Should You “Fake It” If a Client Asks for Something You Can’t Do?

maskIn this economy, many freelancers who are approached by a client about a project that they don’t understand may hesitate to turn the work down. After all, who knows if that client will ever approach them again?

Their fear is understandable — the ability to earn a living as a freelancer depends on a steady flow of customers. (There are marketing steps that a freelancer can take to build his or her business.)

A hungry freelancer who is asked to do something unfamiliar is faced with a really tough decision: should they turn potentially profitable work away and risk not having enough income, or should they “fake it” and muddle through the project anyway?

In this post we’ll explain how to clarify a project request so that you can determine whether you are really competent to do the job. We’ll also look at some of the ramifications of accepting a job that you really aren’t qualified to do.

Clarifying the Project Request

This is a sensitive topic for freelancers, and with good reason (as you’ll see later). However, there is some groundwork every freelancer should do before making this decision.

Before making the decision to tackle a project that you don’t understand or turning the project down, you should make sure that you really understand the client’s request.

Often clients use non-industry terms to describe their request. Even though a client is asking for something that seems foreign to you, they may really want something else — something that you would actually understand and know how to do if the request were phrased differently.

Here are some questions to help you discover what a client really wants (with “xyz” being what the client originally asked for):

  • What would you expect “xyz” to do for your business?
  • “Can you show me an example of an “xyz” that you like?”
  • “I’m unfamiliar with the term “xyz,” is it sometimes called something else?”

Often you will discover that the client was really asking for something that you understand how to do after all.

Once you’ve clarified what the client actually wants, it’s a good idea to restate your understanding back to the client before you accept the project. Try to use both their original phrase and your new understanding of what they want. You could say something like this:

So, what I understand is that you’re asking for a product announcement document (original phrase), and by this you mean a press release (new phrase).

Occasionally you will find that you really do have no idea how to do the work that the client is asking for. What should you do in these cases?

Setting Yourself Up For Failure

There are some projects that you just won’t know how to do.

For example, even though I have been a writer for many years I have never written a grant proposal. I see ads for grant proposal writers all the time, but I would never accept such a project without getting additional training because I know that there are usually very specific guidelines for writing grants.

Accepting a project that you don’t know how to do and are unqualified to do sets you up to fail. Worse yet, it can leave an unpleasant taste in the client’s mouth and tarnish your good reputation.

Here are some alternative solutions:

  • Refer the client to someone who is familiar with the type of work that they need
  • Refer the client to a source that may lead to them finding someone who can do their work
  • Let the client know that you have never done this type of project, but that you are willing to learn

If you select the last approach, you may need to negotiate additional time to accommodate your learning curve. You may also wish to offer the client a discount since you are inexperienced in this specific type of work.

Your Turn

We’ve discussed clarifying the project request and identified some situations when you really shouldn’t take the work.

How do you deal with requests for work that you don’t know how to do?

What questions would you ask a client to find out what they really want?

Share your ideas and experiences in the comments.

Image by liberato


  1. says

    Laura – This is a great topic, and you make some excellent points here. My rule of thumb is this: If you’ve never done that type of work — but you know where to learn about it and feel you could learn it relatively easily — then I would seriously consider taking on the project. But, like you said, if you know it would take considerable training and/or experience to do even a decent job, then I would refer the prospect to someone else. If I wouldn’t have followed this approach, I would never have gotten my freelance business up and running.

    I’ve also found that the best way to learn and work on new projects is with existing clients. If you have a good relationship with them, they will be much more willing to give you the platform to learn and more patient as you work out the kinks.

  2. says

    Thanks Ed!

    You make some important points. I especially like your comments about taking on new work with existing clients. I think that opens up a lot of opportunities.

    I do think it’s important to be honest about your experience and knowledge.

  3. says

    This issue always induces some anxiety.

    My response to a request for unfamiliar work is the old chestnut, it depends.

    A few things to consider:

    * Is the medium familiar but industry new? Vice versa? Or are both unfamiliar?
    * Have I done similar work and do I feel confident my skills are transferable to the project?
    * Is it an accessible to-consumer project (easier to pick up)? Or a specialized industry–like bio tech or engineering–or audience–, e.g., physicians or certain B2B (harder)?
    * How long will it take me to come up to speed? Am I willing to eat the extra time since I can’t expect clients to pay for my learning curve?

