Years ago, in a different industry, I had a business phone call with someone that was so angry, he screamed and cursed at me for a good 10 minutes. He’d never met me before, but I represented everything wrong in his life for that 10 minutes.
I found out later that this client had been one of the biggest time wasters in company history. Which, if you’re familiar with this phenomenon, is par for the course.
There’s a belief in service industries that there are specific tells that leads or customers give off at the start, that indicate they’re going to be a nightmare. I started paying attention to this very early in my career, and it rings true.
In the digital services world, these tells are defined by some major indicators right off the bat. You should probably say no when any of these major red flags occur:
- The lead wants a much lower price
- The lead is asking for a bunch of work before the engagement
- Sales cycle is extremely long
- Lead is very indecisive on the service
- Lead is jumping the gun on taking a service
There are exceptions to every rule, so before you start commenting that “this isn’t true” or “I’ve had a different experience”, hang on. Everyone has different experiences.
Take an objective look at the trends, price points, and services you offer. If they resemble anything close to what I’m describing, you might just be experiencing the same thing.
These top level indicators are pretty easy to spot if you’ve dealt with them before, but what about the tells that are tough to spot, or the tells that don’t show up until later in the relationship? These take some skill to identify.
Big shout out to people like Derek Halpern & Ramit Sethi for putting on display in the real world how these nightmare customers sometimes talk and act. If you want to see some really great examples, these guys happily post some of the emails they get from people that they turn down.
Don’t make this mistake with a Potential lead like me
A while back, I took an inbound lead, and went through the normal intake process. We exchanged a few emails where I discovered the brand was an ideal candidate for SEO. They ticked all of the boxes on things like funding, mindset, previous success and attitude.
I typically take a short phone call at that point to find out what phase the lead is in to buy. I’m trying to find out if they the “1 year away” lead, or “1 month away” lead. I learned that they were putting together a team to create a new site, and would use existing brand equity to leverage the business logistics.
Marketing and SEO was needed, but not until the website was in process. When I learned that the website launch date was a moving target, it peeked a small red flag in my psyche, but I ignored this, because it happens a lot. Let’s be honest, how many times have you pushed back a web design go live date, right?
I decided to keep checking in with the lead every few weeks. Over the course of another two months, they requested a few more meetings that I attended; introducing the services to the new members of the team and an investor. I don’t normally take this many meetings, but in this case it seemed appropriate.
When it did come time to have the contract signed and deposit transferred, the client and I decided to schedule the project launch meeting a few days later. I booked a flight to the lead (yes, without having a signed contract. I’ll explain why later) and flew into town. The day before the meeting, I reached out to let the lead know (again) that we needed the agreement signed before we kicked things off.
On the day of the meeting, he cancelled last minute and said he wasn’t comfortable moving forward without kicking the project off first. Even though I explained that we needed to formalize things first, it was too late at that point.
Maybe expectations weren’t set strong enough, maybe I didn’t realize the sales cycle wasn’t over. From what I could tell, it was an pattern of behavior that I felt I needed to put a stop too. Too many meetings over too many months, and then asking to start the project without a formal agreement.
Regardless, that red flag that came up when he asked for repetitive meetings a few months prior should have been enough for me to drop him as a lead.
I would have saved money on a flight and more importantly, I would have saved myself a bunch of time. I should have told him no far sooner in the sales cycle.
Learn to read nightmare customer tells in 5 minutes
So, let’s do a post mortem. Where was my red flag? If I’m honest, it was back when he was asking me to do the second (and then third) meeting to introduce my services.
Keep in mind, prior to our first meeting, I’d set the expectation that everyone involved with the project needs to be at this meeting. Since he was the CEO, this would have been easy for him to execute.
He didn’t, and then by asking me to meet again and again, it showed very clearly he didn’t value other people’s time.
So here’s the top 3 ways you can bring those red flags to the surface in 5 minutes:
- Ask about other vendors. If they trash talk, that’s a red flag.
- Ask about decision makers. If they trash talk, that’s a red flag.
- Talk about (nicely) vetting each other. This brings everything out in the open.
Vetting clients without them knowing
Vetting works both ways, and even if they don’t realize it, they need to vet you too. Without it, clients might not be getting what they want, and won’t see the value in the service. And if you don’t vet potential clients, well, you probably already know what a nightmare client is.
