When you sign up a new client you never quite know where it will lead. Often that’s half the fun. But sometimes you’ll have clients you wish you’d never got involved with, who make your heart sink when their number flashes up on your phone. Here are a few clues about whether you are likely to have a problem with them in future:
If they have tried several others before coming to you
It can be good if a company approaches you after having had bad experiences with some of your rivals, because it gives you an opportunity to shine. But you need to be wary if a prospective client tells you they have hired a string of other firms, but felt that none of them have done a good job. The chances are that the problem lies with the client, not your competitors. It could be that this is a high-maintenance client with unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve for the money they’re prepared to pay. If they ask you to come up with ideas or to do work before deciding to hire you, or if they tell you that what you’ve quoted is far too high, those are good indications the client’s going to be hard work. You need to find out more about what went wrong in the past before committing yourself to trying to achieve what may turn out to be unachievable: making the client happy. If you agree to work for them then you should keep in mind that it’s very easy for a small firm to over-service pushy clients. If they keep calling you with new whims or demands then you should stand firm and tell them you’ll do as much as you can in the hours you’ve agreed. If they want more from you they’ll have to pay you more.
If they are vague about their needs
If your client doesn’t really know what they want you to do for them then how can you possibly manage to do it? Before you agree to work for them, you need to hammer out what they want to achieve, so you can agree what you will do and, importantly, what constitutes success. “Make us look good” isn’t a target you can objectively measure. All too often a business relationship can turn sour because you and your client have different definitions of what doing a good job means.
If it’s unclear who is the real decision maker
This can easily happen if the project you’ve been hired to work on overlaps between two (or more) departments, or if one team is leading the project but the funding is coming from another team’s budget. Before you know it you may find yourself trying to satisfy more than one master – and end up pleasing none of them. In your preliminary discussions it’s important to find out if the person you’re speaking to is the one who’s holding the purse strings; if they aren’t then you need to know how much control they have over the project. Try to lessen the risk of you becoming caught in the crossfire between warring factions within your client firm by having your key contact named in your working brief or contract and make it clear you’ll only take orders from that person.
If they don’t really understand why they’re doing it
Plenty of companies will embark on a project because they think they need to do it, without really understanding why they should do it. Alarm bells should ring in your head if you’re told: “the sales director thinks we should have a social media marketing campaign”, “we think we need a mobile app because our biggest rival has one,” or “we need to be using the cloud, because everyone else seems to be.” You’re likely to have to spend a lot of your time educating your client on what your job is before you actually get to do it. But that time will be well spent if you convince the client that the project is actually worthwhile. There’s nothing worse than if a client belatedly decides they don’t really want to do it after all when you’re already halfway through the job.
Trust your gut instinct
The longer that you’ve run your own business you’re more likely to encounter jobs that turn out to be much more hassle than they were worth. You’ll learn the warning signs and know what is likely to happen, so if your gut feeling is that a potential client may be trouble then you’re probably right. If you think: “this time it will be different” you’re living in hope rather than expectation. What it really comes down to is getting to know your client and understanding what they want from the outset – which, after all, is the basis of any solid business relationship. If you ask them the right questions and you decide that, on balance, you can work with them then that’s great: go ahead and sign on the dotted line. But if you have serious reservations about any of what they tell you then it might be best to simply walk away at the beginning. It could save you plenty of time, stress – and potentially, money – if you do.