Over the last few months, I've heard a recurring theme amongst my colleagues about tactics organizations and individuals are using to gain 'free' services and advice from experts. As a consultant, something about this conversation has touched a nerve and I feel we need to talk about it openly.

It's one thing when someone reaches out and provides a genuine exchange or innocently looks to someone to provide informal advice. What I'm hearing about are organizations - big well-known ones - doing the following:

1. Advertising fake positions - Apparently this is a thing. They actually advertise a position, interview a number of people (the top candidates come back three of four times thinking they're a shoe-in for the position), interviewers (sometimes entire teams) take copious notes, and then there is an apology stating that the position was suddenly eliminated. In most cases, candidates provided their best advice that they suspect was used by the organization.

2. Asking for full-scale solutions in RFP - In this case, they ask for a full-scale solution as part of the RFP process. They want plans and budgets outlined in order to select. I tend to provide an approach and approximate budgets (if I submit to an RFP), but wait until being hired for an official briefing before an official plan.

3. Asking for a presentation - Organizations are asking candidates and potential consultants to present their solution during the interview process. This is usually after two or three conversations outlining the business problem they are trying to solve - marketing plans, engagement plans, a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, website designs etc... Again, the common theme is that they don't say they've hired another candidate, they actually claim that they lost the funding for the project or position.

4. The coffee/lunch meeting - Individuals offering to pay for lunch or coffee for advice. I'm always happy to connect with friends and colleagues where there is a true exchange of information. With long-time associates, it's been a give and take for years during our collective ups and downs, but advice should be general. The times for these meetings also go down as we become busier, since it's time away from paid work. I know many colleagues who now offer 15-minutes by phone and make clear that future interactions are paid for. For those seeking advice, be clear up front about what you're looking for so expectations are clear at the outset.

There is something incredibly dishonest about stringing people along knowing you are simply in a search for information even if you don't have the budget.

I have to admit that I've been lucky. Maybe it's because we often insist on starting every project with a briefing, research or a foundational audit. This ensures that our solution isn't created in a vacuum and actually solves the business issues.

I'm curious. Has anyone experienced this themselves? When do you say no to a request or discontinue involvement? For consultants and agencies - do you still respond to RFPs? What are your flags? Please share your personal stories.

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