    It helps to remember that, though the product, features and industry jargon change, human factors—customers’ core desires and pain points, competitive differentiation–stay the same no matter what the project.

  4. says

    I see this kind of assignment as being a good challenge, one where the freelancer can stretch him or herself to take on something new.

    We tend to operate in our comfort zones, writing about what we know best. There is nothing wrong with that, but in this economic climate expanding one’s horizons raises your visibility as well as puts much needed cash in the pocket.

    I wouldn’t take an assignment if after receiving clarification that the time needed to complete the work would significantly drag down my hourly rate. Most of our work is done by the piece, not by the hour, thus if you find that you must do an excessive amount of research and the overall compensation is small, then it may not be worth it to you.

  5. Vernocchi says

    It’s an interesting topic.

    For my experience I naturally came to known what I can and can’t done but also I know what I can learn in reasonable times.

    I think that a professional freelancer with some years of experience knows what are his possibilities of learning, adapting, evolving and sometimes improvising.

    I accepted to develop a WordPress theme without knowing how to doing so and I said to the client that I would have delivered it in 3 weeks. Why did I accepted?

    Because I am both a designer and a PHP developer so I figured that it was just a matter of a couple of days before I could master theme developement.

    It’s fair and I would say it’s a must for some freelancer to accept never before done tasks. Innovation is made by people who accepted to do something that was never done before.

    Of course I also know my limits, that’s why I have plenty of freelance friends to call if I need something very specific in a short period of time. I do outsource PHP developement sometimes because I just don’t have the time.

  6. says

    Good topic! If the project was truly beyond my capabilities, and I didn’t want to spend time mastering it, I would tell the client it wasn’t something I usually handled but suggest a colleague who did. I find that turning down such a project doesn’t prevent the client from approaching me again. In fact, clients appreciate that I have their best interests at heart, and welcome a recommendation to someone else. That makes me a valuable resource and someone they will turn to again.

  7. says

    Thanks for opening up such a though-provoking topic, Laura. I have taken on new types of writing that I’ve never done before, but mostly for existing clients. It’s been a great way for me to explore new areas and even find a new niche. I’ve found that if you have a strong relationship with a client–and you are honest–your client will trust you to try new things. On the flip side, I have turned down work that I knew I didn’t have the expertise for (such as industry-specific knowledge) when approached by a new client. Instead, I offered referrals to writers I knew had the right skills.

  8. says

    I would never accept a project that I couldn’t handle… If I found out that I had given somebody a project they couldn’t handle I’d be more than annoyed.

  9. says

    Wow. Good question. I think asking a lot of questions will help you to determine if you really can do the project. I rather turn down an assignment, then to hurt the business that I love soo much.

  10. says

    Thanks to everyone who commented!

    I’d say that this is a topic where there is not really an easy answer. What I’m seeing instead is a lot of “it depends.”

    Most of these approaches make a lot of sense. I’d say that this is not a decision to be made quickly, but it is also a good idea to have some idea of how you will handle it in advance so that you’re not caught be surprise when faced by it.

  11. says

    A lot of clients who come to me don’t understand what I do – they think web development (HTML/CSS) is the same thing as web design. While a lot of people can do both, I refuse, as even though I have a design degree, I simply don’t enjoy doing it. So when clients come asking for a full web design, I tell them up front, “I don’t design, but I use some great designers. Would you like to see their portfolios?” This turns some clients off, but some don’t mind the outsourcing. I think this is a better approaching to either saying yes to all, and not telling them you’re not the one doing the design, or saying no and losing all the business.

  12. says

    As someone with only a year of full-time freelancing under my belt, I find this article really interesting and the comments helpful from seeing others approach.

    I’d say I would have to definitely agree with Laura that ‘it depends.’ I often accept work I haven’t done before or don’t necessarily have the skills yet, BUT always do a certain degree of research to make sure I can find the appropriate resources to learn how. Once I started operating my business this way, and left my comfort zone to learn and explore new skills, I actually find myself enjoying work even more with every challenge!

