On recent blogs, all the rage is to tell you to only work with clients that:
- Let you have creative freedom
- Never consider asking for out of scope items
- Always pay their bills on time
- Set reasonable expectations for deadlines
- Always promptly send you feedback
- Never ask for additional changes after a revision round
- Are found at the bottom of rainbows
And I’m here to disagree with that. While I think it’s likely that some clients out there are easygoing and know what they want, the chances of you finding that perfect client are slim at best.
If your mindset is to search for that customer and, when you don’t find them, to run, then you’re going to struggle with finding consistent work. Worse yet, you are going to end up with a lot of people that do the opposite of the above.
Searching for the perfect client is like trying to get a six pack from taking diet pills.
It’s like trying to get smart by listening to Mozart while you sleep.
Or pick up chicks using Axe Body Spray.
It’s a fool’s errand and I’m here to save you.
Why Clients Are Bad
When I was in my mid twenties flailing around with my web agency, I sold websites almost 100% re-actively. Someone would call me on the phone and say:
“Brent, I need a website. Can you help me?”
“Sure, what do you need?”
“Only about five pages, it will be simple!”
“Sure, we charge X dollars per page and I will send over a proposal.”
And so it went.
I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know that I needed to ask more questions and learn about my prospective customer’s business, objectives, and pains. I didn’t know any better because I had never been trained how to sell.
Until one day I learned from a master. I learned some simple truths about sales that fundamentally changed how I interact with businesses (of all kinds, and not just my clients).
Once I learned how to do it right, everything changed.
Our clients are in the same position. Most business owners have probably only built a web project once or twice. They might read a little Inc. Magazine or their local trade publication that mentions things like websites, social media, and search engine optimization. But rare is the client that has executed dozens of campaigns.
Not only that, but whoever was building their website before was probably doing it wrong. And they definitely weren’t thinking about how to train their customer not only how to use their website, but also how to be a fantastic client.
Without training, people will act how they think they should act: cheap, slow, and ineffective.
How to Train Your Clients
A lot of people think that Bonsai trees are genetically “dwarfed” plants. They’re not. Bonsais are normal plants that are meticulously trained to stay small. Bonsai masters accomplish this through pruning, wire training, defoliation, creating deadwood, and rock formations.
When a perfect client arrives at your door, it’s most likely because someone else trained them. The best clients I’ve ever worked with are business owners that have five or six successful businesses and have been through a dozen web professionals. These are the clients that know what they want, know that paying well for it is one of the methods to a safer investment, and allow the professional to take charge and lead the way.
But I never make the assumption that any client is perfect.
When I get to that magic moment and am about to work with someone, I have my “professional conversation.”
“I’m a professional and you are hiring me to do a job. I want you to have the best experience possible. But in order to do that, I need to get some things from you, I need you to be on my team. Do you want the best experience possible?”
“Yes, we want the best experience too.”
“Great. I want to review a couple of things before we get too far along.”
“First, we want your project to look great. We need to make sure that we don’t end up ‘designing by committee’, have you ever heard that phrase?”
[Explain design by committee.]
“Second, as the project progresses, we understand that you might request things that aren’t in the original contract. That’s okay, we want to deliver what your business needs, but those things are called ‘out-of-scope’ and will cost extra. We will give you an estimate at that time and decide if it should be put at the end of the project we’re working on or inserted into the existing schedule. Let me show you the language in the contract that reiterates this. It’s very important.”
[Explain scope of work limitations and where in the contract they can find that.]
“Okay, sounds good.”
“In order to keep our lights on and my team happy, I need to pay our bills and payroll on time. We are a machine that needs oil (tools and services) and gasoline (salaries). When we send you an invoice, it needs to be paid within 10 days. I don’t make exceptions to this just like you wouldn’t drive through Kansas with a quarter tank. If for any reason an invoice isn’t paid on time, the machine stops immediately. I understand that you might have a disputed item from time to time, but either way, the machine stops. It will affect your project schedule, deadlines, and quality of project. We also don’t start any work with new clients until the initial deposit is received. If there is ever a billing issue for non-payment, I will request a credit card to keep on file for future invoices. I don’t think billing will be an issue with you, but I just want to lay out our rules and make sure there is no question prior to working together.”
[If they need to pay Net 30 or something outside your terms, push back on that and see if they’ll make an exception. I have gotten many large businesses to change their standard process to work with us.]
“When it comes to project schedule, we are going to outline the best case scenario. In order to hit that deadline, we need to get feedback from you within 24 hours of any deliverable we send over. It is also dependent on you getting us content, branding, surveys, and all of the other docs outlined by the dates committed. If any of these items come in late, it will push the schedule. No questions asked, I will pull the project out of the pipeline, assess our other workload, and reset our project schedule. Do you feel completely comfortable with the deadlines we’ve outlined and your obligations to us?”
“Yes, won’t be a problem.”
“Great. I have setup a weekly standing meeting. Our team will deliver surveys, designs, and review content in these meetings only. These meetings are when you will provide feedback. Typically we will send documents to you ahead of time to give you an opportunity to collect your thoughts. We then expect feedback and changes the following day. After we get signoff from you on deliverables, we begin work. If additional revisions come up, I will deem them out-of-scope and have to submit a change order to the project. Are you okay with that?”
“Yes, that won’t be a problem.”
And our first training session is complete. The wires are in place, the pruning has been done. Contract gets signed and you begin work. At every opportunity you get, retrain. Adjust your client as necessary.
If an issue pops up, let’s say they don’t pay an invoice in the agreed upon time. Well, some pruning is in order. Cut that branch or it will grow out of control.
When we are lazy…when we fail to prune or rewire the client, it is our fault when they do it again. You and I are the professional, we get paid to lead the way.
Set the Right Goal
Instead of going out there searching to only work with the best clients, instead, find clients that have the right businesses you want to work with. Find those clients where the opportunity for your skills to shine is at its greatest.
Don’t even make the assumption that they might be a good client. Everyone needs training: hands down. You have no idea which of the above they might not know from a previous project or professional outfit.
Your goal shouldn’t be to just find the best clients.
Your goal should be to create the best clients in the world.