Advice on Giving Advice

“Good advice is always certain to be ignored, but that’s no reason not to give it.” – Agatha Christie

I love to express my opinions. There’s almost no situation that doesn’t seem to beckon my advice – from traffic jams to international politics. Most of my opinions are worth what everybody else’s opinions are worth, which is to say nearly nothing. But when the subject is business – and in particular small- and medium- sized businesses – my suggestions can be very helpful.

Generally speaking, my business advice is expensive. When asked, as I frequently am, to “take a look” at someone’s business and “provide suggestions,” I offer two options: $100,000 for one day or four percent of sales until I’ve been paid $1 million. And so long as the person follows my advice, it’s usually worth it to them.

But you would be amazed at how often people pay for advice or information and then ignore it. They ignore it by either deciding it doesn’t make sense or agreeing that it does but not fully implementing the recommended changes.

Even more people ignore advice – even the best advice – when it’s unsolicited.

Take, for instance, my experience at a new sandwich shop I stumbled upon the last time I was in Nicaragua. I liked the way they designed the window, with the store’s name in big, easy-to-read letters across the entire pane of glass. When I stepped inside, though, I had mixed feelings. I liked the aluminum cafe tables and the sandwich counter at the front, but I didn’t like the low leather sofas in the back.

I sat at the counter, because the four tables were full – and I realized what it was about those sofas that bothered me. People were sort of lounging on them, sipping coffee and working on their computers. As small as it was, this restaurant was trying to be two things, both a bistro and a coffee shop. In attempting to do both, it did neither well.

The problem for the customer who wanted to eat was a lack of tables. You could sit on a sofa and eat – but that would be weird and uncomfortable. You could also sit at the counter, as I was doing. But that’s generally what you do when you’re alone, not when you’re with other people. During the time I sat there eating my sandwich, I saw no fewer than four couples walk into the place, look around, and leave. Meanwhile, the two or three people sitting on the couches were not ordering any food. They were just hanging out there.

I couldn’t restrain myself. After complimenting the owner on his menu and my very tasty sandwich, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind a suggestion. He said he would be happy to hear it. I told him, “Get rid of those sofas and get more tables in here.”

He received my advice politely, but it was clear he didn’t like it. When I told him to dump the couches, it was as if I had told him to get rid of his children. It seemed likely that they were his brainstorm and that, as far as he was concerned, they gave his store a unique ambiance that made it special.

Because I wasn’t sure he understood the economic implications of my advice, I suggested that he keep an informal tally of the productivity of each section of his establishment on a square-foot basis. I said I would bet that the area at the front – with the cafe tables and counter – was bringing in three or four times the money as the “lounge.” I mentioned, too, that I had seen a number of couples come in and leave… just to drive my point home.

I again complimented him on his food, and wished him luck. I left with a good feeling about this man… but a gut feeling that he would not even consider taking me up on my idea of replacing the couches with more tables.

I am confident that if he does take my advice, his business will improve. And I am equally confident that if he doesn’t, his business will gradually get worse and eventually fail.

The worst possible time to give advice is when someone is just beginning a business. Since nothing good or bad has yet happened, the entrepreneur has nothing to compare your ideas with except his own expectations.

In telling the sandwich shop owner how he should change his store two weeks after it opened, I had a two percent chance of having him listen to me. If I had waited several months – until the place was nearly empty and he was worried – my chances of getting through to him would have been much greater. He might even have been willing to pay for my advice.

But I didn’t wait, because… as I said… I am a compulsive advice giver in just about any situation.

If I had a professional interest in helping him succeed, I would not have given him the solution to his problem. I would have suggested that there didn’t seem to be enough tables, and hoped that his natural powers of observation and intelligence would take over.

That way, when he eventually figured out the solution, he would think it was his own idea and execute it with more conviction.

That’s something I learned from BB, who’s an expert at providing subtle, indirect advice. For him, a strong suggestion would be put into the interrogative, such as, “Have you ever thought about doing such and such?” Usually, his questions are answered in the affirmative: “Yes, I thought about doing it, but decided against it because of [whatever reason].” When he hears this reply, he doesn’t say, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know good advice when you hear it?” (That’s what I would be thinking.) He just nods his head and says nothing.

BB taught me that a direct and forceful suggestion can sometimes help. But most of the time, indirection is the better way… even if it works more slowly.

How to Become a Professional (Meaning “Paid”) Advisor

Keep in mind that, aside from my compulsive need to give advice to anyone and everyone I encounter, I make a very good living as a professional consultant. If, like me, you enjoy giving advice, you can do it too. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, you might want to look into the American Consultants League. Meanwhile, here are some basic things you need to know:

  • If you want your advice to be worth something, talk about something you know well.
  • If you want to make good money giving advice, find customers who can benefit from your advice. The more they can benefit, the more you can charge them for the same advice.
  • You don’t need to be passionate about advice-giving to give good advice. (As I’ve mentioned before, being passionate about anything can make you worse at it.
  • Give the best advice you can, but don’t become emotionally attached to it. In other words, if your client doesn’t act on your advice – or even seem to appreciate it – don’t agonize over it.
  • The best time to give advice is when someone wants it. People usually want advice only when their own ideas have been completely and irrefutably proven wrong.
[Ed. Note: Read more of what Michael has to say about giving advice on his blog.] [Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]