“Just a Quick Question”

I get a lot of emails from existing clients, previous clients, or potential clients with the subject line “Quick Question”. And I have to say that I tend to view these emails negatively.

The word quick implies that the answer is so simple and so effortless that it will somehow take no time for me to answer it and therefore I should not be billing for the time spent answering it.

But, rarely is a quick question something that takes little time.


The following are the steps involved in responding to the question:

  1. Reading the email.
  2. 50% of the emails require extra time reading them in order to decipher what the individual is actually asking. Deciphering time can take much longer than answering time.
  3. Formulating a response.
  4. Using google to research the question, if I don’t have the answer immediately stored in my brain. That is when “let me google that for you” comes in especially handy. http://tinyurl.com/ddm8nt
  5. Typing the email.
  6. Hoping another question doesn’t come because my carefully crafted response was not understood.

Each one of these is going to take 10-15 minutes. If I answer 4 of these each day, I’ve lost a billable hour. Is your question really so simple or is my time and expertise not valuable enough to pay for? Because I’ve worked for you once at some time in the past am I now an unlimited supply of free information?

Along the same lines are questions about logins, invoices, etc. Frequently I feel like I’m being asked for this information again because the individual thinks it’s easier to ask me rather than search through their emails. Now we all delete emails that we probably needed to keep but it can get tiresome when you know you are being asked for the information rather than the other person bothering to look it up.

And don’t even get me started about quick question responses that don’t even receive a thank you …

Don’t get me wrong. I am happy to answer questions. I ask questions too. I don’t, however, expect an immediate response or even any response, I don’t email the person directly when it’s related to a blog post and I can leave a comment, I don’t leave a voice mail 10 mins after sending the inquiry, and I don’t use Quick Question in the subject lines of my emails. And I don’t ask the same person question after question just because I paid him $100 a year ago.

Does this happen to you? How do you handle “quick questions”?

Maybe we should say “here’s your quick answer and I’ve attached a quick invoice”. ;-)

photo credit: Travelin’ Librarian

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  1. says

    Such a good point about the time it takes to read and digest, not to mention the distraction factor as the brain goes off in search of the answer even before you google it.

    Could you introduce a paid for follow up support system for say 12 months after completing a project, making an assumption of say 30 minutes email not-so-quick questions a month?

    Or something like that?

    • says

      Hi Joanna – I need to be more proactive about the way it is handled. Most of the time I don’t mind being helpful but it has to be when I have the time – and rarely is that going to be immediately.

    • says

      Hi Andrea – That’s a really good idea. A number of questions I get, however, are about Facebook. The discussion forums for Facebook are impossible to navigate.

  2. says

    An interesting topic. I’d imagine that every consultant deals with this issue. Here are a few things that I’ve learned about quick questions.

    – Set Expectations: Before an engagement begins, it is worthwhile to describe what is in scope (the seo audit, for example) and out of scope (on-going questions after the audit is complete).
    – Plan for Quick Questions: I try to leave some time in my daily allocation for this type of thing. If I plan for it, it is less disruptive when it happens.
    – Work it into your SOW: I’ve learned that every client really needs at least a little on-going support after major deliverables are submitted. I always try to work in support hours to contracts.

    Just my two cents. :)

    • says

      HI Lindsay – I have started working in on-going support and that’s a good way to handle it. Since people are going to ask questions anyway it might as well be included in the initial contract.

  3. says

    This is really good. I often think how I would love to get paid to have people ask me questions which I then Google for the answers to give back to them. I do it all the time now for free so why shouldn’t I get paid to do it? And hey, sometimes it takes creative thinking to come up with just the right question to get the right answer. That takes time and time is money!

    • says

      Hi LoriAnne – Frequently I go to google and do the same thing and while I’m going it I wonder why the person asking the question couldn’t do the same thing. It’s true that finding the correct search terms can be difficult – if you don’t really know what something is called it can be difficult to search.

      For questions I get frequently, I usually write a post. That way I can just include the link to the article.

  4. says

    Just a quick comment, This is so true!!! I wish people wouldn’t down play what they are asking for. There is NO such thing as a quick question. It shocks me how many people prefer asking someone else rather than doing a little research…i.e.Google… and get an answer publicly displayed for everyone to see.

    I too have asked questions, and may be a little guilty of not doing the research myself (Sorry Kim). The key here is though like you said. Say THANK YOU, and wait for your answer patiently and on that persons time line, not your own.

    Questions are…or sadly should be like shipping a package. The faster and bigger it is the more it should cost.

