Freelancers: if you don’t know, say so

This is a Guest Post from Tom Albrighton, founder and principal consultant at ABC Copywriting– for more about Tom see below or check out his blog.

‘To know what you know, and know what you don’t know, is the characteristic of one who knows.’ Confucius

A while ago, I carried out some SEO work for a client. The work included all the key elements of SEO – on-page changes, directory submissions, article marketing, PPC – but in a fairly shallow, small-scale way. Essentially, I was replicating the SEO I’d done on my own behalf for my client. That suited them, because they wanted to learn about SEO rather than simply outsourcing it; to some extent, we could learn hand in hand while building up their search profile at the same time.

After a while, we arrived at the limits of my knowledge. There were problems with their search profile that I couldn’t fix. I’d overcome them on my own site, but I couldn’t honestly say how. (SEO is often like this – you’re pursuing a number of tactics in parallel, and there’s no way to confirm which has been effective.)

I probably could have carried on bluffing it – claiming to know best while trying out random tactics in the hope that one of them would bear fruit. But since I’m essentially a copywriter, and the bulk of my work is content creation, there didn’t seem to be a great deal of benefit in chasing work where I could add little value. And I also wanted to keep the relationship simple – as Mark Twain said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

So I decided to admit that I couldn’t take the client any further, and suggest that they contact an SEO expert.

In fact, they decided to continue with me. I guess they valued the working relationship more than the actual expertise being offered – a strange position in a way, but in another it makes perfect sense.

Because a supplier who’s genuinely on your side is somebody worth keeping around.

For a consultant, suggesting that the client needs to buy more consultancy from you is always slightly suspect. Even if it’s actually the right course of action, it can seem self-serving. After all, it could be a cheap ‘all or nothing’ shot at getting more work or, failing that, letting the relationship go.

But suggesting that the client use someone else is not cheap. It’s potentially very expensive, if they take the advice. And that counts for something. It indicates to a client that, yes, you always tell the truth – even when it doesn’t benefit you. It’s the ultimate honesty.

I’m not saying all this to blow my own trumpet. I probably shouldn’t have got myself into such a position in the first place. I’m simply observing how powerful those three little words can be: ‘I don’t know.’

Summary: If you’re a freelancer, admitting you can’t help the client might seem like madness. But it’s also the best possible way to build trust.

Tom Albrighton has over fifteen years’ experience in writing, editing and project management, including work for Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, London Business School and Dorling Kindersley.

Tom is founder and principal consultant at ABC Copywriting, which provides writing and editing services to businesses, organizations and academic institutions in the UK and around the world. He writes regularly on copywriting issues for the ABC Copywriting blog, which is read and commented by many leading copywriters.

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