  13. says

    Great topic, and a touchy one to say the least! I’ve both turned down work and taken on unfamiliar work, of course depending on the circumstances. If they want a small addition to a project I’m unfamiliar with, I usually see if I can figure it out, otherwise I outsource that portion of the project and it gets done. In all, if it’s a small request not worth sacrificing the entire project for, I don’t sacrifice it. However, some clients contact me knowing I’m a web designer and request a full-functioning Flash site (and I mean hard-core Actionscript 3.0 functionality), which I unfortunately have to turn down. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the client not understanding what different professionals in the community do specifically as well.

  14. says

    Like others who’ve commented, I have in the past taken on jobs where I didn’t have the exact knowledge but could acquire it. I wouldn’t risk this on a whole job — just when there’s one component which I’ve not mastered.

    I’ve found it’s a good way to extend my skills and push myself to learn something new. In some cases, I’ve explained to clients that it’s not my primary area and asked if there’s an alternative option. I’ve also outsourced to other freelancers (with client approval) on occasion.

    So long as you know you can learn what you need to in a short timeframe — which has applied for me in technical websity things but less so in writing different types of copy – I think it’s fine to take the job!

  15. says

    If it is something that I find a welcoming challenge and a good “learning” task, then I’ll do it. Maybe I’ll lose income from the extra time spent on it but this is my sole criteria.

    Otherwise, I’m more than happy to refer it to another friend… also in the event I mess it up!

  16. says

    Thanks for this post!

    I’m being faced with this very issue, for two jobs. The clients really want to work with me but I only know a little about what they want.

    I’ve thought about offering a discount for these jobs, if the clients don’t mind me learning as we design.

  17. says

    Well, if you really *can’t* do it, then turning down the project (or referring to another freelancer, as you suggest) should be a no-brainer. But if it’s simply something you *haven’t* done, it could be a great creative challenge. It would take a rediculous amount of time for me to learn how to create a website using CSS or to write a computer manual in Russian, but if it was closer to my area of expertise (writing) and the money were right, I’d consider it. Let’s not forget that “can’t” is more a state of mind than a statement of fact!

  18. says

    I’m not a fan of the whole “fake it ’til you make it” approach to writing. I think it can backfire. If a client offers a gig that’s out of the realm of my expertise, and I’m sure it’s not something I can do at all, I’ll recommend another writer.I feel my client’s trust me and by faking it, I’m betraying that trust. It’s better for all involved if I bring in someone better for the job.

    Too many writers are afraid of losing or even sharing clients. Turning in poor might ensure that happens anyway. Better to suggest someone else than risk your credibility and reputation.

  19. says

    Thanks everyone.

    I can see that there are a lot of differing opinions on this topic, and that’s good. The point here was to start a discussion about an issue that most freelancers face, but rarely talk about.

    I do like the point that was made about knowing what you are, and are not, capable of doing. I think that’s important.

    I also understand the points that are being made about accepting challenges. It’s important to keep challenging yourself and learning. As we all probably know, if you aren’t growing, you’re falling behind.

    Keep the comments coming. This is a good discussion and I am interested in hearing what you think.

  20. says

    I think this is great article to write about. Faking it is never good.

    I have denied clients who wanted WordPress themes or PHP in general, but I have no knowledge at all on how to construct a WordPress theme and very small knowledge of PHP. I wouldn’t be anywhere if I accepted those clients during my starving cycle because I would be a disappointment to the client, thus ruining my reputation.

    Accept projects that you will know how to do or have a good idea of it. Don’t compromise or you run the risk of failing.

  21. says

    This is a great article and a very debatable one. My point in this is that it’s better to be honest right from the very beginning to save you from messing it all up and eventually losing face and credibility. That is if what your client’s asking is really out of your league. But, if you sense that you can learn from it and can accept the consequences, then it’s really up to you. You alone know your own capability. It’s a case to case basis. But, in all this, it is always important to establish transparency with the client.

  22. says

    It’s not entirely unreasonable to promise your client the deliverable, but to outsource the development to someone who knows what their doing. The client gets what they want and you still get paid (though less).