    • Nancy says

      Some days, it seems this is all I do. I think this is true for all those who are freelancers, we have clients who are with us because they cannot afford large agencies. I try to tell them that advise is only worth what you pay for it. But also, some days it seems all I do is maintenance or computer problem solving or billing or writing proposals which is also not being billed directly. I also am guilty (thanks Kim for answering ALL those queries with such grace.) I tell myself that responding to these clients is the reason most are still with me after 15 years, they rely on me and this is part of our ongoing relationship that keeps me in business. There are also those clients that you need to fire but no matter what you bill them you cannot get rid of, those that are more trouble than they are worth are costing you billing hours and you are best to cut them loose. But, the nature of this work is communication, understanding what your client wants and providing it. When I worked in large and small agencies, the joke was that work would be so much more rewarding if you did not have to deal with those darn clients – and this is why agencies have AE’s to referee between creative and clients. It is a balancing act, it depends on the client and sometimes if you just ignore them, they will go away, but then you have lost a client, you have to decide if they are keepers and then include the cost of being in business on your next invoice.

      • says

        Hi Nancy – You’ve never asked me anything that wasn’t related to what we were working on – usually they are bug fixes and that’s completely different.

        There are some days when you feel like you’ve been so busy and worked so hard and then realized that you didn’t earn anything.

        Thanks so much for visiting.

    • says

      Hi Neil – You know I don’t remember you asking me anything but I guess that you have – LOL

      And it is the lack of patience and appreciation that can be the most frustrating thing about this.

      • says

        Well it was a while ago…about a wordpress plug-in and i think, and facebook, which I’m sure you never get questions about…lol. To me the most frustrating situation is when someone is simply trying to take advantage of you or go that extra step to get free information. At some point they have to realize they could be asking or demanding to much without compensation. Its the people who know that, yet do it anyways that bother me the most.

        • says

          Hi Neil – Facebook is probably what I get the most questions about. Lately, it’s as if people think I work for Facebook and can fix the bugs they are experiencing ;-)

          And Facebook has terrible documentation so it does make sense why people are asking me – they are hoping to get an answer from somewhere.

  5. says

    I like the approach of planning for this in the SOW. Also, as a long term suggestion, I would suggest making a FAQ page with the most commonly asked questions.

    You can structure the process so that the client checks out the FAQs first before asking a question.

    • says

      What he said. And that first response you make could be a boilerplate response witha link to your always-growing-from-thier-questions FAQ page — although we know that recrafting of thier question and your widest-range-possible-usefulness answer takes time too — but you’d be getting something out of it and your readers (and potential clients) would too.

  6. says

    Excellent post. There are no such things as quick questions. I believe that establishing that respect from your clients is essential in creating worth and value to your clients. If they knew they had to play for such communication they would certainly think before taking advantage of your generosity.

    This is a concern that is problematic to our industry. In our emerging market placing value on ‘advice’ or ‘coaching’ can be difficult as people struggle with it’s concepts at times and it’s necessity.

    As we develop relationships with our clients we may be perceived as friends. But we must always be sure to maintain a professional atmosphere. I believe a simple post script outlining this concept, as well as the guidelines and cost to any future communications is not out of line.

    Thank you for addressing this very important subject for all of us in this field.

    • says

      Hi Elliot – It’s hard to find the right balance, isn’t it? And I have to admit I
      struggle with professionalism as I’m just a very casual person. One of the big motivators for me in leaving my office job was that I didn’t want
      to follow a dress code ;-)

      And when a question is really quick and easy it’s hard to charge for that – it seems silly to send an invoice for $7.

  7. says

    Holy cow…lot’s of comments already! You hit a nerve there Kim. And I am guilty of sending these types of requests to folks as well (maybe even you, sorry). However, as you know, I, too, am a consultant and am pummeled with requests (nearly 40 calls per day of which maybe 10 turn into appointments).

    I have come to the conclusion that the resentment I feel is MY choice, and I give the caller/emailer permission to continue to call because I answer. Over the years, and particularly in the past 2 years, I’ve gotten better and better and triage a call/email to minimize my time, make clear to the other person that my time is also valuable, and just flat out say, “I cannot answer that without an appointment.”

    It’s extremely powerful for me, and liberating, to understand that it is I who control how I handle these situations. That being said, I still give away a lot of time, but feel that I do gain that back in spades because I do ZERO advertising and haven’t for more than 10 years. My low overhead and lack of advertising allows me to “advertise” through my help with small problems.

