visit during the day. In defense of the podiatrist however: My boss lived in the same neighborhood and his wife was having a problem with her foot and the podiatrist gave her some free advice. So in this case at least to some extent he was willing to return the favor for family and friends. I remember the joke about the doctor that asks the lawyer at a party how to stop people from doing this at parties and the lawyer says I give them the advice and then send them a bill. The doctor says thanks he will try that. A couple of days later the doctor gets a bill from the lawyer.

lorenzamccants
lorenzamccants

I tend to go with Gena's strategy of empathizing then explaining my rates. If I know the person well enough to know that they may have something I need, then we start a barter session or I let them know that I will expect free whatever in the future if I help them for free. They already know what it costs at the local PC shop or they wouldn't bother to ask... That's your leverage. For the repeat offenders, the price goes up or the advice changes to a referral to someone I know who has a shop in town.

cd003284
cd003284

These situations can also lead to good clients, big jobs, long-term work. I don't want to shaft myself, but I do try not to leave the impression that I'm just another hostile nerd with the social skills of an adolescent werewolf. If people like the way I treated them, they sometimes come back with good jobs or refer me to other people. Simple things like patience, tact, and manners often score big with people who are "adults across the board": socially, culturally, professionally, and personally, especially when they're older. More than half of my clients are over 65.

tbmay
tbmay

....if really want to get paid. I can assure you you'll be the last on their list to pay, and they'll stall and stall and stall. They'll also grumble to everybody who will listen about how unreasonable you are, and how it's not quite right after you touched it. I completely ditched the "fix computer" thing. Unless you have the volume to churn, and cheap labor, it's just plain not worth it.

mhbowman
mhbowman

And I get it.... People like to be on the inside track, and to be able to hook up their friends etc, e.g. I get stuck with the work, and she get the gratitude. After the third time I explained that unless it was her time and effort she was volunteering, that she better be prepared to go back and correct the situation. Hasn't happened since.

tbmay
tbmay

It's amazing how many folks leave you alone when you start demanding money and agreements. The ones that don't leave me alone? I call them "customers." They are treated like kings.

tbmay
tbmay

Just take measures to avoid being approached by freeloaders. I've tried every trick talked about here...including the "a little free work creates opportunities" bit. I promise you the opportunities it creates are outweighed by the costs it creates several times over. I'm not trying to impart wisdom, just plain old, "I got burned trying these things" experience so maybe someone won't make the same mistakes I did.

rfolden
rfolden

... "but Barry Finklewood suggested X fixes the problem... Why do you choose solution Y?" I know they're shopping for freebies and tell them to call the Geek Squid.

rfolden
rfolden

It is the nature of the human animal. Professional, 65+, pimple-faced kid, upwardly mobile 30 year old. They want it free, and they want it now. Relatives are the absolute worst offenders.

DJSniperwolf
DJSniperwolf

I did a couple 'freebie' jobs for a guy whom discovered I had skills in IT. About a year later I was hired on as CIO for a mortgage company making $80k. The work was great but very drawn out. As much as 14+ Hour days, my title also seemed to entail alot more than just the computers and networks. I had to cover Phones, Faxes, Printers, E-Mail, Electrical (the 220v Runs) for the dedicated copier, as well as home support for our guys that worked out of the office. I was having to RDP all hours of the night because someone had forgotten our POP or exchange settings... Eventually the company folded but regardless, it was a great learning experience that had a nice paycheck with it.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

at the scope of the CIO's job. The 'I' does stand for information... Regardless what some might think, outside the electrical, all of what you were asked to do is part of IT support

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