Do you offer to help…or help to offer?

I have come across a number of professionals recently who complain that their efforts to help others have not been “paying off” – that, despite their willingness to help, those on the receiving end do not seem appreciative.

Upon learning more, it appears their idea of “help” is to give a prospective client free advice or a referral, for example, in the hopes that said prospect will hire them as a result. This is not help. It’s a sales strategy.

I’m not saying that giving free advice for the purpose of business development is a bad idea. It can be effective when done properly. If your real goal is to generate business, you should set clear expectations upfront. Let the potential client know that you will help them address part of their problem, and discuss how your help might be mutually beneficial, rather than making any assumptions. My good friend Ian Altman of Grow My Revenue touches on this here.

My point is that there is an important difference between offering to help as a business strategy and helping out of pure altruism. You truly help someone, whether by offering feedback or making a mutually beneficial connection, when you provide assistance that is intended to further that person’s professional or personal advancement (and likely someone else’s) – without expecting anything in return. A “payoff” is not the primary motivation.

Acting out of generosity should result in a more positive and/or productive outcome for the recipient than if you had not acted. People who approach helping in this way tend to attract one another, and almost always see their generosity repaid, even though this is not their intent.

When you help someone with the expectation of getting something in return, you may not see a return on your investment for a variety of reasons. The recipient might realize that your offer comes with strings attached and simply be put off. However, I believe the main reason for a lack of reciprocity in these situations is that people who expect something in return when they give are, ironically, not really open to reciprocity. They are naturally skeptical when someone offers to help them, assuming that accepting a favor will put them in debt to this person (since this is what they expect when they are “helping”).

Being in a position to truly help people is a great spot to be in, and your ability to deliver is invaluable. I just hope that anyone out there who thinks they’re helping and not getting the results they’re hoping for does not give up on helping altogether. Anytime you want to offer help, think about the true definition of this word, and make sure your approach – and your expectations – are in line with it.

What are your thoughts on this?

2 Comments | Category Uncategorized | Tags:


  1. by Chris on May 15, 2014 at 11:53 am

    Hi Derek,
    thanks for the interesting post.
    i tried out both in my career: Helping others with business in mind and helping others out of altruism. When I helped people with business in mind, I NEVER made any business with them. It’s was like a curse. But when I helped out of pure altruism, suddenly these people wanted to do business with me.
    I think the reason for this is: When you really want to help people you will get friends with them and you will learn to understand them and their problems. And what’s the best way to make business? Solving the problems of people.
    I think it’s a real gift to help people out of altruism and the best way to make business with them.

  2. by Derek Coburn on May 15, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Chris! I think a big factor is not confusing the two (prospecting vs. pure helping). If it’s a prospective client, we have to set boundaries. If it’s helping just to help, that is obviously rewarding as is.

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