columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I often get requests for phone conversations from people in related industries who want to "ask my opinion" about some aspect of my area of expertise. After 30 minutes of conversation, it always turns into a sales pitch for whatever product they're working on or company they're consulting for. 

I find this incredibly rude. I get it from people I've met at conferences or networking events as well as complete strangers. I'm less likely to agree to a phone call with a stranger, since I assume it's more likely to be about selling me something, but find it awkward to decline a call with someone I've met, especially if I'm likely to see them again.

How can I agree to a conversation with someone but say at the outset "please don't make this a sales call" without being rude myself? I know that etiquette advisers say that responding to other people's rudeness doesn't make you the rude one, and I'm fine with that in my personal life, but professionally, I don't want to get a reputation as a jerk (unjust though it might be). These conversations do help establish me in my field as authoritative about my area of expertise and I think they can help me broaden my professional reputation (which then leads to invitations for speaking engagements and so on), so I don't necessarily want to just outright refuse them -- they're not entirely a waste of time. But I don't like feeling like I've been taken advantage of.

Green responds:

Yeah, this whole thing where they start out by saying they want your opinion because of your expertise but it's really a back-door way into a sales pitch has become a trend. I get a ton of requests from complete strangers and I always shut it down by saying, "Oh, I'm not talking on any new consulting projects right now" ... and more than half the time, they come back with a sales pitch because, indeed, they weren't looking for my expertise at all. That was just to get me on the phone.

However, I think you have conflicting desires here: You want to do the calls because they're useful to your reputation and professional relationships, but you want to change the content of the calls. I don't think you can do that, unfortunately. If the whole reason the person is calling you is to lead up to a sales pitch, I don't think you can say, essentially, "Let's talk but not about what you want to talk about."

That said, I totally agree with you that this is hugely annoying -- and rude. It's the same kind of bait and switch as when people request informational interviews when they really want job leads. However, before booking the call, try saying something like, "I'd love to talk. To help me prepare for the call and to make sure I'm the best person for you to talk to, can you give me a sense here in email of what you're hoping to discuss?" Do keep in mind, though, that for people who are more relationship-oriented than task-oriented, this risk coming off a little cold or brusque. That doesn't mean it's not the right way to go, but you'd want to factor that in.

If you don't want to do that, something else you can try is booking the calls for shorter amounts of time. If they're not getting to their sales pitch until 30 minutes in, these calls are probably too long. You could say ahead of time, "My schedule is pretty tight right now, but I've got 20 minutes on Thursday at 2 -- would that work?" Or even just, "Great. How about 2:00 - 2:20 on Thursday?" If nothing else, that means they'll have to move things along faster and you'll get to what they really want more quickly.

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