  23. says

    I believe its important to do all you can to help a client, and also to ascertain what exactly the client is requesting but if you can’t do something that is requested and you’ve exhausted the options then simply say it isn’t possible for you to do it. I don’t think that that damages your reputation, and I think it could be a lot worse the other way.

  24. says

    I do believe in this idea and this is a great post! Why make things worse by pretending to do what you don’t really know just to prevent losing a project rather than to keep the client’s trust and ensure your good reputation? Clarification isn’t bad in this side if you’ve really accepted it and if you’re a fast learner though it really takes time for a person to have himself tuned in to a different kind of project until he got a feel in it. Referral is another good point to not leave these clients finding for nothing.

  25. says

    @Wellington – It’s not unreasonable at all. However, before outsourcing it’s best to let the client know you won’t be doing the writing. Clients want to know who is really writing for them and may be upset to find out it wasn’t you.

  26. says

    I frequently get requests for new things and the truth is, I almost always take them. You can find information on pretty much anything online, so as long as it is something you could feasibly learn to do in a week or two, it’s usually worth it to take the job. That being said, there are a few times when I have told the client that I’m not familiar with the type of writing they want and they might have better luck elsewhere. Every time, they asked if I would give it a go anyway.

    Taking on new types of work is a great challenge, plus it expands your writing abilities and gives you more ways to earn.

  27. says

    I think the best solution is to refer to someone else in your network, it will be appreciated by the client. Accepting the job will take to much time, you can better focus on your core business unless you want to learn something else.

  28. says

    If you want to grow, you have to be willing to stretch, and that involves taking on projects that require more than what you’ve done before.

    There is a line though, at which point you’re doing your client a disservice by taking on a project you can’t do. In these cases, I’m still all for taking the project, but with full disclosure to the client.

    As long as you deliver on your promises, there should be no problems at all.

  29. says

    I think it’s in the freelancer’s best judgement to whether they can tackle an unknown challenge or not. For a developer like me, I consider this one of the reasons why clients come to me. Whether I know a technology or not, I’m going to do what it takes to get the job done and I will learn anything I need to learn in the process.

  30. Steve says

    As an Internet user, I often find myself searching for a quick refresher on some technical information I don’t use often, (e.g. Linux shell commands or HTML syntax), as well as for an introduction to some product or issue with which I’m not familiar. More and more I end up at a bottom-feeder site with a bunch of cut and paste gobbledygook that pretends to address the subject, but is clearly both derivative and incompetent. If the Internet was only a corporation so it could fire these guys…


  31. says

    I never say that I cannot handle the project. I know enough about most applicable technologies to outsource and manage the development of just about anything web related. Print, on the other hand, is a much more unforgiving area, as small errors multiply quickly and are not an easy fix.

  32. says

    I am willing to stretch myself to take on a new challenge when I have the confidence to deliver the job. I will recommend the job to someone else or decline if it is beyond my means. What the client buys from me is not just the quality of my work but also trust and credibility. Trust and credibility do not come easily, I prefer to have that compare to a few extra bucks.

  33. says

    I don’t know if fake it is what you want to do… but be honest and say you’re willing to do your best.. maybe offer a money-back guarantee to the client if they’re not satisfied at all

  34. John says

    This is not a wise thing to do. If you don’t have the skill and your client is in demand of a project that requires something you cannot handle. DO NOT accept that project. It’s not fair to your client and it’s not fair to you. It’ll be the worse decision you make. Take it from somebody who’s had this happen twice now. I’m not going for a third strike on this.

  35. says

    Hey there! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say
    I truly enjoy reading through your blog posts. Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that deal with the same subjects?

    Appreciate it!


  1. […] When a client asks you to do something new – Should you fake it when a client asks you to do something you don’t know how to do? My answer would be no. But, I have made exceptions to this with some of my regular clients. If it’s something I want to learn, I tell them that I don’t know how to do it but have been wanting to learn how. I charge less and don’t charge them for the time that I spend spend studying. I wouldn’t, however, do this with a client that I didn’t already have an established and solid relationship with. […]

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