First off, if you’re not using a sales intake software, you’re missing out. Get one. I like Pipedrive.
From the first time you come in touch with the lead, whether it’s outbound or inbound, you should be vetting them. Since it’s going to be a relationship (customer – service provider) I start looking for the things that make or break any relationship. Listen for signs of professionalism, class, consistency, experience, personality match and more. Anything you can find out about the person or the organization will help with vetting.
Good relationships only happen where trust exist, so look for trust signals, or lack thereof.
Ask questions like:
- Have you ever had a similar service? How did it go?
- How much do you know about this service?
- Are you looking because you feel like you need it or because someone told you too?
- What’s your idea of a successful project?
- How do you typically approach setting expectations with your team?
- How involved are you planning to be in this project?
- When are you hoping to launch this project?
If they don’t understand the work that goes into the project, then they can’t understand the value of it.
If they aren’t looking for the service themselves, then they can’t really be your advocate to the decision maker.
Could they be window shopping?
Find out who they are, online and in real life. I try to take a look at everyone I do business with, because business is relationships, not products. I highly recommend taking 15 minute or less phone calls, rather than emailing throughout the whole process. It’s much more personal and you get a ton more information that way.
Only take the phone call after you’ve qualified the lead as a good potential client, at least initially. Be careful about people that want to talk your ear off. Set expectations that you have a hard stop at the 15 minute mark, and make sure you stick to it.
Proposals I’ve seen done well two ways. A standard proposal that you can plug a new lead’s info into, and a custom proposal that you don’t write until you know it’s worth spending time on it.
I typically wait until I can see a 90% chance the lead will close before writing a proposal, and I never show it to them until I’m live with them to explain it. Many times I leave the pricing off so we can discuss openly, and only put it on the contract once signed. This helps avoid tire kickers who just hunt for proposals.
When a lead says “send me a proposal” too quickly, they’ve just disqualified themselves.
There are very specific tactics you can use to ensure that the content you present to them gets presented in the best way possible. People will ask you to send them a proposal, so learn how to explain what you’re doing up front.
I always explain the truth; that I typically match best with clients that are referrals and don’t take everyone that wants service. I don’t want to just hand over the proposal, I’d like to present it. If that’s not something they’re into, then this probably isn’t a good fit.
I just recently said no to a very interested client because she wanted to compare creative proposals against 10 others she’d gotten.
This changes depending on price point. Lower price points can typically throw proposals around on a template and wait until the lead is ready to close. The larger the price point gets, the more work involved in closing the sale. Large agencies often times charge for writing a proposal as a sign of commitment to the vendor.
This is the approach you want to try to work towards, and once your brand is worth it to your leads, you’ll be able to.
Do you handle things differently based on your size company?
Yes, but it’s just as tactical. At a former agency that I built we created an automated proposal process, and since the price point was lower, that seemed to work. That took the “send me a proposal” way to saying “no” off the table.
Customers couldn’t use it as a way to say no anymore, which forced the conversation into the real issues (trust, fear, etc.)
Even larger creative agencies take payment for the proposal process, that often get applied towards the project payment once the project is starts. This shows good faith for complex, manpower heavy projects.
One of the biggest strategies I learned with big brands
Getting in with the right people at the brand is critical. There are all sorts of levels of this that I won’t get into today. It’s worth mentioning that all of these should revolve around trust. Knowing everyone better tends to result in a positive project outcome.
Added value is another way to sweeten the deal or over exceed expectations. Mentioning them at conferences, helping out in other areas where you see opportunity have all helped me with retention.
The great lengths to get good clients
You should go to great lengths to get good clients. It seems to be the only way that it works for the vast majority of service companies. I will happily fly somewhere for a meeting if I feel like it’s worth it. It’s difficult to put into words how I come up with if they’re “worth it” or not, but a combination of everything in this post is a good start.
There have been many occasions where I’ve flown to another city or taken a meeting that seemed like a thin thread that has resulted in a great project. It’s a combination of feeling them out, understanding their motive for doing the project and getting to know them personally.
Just remember, the squeakiest wheel gets the oil, so don’t always take those loud leads that want to have repetitive meetings.