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