When someone asks you to do work you’ve never done before

It happens all the time, but when you first contact prospects for freelance and consulting assignments, it’s really surprising.

If you come from a payroll job, your recent experience is industry specific and generally rather intense in a single function. You may be part of a large team, but your task is limited to twisting in Phillips screws only.

Over time you will narrow your freelance / consulting niche, recognizing that this focuses your marketing and justifies a higher fee.

But at the same time, once you get people to talk to you on the phone, they’ll ask you about all sorts of services they need done that you have never considered.

This is a real judgment call. Generally, I recommend faking a little more confidence than you feel and going for it. Believing in your talents and taking reasonable risk are intrinsic to freelancing and consulting.

Commit and then do everything you need to do to pull off the assignment. Dig out old textbooks, cruise the Internet, phone other professionals for advice, read, practice, buy training materials, call former coworkers. Prepare to spend a lot of unpaid time on the project if necessary.

For instance, the first time I was invited to write a feature story for a trade magazine in the insurance industry, I recognized it as a major opportunity but one for which I had no experience. True, I had read a lot of magazine features, but all my writing had been corporate research reports or marketing communications. I had never done an interview-based feature.

I knew I could pull it off—though I was fearful too.  So I accepted the assignment and effortlessly lined up an in-person interview with the target CEO.

I needed concrete action to get started, so I tape recorded the interview and then transcribed it myself word by word. Then I maintained the best quotations and rephrased the rest so it wouldn’t sound like a speech. Through multiple drafts I kept reworking it to create a true feature.

This took a huge amount of time, way more than a seasoned professional would spend on it. But at the time, I told no one that this was such a challenge for me. By the time I submitted my first draft to the editor, it was highly professional. The pay, calculated on a per hour basis, was abysmal due to my inexperience, but the project gave me a terrific piece for my portfolio and confidence to go after other magazine assignments.

On the other hand, don’t undertake what you are truly unqualified to do. The project may go very badly and you will lose the opportunity to do what you excel at for that client. Also, you will suffer tremendously until you complete or give up on the work.

When you are hopelessly in doubt, here’s a good middle way that works for most projects. Simply say something along the lines of, “I have never done that specific type of work before, but I would like to try it. I have done XYZ so I do have relevant skills in place. How does that sound to you?”

Then listen. You’ll have your answer.

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