Freelancers Beware: That Sales Opportunity … It Could Be A Corporate Spy

Petty as it may be, consultants and freelancers who get on the phone with everybody could be setting themselves up as unpaid sources of intelligence

A lesson many long-term freelancers will sadly have to learn the hard way: mixed in with genuine people who want to do business with you are those just looking to score some free advice — or intelligence — that they think will help them or their companies. Photo by Noelle Otto from Pexels

During the course of the past six years or so, I’ve encountered quite a variety of prospects who got on the phone in order to hear about how I could solve their marketing problems.

During the early years, to buffer my other growth methods, I relied partially upon outbound marketing: namely cold prospecting (was it always fun? No it wasn’t!). Lots and lots of calls, emails, and Zoom meetings.

As time has gone on, I’ve been able to diversify that to different channels: namely receiving referrals from previous clients and generating a pipeline of inbound leads. Less Zoom meetings with more qualified and interested prospects. But enough that it’s still important to know where I stand before speaking to somebody.

Am I where I’d like to be in terms of automatic lead generation? Not quite yet. Although I’m a good deal closer than where I was when I set out.

The Meetings That Just Seem A Bit ‘Off’

Over the course of too many introductory Zoom calls to count, I’ve encountered several first meetings that just seemed a bit off. On a visceral level, they tipped off my gut instinct — always the best barometer when trying to judge others’ intentions. On a logical level too, they rarely made sense. They happened. They were weird. And they usually had me scratching my head wondering ‘what was that about’?

Some of these, even years later, stand out.

There was that sales startup that seemed intent on unpacking my sales process for no apparent reason. What CRM was I using? How did I qualify my leads? What would an average lead lifetime value look like to me?

In the context of what we were talking about, these conversations made zero sense. Wasn’t this about me selling something? Because I’m interested in sales tech — and was green — I indulged the line of interrogation for 10 minutes before bidding the “prospect” a firm goodbye. I never heard back from them.

Then there was that one time — thankfully there have been many it went well — when another marketer abused the peer to peer slot on my Calendly (I keep a dedicated slot for such conversations).

After a few minutes of courteous introductions the questions came in fast and furious: where do you get your clients from? How much are you charging for this? This time I cut off the questioner at two. This wasn’t the type of conversation I was interested in having. Sorry. Goodbye.

While it may seem silly to use the language of espionage to describe something involving freelancing/consulting, I don’t see it in such terms. If we take this form of ‘intelligence’ gathering to mean valuable information that isn’t available through public channels (but rather human sources in the industry), then that’s exactly what these faux “prospects” are seeking to tap into.

The above attempts may be easy to spot. They’re crude. They’re overly aggressive. And when you consider the questions in the broader context of the conversation you’re having, they stick out like a sore thumb.

But there’s another type of prospect that’s far more tactful about how they go about trying to leverage your advice for free.

These are the ones you need to be careful about. And others too. Here are a few caricatures from the very abridged war stories chest.

The Free Consulting Seeker

There are many purposes to a call assessing your suitability for a project. Or an introductory call.

As business owners are frequently being reminded, these are two way tangos. If you’re (hopefully) in the position to be able to afford to do so, you’re interviewing the prospective client to see if you’d like to work with them too.

Is this a client you’re confident about your ability to bring value to? Can you really rock this project? Might they be a useful referral that could send in a testimonial and pipe you into new business opportunities?

And some more questions:

Do they have a clearly identified need for your services, a definite timeline for rollout, and are you speaking to somebody with authority to sign off on this project (or if not, who’s needed and how long might that process take?) These are all typical questions that straddle the divide between generally feeling the prospect out and engaging in some classical sales qualifying.

In return, you can expect the prospect to do something similar.

As you size them up, they’ll be considering you as a candidate for this project.

They might want to know what previous experience you have that could help you make sure that this project is a success. What unique vision could you bring to the team through your contributions here? Etc.

This is fine. But when an invisible line is crossed, it’s quite suddenly not.

It’s okay to ask you about why you might be a “good fit” in general terms. But the moment the client begins to ask for specific recommendations about what you’d do here or what you’d recommend for this project … we’ve already crossed into the realm of fishing for free information.

This is somebody looking for free consulting. Whether they realize that that’s what they’re doing or not, it also speaks seriously to somebody who doesn’t respect the value of another professional’s time. And that, in turn, bodes to a difficult client. One you’ll probably have a hard time working with. Even if you successfully parry back against the attempt, your limits — like here — will be constantly being tested.

It’s also incredibly easy to gaslight yourself at this juncture. I mean before they’d hire me they’d have to see if I could do something useful here, right? (Your brain might say).

Yes. They can do that all right. By offering money in exchange for a trial project.