    Make any sense? Probably not a lot, but here’s a great article that takes this all a step further that CopyBlogger posted a few weeks ago:

    • says

      Hi Rick – I don’t recall you ever asking me something that wasn’t related
      to a project.

      Thanks for the link to that article – excellent advice. I like the part where it mentions that people ask you questions because they perceive you to be an expert ;-)

      And it’s very true that we control our responses to situations. Sometimes
      I’m better at it than others. And I have been overwhelmed by a number of things the last couple of weeks and have probably been more touchy
      than usual.

  8. says

    One of the most common emails I used to get was from people who had lost their mutual fund certificates, and thought that I could send it to them.

    In the beginning I used to type out a response and send it, then I got tired and started ignoring those emails altogether.

    Eventually, I found out that I could create a canned response in Gmail, so I created a canned response explaining why I couldn’t help them and what is the course of action they could follow.

    At the end of the response is a question if they understood what I meant and if there is any other info they need from me.

    I’ve found this good for my peace of mind because I can reply to people in less than a second, and not feel bad about ignoring requests.

    Maybe you can look at canned responses also for common requests.

    • says

      Hi Manshu – What a coincidence that you mentioned canned responses – after writing this article I was thinking that using those would be a good solution. Currently I only use them for email signatures – I have different accounts going into one so I need different sigs for different accounts.

  9. says

    Just read all the great comments and something else struck me; communication. If we communicate our needs openly and honestly to these potential time sucks, they understand and respect that…at least the good and conscientious ones.

    Manshu, I also love canned responses in Gmail, but haven’t mastered them quite yet and need to use them more.

    • says

      Hi RIck,

      Very true. I was working on a project recently where the amount of work had almost doubled. I started to feel resentful and instead sent an email making the client aware of what was happening. He immediately sent a check and asked how much the new amount of work would add to the total. Much better solution than feeling annoyed ;-)

  10. says

    When I worked as an attorney, we billed for EVERYTHING, including question – quick or otherwise. Maybe that’s the way to go…

    • says

      Hi Vered – Maybe … but in my experience lawyers charge to fix their own mistakes and I refuse to charge someone when I’m the one that broke it in the first place.

  11. says

    The person should ask you, “Do you have a moment?” or “Can I ask you a question?” before diving into the question and hoping you’ll answer.

  12. says

    I always calculate from the beginning in the offer extra time for phone calls, e-mail, or visiting the client, and I explain this for the seller so they know that I’m there for them when they have any questions or similarly things so they fell comfortable to contact me.

  13. says

    I’m not sure I fully agree with you. While it certainly can be tiresome to answer questions seemingly for free, you have to realise that this is actually time spent on marketing and customer retention. Once you send the final invoice, that shouldn’t be the end of the line. Your clients should feel like they have your support without fear that you’re going to send them an invoice for answering a quick question. If it evolves into something more, then you might have legitimate ground to discuss compensation, but you need to be a one-stop-shop for your clients so that they are extremely happy with your service and don’t have a second thought when referring someone to you. You really should anticipate the time that is needed for these kind of activities and build it into your hourly rate

    • says

      Hi Dave,

      How do you build it into your hourly rate? Some clients ask numerous questions and others never ask anything. Wouldn’t the ones who don’t ask be getting charged as well as the ones that do?

      And I think there is a difference in being asked a site / project related questions than being asked anything. Some people start to view you as their source of information for most any web related question that they have.

  14. says

    Hi Kim, As one of your clients, I expect an invoice when you fix whatever I can’t figure out myself. We all fall into those categories. It happens too when I am talking with a new client and they have questions. Before I know it, I spent a half hour to hour and I realize that my fee (if they do use my services) will be that much lower. I saw you tweet Jim Connolly’s post on the same subject and I tend to use my blog for the common questions as he does.

    Now you are in a very technical world and when someone is stressed out because they broke their widget, plug-in or blog layout, they need more than a point to a post in most cases. They want you to fix it for them.

    Just keep educating and don’t be afraid to say up front if you are busy or quote a fee – “sure I can do that for you, it would be $35” or $70 or whatever it is… and let them make the choice.

    • says

      Hi Julie,

      It’s hard to find the balance. When a client who provides consistent work and has brought in new clients for me asks a question, I don’t mind dealing with it quickly and for free. There are others who you did one quick upgrade for who ask questions repeatedly.

      And I do understand the stress people feel when something is broken – that is why I tend to deal with hacked sites immediately. I know the feeling and don’t want others to feel the same way.

