Independent Thinking

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Choosing Your Clients Wisely:
Not every opportunity is a good opportunity


I once met with a prospective client to discuss his company’s plans to start up an online newsletter. We discussed his needs, which were pretty comprehensive, and then I developed a six-month proposal for shepherding the start-up process. He responded by cutting the dollar figure in half. I walked away.

Just as not all bosses are great bosses, not all clients are equal. The luxury of owning a business is the ability to pick and choose who you want to work with. While there’s a tendency among many independents and small consultancies to operate as though their next project might be their last, it’s important to have the discipline to say no. A bad job is a bad job—whether it’s permanent or project-based.

So how should consultants vet potential clients? I recently posed this question to a number of people and found, not surprisingly, that there were some common themes when it comes to picking good clients, and some obvious red flags that should send you running in the other direction.

Jack Bucchioni, president of Linja Partners Consulting in York, Pennsylvania, told me that he looks for situations where his firm can be of value. “If you can’t help, pass it on to someone who can,” he says. “If you are outside your scope, the company will not have a positive experience and your reputation may suffer.”

Kerby Meyers, a freelance writer based outside Denver, Colorado, operates on what he calls the “gut feel” component when choosing what clients to work with: “Do they seem to have a good handle on what they want? Do they seem to respect what I can do for them? Does it seem like there’s a high potential for ego issues?”

Suzanne Bakewell, a communication consultant in Falls Church, Virginia, looks for clients who aren’t defensive when she tells them what she thinks they’re doing right—and what she thinks they’re doing wrong—from a branding perspective. “A good client for me says, ‘Aha, here’s someone who gets it and is not afraid to say what they think,’” she says.

Brett Pyrtle, principal of Turning Point Communications in Minneapolis, Minnesota, says he has two words to describe how he vets potential clients: very carefully. He only works with clients who have been referred to him by another client or by someone else in his professional network. Pyrtle says he checks references for the rare prospect who calls him out of the blue.

Here are a few other questions to ask as you consider potential clients:

  • Is the project a good fit for your background and expertise? “You can’t be everything to everyone,” says Andrea Fuller, founder and CEO of MindFarm in Washington, D.C. Fuller’s firm focuses on what it does best—placing senior-level consultants on projects. If the job calls for a more junior-level person, Fuller turns it down. Similarly, if a potential client would be better served by having a full-service agency, Fuller tells them that.
  • Is the end result worth the effort? It’s important to understand how much non-billable time is involved in pursuing each potential opportunity. Although some small businesses seem to respond to everything, is a scattershot approach really the best use of your valuable time and money? I try to respond only to those RFPs where I believe I have a reasonable chance of success.
  • Is the compensation reasonable? If you’ve done your homework and know your rates are fair, then stick to them. “Once you start discounting, it’s hard to go back,” warns Fuller. “So unless you have a good justification for discounting your work, don’t do it.” The prospect who wants something for nothing is unlikely to value your work—especially if you’ve devalued it yourself.
  • Who’s in charge anyway? The answer, of course, is your client—but you still have to be able to manage their demands and their expectations. Fuller insists that each project have only one point of contact. Early in my business career I was asked to write an op-ed for an association. Two different people had divergent ideas about the content. Not surprisingly, no one was happy with the results. I learned my lesson, and I’ve since shied away from projects where there was no clear definition of authority.

Run, run away: Red flags
In addition to understanding what constitutes a good client for your business, you should also recognize when to run away. Bucchioni describes one early warning sign: the client who wants something for nothing. “If you are doing a lot for free, get out gracefully, as this is not a good sign of a great relationship to come,” he says.

Other red flags include unrealistic or undefined timetables, poorly conceived scopes of work and people who are just unpleasant. Some consultants say they can work for anyone—but why would you want to?

Finally, when it comes to vetting prospects, it’s important to know who you are and understand your business style. “If you market yourself authentically, the people who will work well with you will self-select,” says Fuller.

I used to say that I’ve been lucky to work with great clients over the course of my business career. Then I wised up and figured out that it’s less about luck than smart selection. I’m always asking questions about work scopes and qualifications that could potentially cost me a job. But that’s okay, because it’s better than forging ahead and finding out later that the client wants something you can’t successfully deliver. I’ve turned down projects that weren’t the right fit for me, and I’ve walked away from bad opportunities that would have turned into miserable client relationships. Vetting clients is both an art and a science, and the better you get at it, the smoother your business will be.

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