The Freelancer’s Conundrum

It’s Monday morning and you’re already chasing your tail to hit the successive deadlines that are lining up to control your week. Out of the blue a company you’ve been trying to romance for months calls to say, ‘Hi, heard great things about you. Wondered if you could help us out? I know it’s short notice but we’re pitching next week and wondered if you had time to …’

You know the rest. We all do.

You’re so busy that bathroom breaks are an indulgence and your family can’t remember what you look like. There’s no way you can possibly take on any additional work, especially on a tight turnaround – not when you have good and lucrative work already occupying your diary, and clients who you’d hate to let down.

But it’s new business, new business that you have actually gone after. They’ve remembered you. That email you sent, the call you made – it’s landed, they want you!

Of course, the truth is slightly different. The person they usually use is busy (probably), or this is a piece of work that they don’t really know how to handle themselves and they think you might (ego-trip but possible), or they think you are someone else (hum…). Either way, you want to help because a). new business is always good, right? And b). because if you don’t help, you know they may (will) never ask again – however charming you are on the phone as you writhe in agony over the dilemma.

Are they about to become the prize-winning fish that got away because you were too busy to land them?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel desperately uncomfortable and be as engaging as possible while you try to sound them out about the ‘movability’ of the deadline – and when it’s clear there’s no wiggle room, you’ll front up and say that, however much you want to help, you’d hate to take the work on and then let down both them and your existing clients by doing a substandard job. That’s the right thing to do, right? Of course. Even if it feels awful.

But then comes the follow up, and the real purpose of this stream of semi-consciousness. They say, and we’ve all heard this, ‘Oh, that’s a shame because we were looking forward to working with you… (wait for it) do you know anyone else who could help us?’


The question of doom – if you can’t help, can you tell me someone else who I can give my business to? The business that came about thanks to your brilliant (annoying but timely) email or call, or your reputation for being ‘a genius in making the complex simple’, or whatever.

‘Can you recommend anyone else?’ How do you answer? How should you respond to that?

‘Yes, I do know someone who’s really good – almost as good as me in fact (better actually) – let me get you their number…’ knowing full well that if they are really as good as you say, the client will love them, build a relationship and forget you ever existed. After all, what are the chances that next time they’ll say, ‘Who was it that recommended that brilliant freelance who did such a great job for us? Let’s go to them next time, as a recognition of how much we appreciate their recommendation, and not go to the person they recommended who actually did such a great job and who we now know and like?’ Is it about zero?

Or do you say:

‘Well, I do know someone. I’m not sure they’re quite right for this (they aren’t) but I’ll get you their number…’ knowing that when they let the client down and do a substandard job, you will get a portion of the blame for recommending them, and not get the return business when you’re not so busy.

Or, do you say:

‘No, I don’t know anyone. I work alone. I like I that way.’ In which case, you’ve answered a call about a bank heist and, unless you actually are a safe cracker, you should call the police.

In a business in which relationships and trust play such an important role, what’s the right answer, and is it fair for companies to ask freelancers to recommend their competitors – let’s not forget that that is exactly what we are talking about here? As someone who’s worked in creative service-based businesses for more than 20 years, I still don’t really know how to respond. Is it better to give a competitor a quality lead? Or is it better to fib, and say you don’t know anyone good enough or with the right skill set and let the would-be client down?

Is it better, knowing that you can’t help the prospective client, to do them a favour and gift the business to a worthy competitor who will help them, than to evade the issue and, effectively, pass by on the other side of the road, leaving them with their problem even though you could have helped?

Truth is, I don’t know and right now I’m too busy to even write this blog, let alone think about the answer. Do you know anyone who could help?


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