  15. says

    I’m going to take the other side on this question (but only just across the line).

    First, a caveat: If you’ve got more work than you can possible handle (and plenty in the pipeline), skip to the next comment. If not, perhaps you need to change your view of this a bit.

    In some cases, responding to these questions is a form of business development. Once you start thinking of these as either an opportunity to build a relationship or generate a referral, the time spent may not be quite so painful or irritating. I do my best to try and differentiate between the two and respond appropriately. I love the FAQ suggestion (if someone would take the time to look at it–although you could probably craft a quick polite response with a link).

    I’ve found that business comes from unexpected sources (“Hi, you don’t know me but Mike thought you could help me with my problem”) and Mike may be that guy who asked the question that took 15 minutes of your time.

    • says

      Hi Peter,

      I think part of the frustration is that I do have more than enough work right now. But it’s true, referrals lead to referrals, etc. Most of my business comes from referrals so I guess I am doing something right.

      I like the FAQ idea too – of course, it would take some time to put it together but I can start adding items to it. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been writing posts about questions I get asked a lot.

  16. says

    Good points Kim. Since I was offering free consulting related to blogging, I used to get plenty of requests till recently. Some even asking for upgrade helps etc. Even for a clarification, the amount of time taken in replying in detail is huge. I am going slow on this now and not at all replying to some mails that I do not understand.

    (Btw, I had given your reference to one or two people)

    • says

      Hi Ajith – The emails that I don’t understand are the most frustrating – even if I want to help, I don’t even know what I am being asked.

      Can you upgrade my site for me? ;-)

  17. says

    I do it plenty of times, but, it’s always something i know that person knows, without Googling it. At least I hope so.

    It really is, or I think it should be a quick question.

    Example: something someone just wrote about. I sometimes won’t do it as a comment because either I don’t think my question should be public or I’m thinking the person wouldn’t want the question public…it happens.

    Kim – I know I’ve emailed you a few times. if I’ve ever disrespected you in the manner describe above, I’m truly sorry. :)

  18. says

    As a freelance blogger/writer, I can certainly relate to the time suck “quick” little demands create. From people I’ve written about bugging me about the possibility of adding links to their pet projects to editors expecting continued (as in forever!) engagement in the comment sections plus tweeting and facebooking, writing projects often don’t end up when I hit publish or send —

    Which is to say, I agree with what some of the other comments suggested: You gotta add in time for quick questions (or whatever) in your original quote. :)

    • says

      Hi Siel – Some projects just never go away. :-) I think I need to start adding a time limit for “free” questions in the original contract or something.

  19. says

    I don’t think that I’ve quite developed the intellectual/social clout to have anyone ask me “quick questions” yet, but I understand your frustrations. I actually should probably send less “quick questions”…

  20. Glen Buschmann says

    When I listen to talk radio, the caller with a “quick question” invariably is the one who has no clue as to how to be quick and to the point. When I need to speak to an executive and want to keep it brief, (out of respect for the person’s full schedule), I say “Do you have 5 minutes?” (10 minutes), and then stick to that. I never judge how long a written reply will take, except that chances are good that if it is I writing, it will not be quick.

  21. says

    I think the only way to attack it is to charge for it as you mentioned. Generally the “quick question” emails come up from the same clients and they usually ask them often. You could track the time spent on quick questions for the client over a month and send them an invoice at the end of the month but you may want to bring it up with them early on. I usually add it to the contract as ongoing support or consulting and charge an hourly rate for “quick questions” that come up.


  1. […] Just a Quick Question… I didn’t fully agree with Kim Woodbridge’s point in this posting about the issue of getting calls and e-mail questions from former clients.  But it raises an important issue and it’s worth taking a couple of extra minutes to read the comments (my own included).  Some good suggestions and it will get you thinking about your philosophy on the subject. […]

  2. […] Just a Quick Question… I didn’t fully agree with Kim Woodbridge’s point in this posting about the issue of getting calls and e-mail questions from former clients.  But it raises an important issue and it’s worth taking a couple of extra minutes to read the comments (my own included).  Some good suggestions and it will get you thinking about your philosophy on the subject. […]

  3. […] Just a Quick Question… I didn’t fully agree with Kim Woodbridge’s point in this posting about the issue of getting calls and e-mail questions from former clients.  But it raises an important issue and it’s worth taking a couple of extra minutes to read the comments (my own included).  Some good suggestions and it will get you thinking about your philosophy on the subject. […]

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