Today's post will cover something I've been thinking about a lot recently: bad clients, or, to be more precise, clients who cost your business more in terms of time, money, and anxiety than they make you.
As grimly satisfying as it would be to dish war stories about bad clients, my goal with this post is not to vilify the people who pay my bills but to help you identify and avoid potential obstacles to excellence, enthusiasm, and profit.
As I think back on what I did and didn't do well in 2012 and begin thinking ahead to 2013, I realize that I had to learn several lessons again. Let me begin with one short anecdote, and then I'll share three lists: 1) general beliefs about clients; 2) traits of bad clients; and 3) canned business pick-up lines.
"I'll take you on a trip to China."
At a party back in June 17, I met the principal of a local media agency. We exchanged cards, he emailed me, and we met a couple of times.
He talked about being able to "send" me a lot of work and "put me on several projects immediately." We even worked out how much the initial project would cost and how much I would charge for similar projects in the future. He crowed about how glad he was that we had met because he badly needed someone with my skillset and experience. He even mentioned taking me with him to China to visit the factory where one of his client's products is manufactured.
He asked me to do some spec work for a product launch to show what I could do." Isn't that what portfolios are for?" I thought to myself, but went against my better judgment and put about three hours into the project. I relearned a lesson that was inexpensive—at least this time:
The bigger the promises, the smaller the payout.
What came of all his talk about a steady stream of projects and trips to China? Nada. He complimented my work, but I don't think that he was just letting me down easy. I've never had a client complain about the quality of my work, and I've never been fired from a job.
The question remains, why did he stop returning phone calls and emails? I'll probably never know.
Bad clients usually aren't bad people. Most of the time, they probably believe the things that they say. They aren't out to get you but are forgetful or self-centered. They lack self-awareness and don't realize when they haven't keep promises. Though they're fond of saying crap like "Business is business," they aren't wolves in sheep's clothing, seeking to devour and destroy.
But their good intentions don't make them any less dangerous to your business.
Here are some of my general beliefs about clients:
- I don't need a large number of clients, only a small number of happy clients.
- I do my best work when I respect the person for whom I'm working.
- I do my worst work when I resent the person for whom I'm working.
- Good clients don't necessarily make fewer demands, but their demands are generally more reasonable.
- It's better to under-promise and over-deliver than do the opposite.Many people, clients included, don't read past the second line in the email.
- Long, inflammatory emails are best answered by phone and not by email.
- A client's lack of planning does not constitute my emergency.
- The client is not always right, and neither am I.
- Every once in awhile, a good client becomes a bad client. (A word of caution: These incremental frog boilings are the hardest to monitor.)
Like me, you probably want to make good money, do good work, and have fun doing it, and I simplify these three aspects of work into Excellence, Enthusiasm, and Profit. Let's call these aspects "EEP" for short. Bad clients knowingly or unknowingly take a huge bite out of your EEP.
If you're paying close attention, bad clients will usually exhibit one or more of these traits:
- They ask you to work for free.
- They ask you to work at a discounted rate.
- They stroke your ego with compliments before they know you well enough to qualify them. (For example, "I can tell you are a smart guy." Really? You've only known me for ten minutes.)
- They badmouth the last agency, firm, or freelancer with whom they worked.
- They badmouth their co-workers or boss in front of you.
- They don't pay on time. (Can you call a past contractor or vendor to find out?)
- They ask you to do favors for them that they wouldn't do for their clients.
- They don't answer emails and phone calls in a timely manner.
- They second guess your decisions.
- They schedule too many meetings, but don't expect to be billed for this time.
- They talk over you or interrupt you when you're speaking.
- They make you feel like they're doing you a favor by working with you.
- They show up late or not at all.
- They put you in the position of having to defend your expertise before you've even agreed to do the job.
Even if you don't know a prospect well enough to identify traits, you can sometimes make an educated guess about the potential working relationship. Bad clients are fond of using these:
Canned Business Pick-Up Lines
- "I want to invest in you."
- "I want to set up a long-term relationship with you."
- "I want to set up a mutually beneficial relationship with you."
- "I can get you a ton of work."
- "I can tell that you're really smart [or insert other unqualified compliment here]."
- "This will be really great for your portfolio."
Hopefully, a line in one of these lists turned the lights on for you. Now, it's firing time. Can you fire a client? You bet your bologna you can. My next post will explore several ways to manage difficult clients without starting a blood feud.