Dealing with a bad request, or how not to be an ask hole

"Ask", photo by Anne ThornileyEarlier this month I received a request for my services, and it was pretty thoroughly awful.  It’s a fine worst-case example of how not to ask someone to help you, so I thought I’d anatomize it here to improve requests out there currently in the making.

I’m anonymizing the ask in this post, so as not to call out the poor asker.

The invite came by email, and asked me to help facilitate and contribute to a workshop along design thinking lines.  The subject was a particular subset of teaching with technology… and that’s about as precise as the request got when it came to outcomes and expectations.

Compensation? No honorarium or fee.  Reimbursement for travel.  Lodging paid for (I think).

The timeline?  The event would last four business days. Things would kick off sixteen days after the email was sent.

Let me break down the many ways this went wrong.  Each point is a lesson on how not to ask someone something.

Crazed timing: asking someone to travel to another city n hundreds of miles away in order to spend four days a little over two weeks from the present is, well, if not madness, only justifiable under exceptional circumstances.  The request did not describe such a context, nor did it should any awareness of its extraordinary timeline.

I wrote “four days”, but this would have entailed something closer to six, allowing for travel.  If you’re going to punch a week out of someone’s life, express to them that you understand what this entails.  Show humility.  Plead or beg.

Disregard for the importance of money: approaching a professional to ask for their services without compensation is, at best, brazen.  Now, I do some work pro bono, and some other work for discounts, when the cause is just (i.e., a social cause I support, or the asker is financially strapped but worthy) and  I can afford the capacity to do so.  But this request made no such explanation.  Instead, it simply asked me to do work for them, to provide my professional services, for nearly a week for free.

Additionally, having to pay for travel on such short notice can really knock someone’s finances for a loop.  Buying plane tickets two weeks ahead means prices are higher than usual.  Reimbursing, rather than paying for that large amount of money, means the person may be out $1000 or more for weeks or longer.  Again, not a good thing to ask.

I fear this kind of thing is based on the assumption that people in academia just do things for free, because we love what we do and are monks, or rich, or something.  Others have written about why this is a bad thing.  I would only add that this feels like an emanation from the era of casualized labor, when we’re supposed to be able to fling ourselves at gigs at the drop of a hat, and also to love unpaid work for its exposure.

Awareness of the person you’re approaching: some entities request my services in a way that shows they actually care who I am and what they do.  They cite some of my work, or reference a personal connection (“we liked what you did at this one conference”), or simply mention what aspect of my professional identity they’d like to draw upon (“we like your facilitation skills”).  This request did none of those things.  Instead it began “Dear Bryan”, then followed a giant slab of copy and pasted text.  “You are a total stranger,” this implies, “and we’d like to exploit you.  Join us now.”  Indeed, my wife wondered if they had accidentally emailed the wrong person.

Note that I run a small business.  Being aware of what that means – that economics and timing matter enormously –  might have helped them approach me more productively.

This isn’t a question of ego, although stroking the target’s ego can be useful if trying to persuade them of something.  It’s a matter of tactics and politeness.

Not being an ask hole: I replied to the email, seeking clarification.  The date was only specified by month and date, not year.  Was it, in fact, for 2016?  I was thinking they’d mean 2017, a year from now, and just failed to give the year.  Their response was simply “You are correct.” It was for 2016.

Note that they didn’t add “Yes, it’s on an amazingly short timeline, so let me explain and justify it.”  When I replied that I couldn’t make it, their reply was – nothing.  They didn’t bother with a “sorry you can’t be there”, or “maybe our next offering will be better suited to your circumstances.”  Just silence.

Pro tip: if you make a very demanding request, demonstrate that you know you are doing so, and be polite.  That’s the best way to get people to comply.  If they can’t comply, then you lay the groundwork for having a better shot at them down the line.  Otherwise you burn bridges.

Have you received any very bad requests of late?

(photo by Ann Thorniley)

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10 Responses to Dealing with a bad request, or how not to be an ask hole

  1. linda says:

    This is from academia… old job at state university. Department paid room, food and travel but no compensation. All were PhD’s.

  2. John O'Brien says:

    I got a speaking request that began “Dear Dr. O’Brain”

  3. bernieh says:

    Last night (Thurs) got an invite for an ebook seminar in Melbourne this coming Monday, with a request to ensure I register at least 3 working days before the seminar.

  4. Jeffrey Broussard says:

    This was either someone that knew you well from your Facebook interactions and erroneously assumed that you would be desperately eager to help due to perceived eagerness to grow your small business, or it was a person that vaguely knew you from some social media outlet and was just cavalierly inviting you as a 1/30 possibility knowing that 1 of the other 29/30 people that were invited might bite.

    That’s my guess…

  5. robertmcguire says:

    To me, this request falls in the category of spam. They don’t need to be a robot or to have more than one address in the To: field to send spam. If their need to send the message is more important than considering the recipient and tailoring the message accordingly, they’re spamming you.

    It may not have helped in this case, but in general I’ve found it can help to “pre-qualify” potential clients by having some messaging on my website about the kinds of assignments I take on and the budgets they have. This person probably wasn’t reading closely enough to have seen a message like that, but overall it minimizes the number of “opportunities” I get to intern, to work for exposure, to do “test assignments” or to work for rates like they’re seeing in Fiverr.

    • It *did* feel like spam.

      That’s a good idea about prequalifying through website content. I’ve got some info up on my consulting site… but, as ever, one can’t count on folks to actually do the reading.

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