Cut off any attempt at “picking your brain” that isn’t going to be compensated. Put your best foot forward. Explain — generally — why this work engages you and why you think you’d be a great fit for the project. But save the actual process of suggesting things for when you’re actually receiving compensation for your mental efforts.

The Dude Building Out A Spreadsheet To Assess Market Rate For Your Service

Corporate spies aren’t always simply fishing for information that could directly help their business in the here and now.

Sometimes they’re engaged in what you could consider more desk research projects.

Such as Mr. A.

Mr. A was one of my leads during the first few years of freelancing.

Unlike now (hopefully) I didn’t do a proper lead qualification process before deciding to “hop on” the phone for a “quick call.” (They’re always quick calls. Until your entire afternoon has been sunk into them and not a single prospect comes through.)

The call went reasonably well (if you consider how well an under-qualified call can go). Until Mr. A asked for something unusual.

The last 40 minutes during which we had discussed my pricing, capabilities, and service levels? Well, it turns out that I was just a data point in some kind of market research survey.

Mr. A mentioned that he had been compiling a survey of providers in this space. Would I kindly fill it out after we had concluded the meeting? He sent it over alright. There were 20 other respondents.

Perhaps they were all vying for this (small) chunk of business that Mr. A was holding over our heads like a carrot (which would have given me a none-too-stalwart 5% fighting chance at landing the contract). My guess is that he was simply trying to figure out market rate and going way overboard with the field research.

Either way this isn’t a lead that I should have gotten on the phone to. You live and learn.

You May Get Played. And Then You’ll Learn To Be A Skeptic.

If you’re new to the freelance game or still don’t believe that humans could stoop to such shenanigans in order to get something valuable (actionable advice) without having to proffer any hard currency for it then … it may take being played for you to understand that this is a real thing.

Is it the biggest problem plaguing today’s crop of freelancers? I don’t think so. Do we need to regard every lead that drifts into our inbox as first and foremost a hostile entity and qualify them aggressively until they prove themselves to be sincere? That would probably be a really bad idea too.

But equally I believe that this is an issue that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves within the freelancing, consulting, and self-employed communities (there are differences between those terms, but we share so many of the same struggles). It may smack many as paranoid. But my experience teaches that it really isn’t.

How will you know when you’ve been played? One way is to get yourself organized.

Keep track of the sales prospects and calls that you hold — a CRM is preferable but a spreadsheet’s probably good enough. You’ll probably want to refrain from offering detailed advice to any unpaying lead going forward. But you may well have done that in the past. Perhaps many times, even. So you have some retrospective data to work with.

Now ask yourself how many of those leads went on to be clients? Do you remember what you recommended to them?

If it’s something specific — say, a tact you think they should have taken in their marketing — then go back to the point in time you had that interaction.

Did they, perchance, decide to take your great recommendation and roll with it in-house? Perhaps they even took your suggestions and farmed it out to somebody on Upwork to save the business a little bit of cash?

If you do this a few times you may see — at least once — definite evidence of a company that talked to you, picked your brain (as a test of course) and then decided to leverage the advice while never even having the courtesy to let you know.

It will leave the bitterest of bitter tastes if you find out that the answer was ‘yes’ (trust me, I’m talking from experience here). But it will also make you a lot more reluctant to fall for the gaffe again — no matter how charming the lead or adamant that the company is planning on using you for a project (they just need to hear your specific ideas for this campaign in order to validate that you’re really ‘the one’ for the job.)

Petty corporate espionage is petty. You can argue with the naming convention I’ve followed here and tell me that corporate espionage is when cut throat industrialists from some far off land arrange a site visit in order to steal some trade secrets that could be worth millions.

I’d argue that there are widely varying degrees of it — like any field of human endeavor. But also that it’s really a thing.

As the quintessential ‘lone wolves’ of the commercial world, freelancers are extremely vulnerable to this kind of exploitation.

Great prospects are out there. But so are deadbeat and devious ones without a shred of ethical integrity. And it’s this latter group you need to be on your guard against.

People like the pre-seed funded startup founder who doesn’t have money to invest in marketing yet but who knows that if he feigns interest in a gullible freelancer he’ll be able to get some great ideas that he can get his nephew to work on for free. It may all seem a bit far-fetched. Until it happens to you.

By all means talk to leads.

But know when you have to very firmly draw the line between what you’re willing to discuss at the pre-sales stage and what you’re willing to talk about — and do —only after the contract has been inked and you’re getting paid.

Sadly, there are exploitative people and businesses in the world.

But by protecting itself you can avoid shutting out the good faith actors.

Daytime: tech-focused MarCom. Night-time: somewhat regular musings here. Or the other way round. Likes: Linux, tech, beer.