6 Ways to Know He’s “The One”: Client Edition


There’s a courting process in business. A mating dance, if you will, that exists between potential client and service provider while both flutter around determining if they’re a match. Traditional logic says it is the client who has all the power in this situation. He has the money and it’s up to him to decide where he wants to spend it. The service provider is the one, we’re told, who must prove herself and show that she is capable of performing the task. She is the one on trial.

I’m here to tell you that traditional logic is wrong.

Yesterday, my friend Michael Dorausch tweeted something that caught my eye.

He’s right. As business owners, we’re taught to say YES to clients. Clients mean money, they mean stability, and they mean we’ll have something to do during the day when Twitter can’t hold our interest. However, business owners must also learn to say NO to potential clients. They must use the initial “just talking” period to interview prospective clients the same way clients are interviewing them. Do you know what your perfect client looks like? Do you know the warning signs to help you avoid a bad one?

Here are some positive indicators to let you know you’ve found The One.

The client understands the process

The right client doesn’t expect results overnight. They understand that good work takes time and they’re willing to make the effort and to work with you. You want to start setting client expectations and managing client trust before anyone ever mutters the word “contract”. A client that respects the process will require less hand-holding, email updates, and reassuring than a client who questions the timetables you’ve set. If a potential client is already showing signs of insecurity during the initial phases consider if this is a relationship that will work for the long term.

The client wants to be involved

The best client is an educated client. Someone who wants to know what you’re doing not because they question you, but because they care. Someone who is willingly to write those content pages you’re asking for because they understand that all we do is coach, they have to run the ball. Look for clients who are invested enough in their projects that they don’t just want to hand over the whole thing and forget about it. Instead, they want to work with you to design up something that will be especially awesome.

The client uses real words to describe their company

Want to play a fun game? Ask prospective clients if they can explain what it is they do. Two things will happen.

  1. They’ll be able to explain to you, in real words, what their company does and whom they hope to reach.
  2. The conversation will devolve into a Rain Man-inspired edition of buzzword bingo that will leave you more confused than when you started.

If the latter happens, stop talks. The best clients are the ones that really ‘get’ their business and their customers. If someone has a hard time putting into real words what they’re trying to accomplish and what they need, then it’s going to be incredibly difficult to create and initiate a plan of action. They’re also going to have a hard time getting you the content you’ll need to help them earn your rankings. Look for clients that are self-aware and who understand their place in the market.

The client doesn’t already know exactly what they want

This sounds counter-intuitive. You would think a client that knows what she wants would be a good thing. However, it’s more complicated than that. A client who has an idea of what they want is great. A client that knows exactly what they want, however, tends to be problematic. Why? Well, because they’re usually trying to mimic something they just saw. They heard about the Old Spice social media campaign and now they want to do that, too. They heard about what their competitor was doing on Twitter and now they want that identical strategy. The problem is that every business and every audience is different. The perfect client understands this, has an idea of what he’d like to see, and is open to working with you on how you can accomplish this together. The perfect client does not want a neon pink Web site just because their favorite color is pink.

The client is someone you can help

My favorite clients aren’t the ones with the biggest budgets or the flashiest Web sites. They’re the ones that we’ve been able to help do really special things. As service providers, we have a responsibility not to take on clients that we can’t provide a clear benefit. And sometimes that means turning down people we’d love to worth with just because we don’t think the investment, for them, will be worth it. It’s easy to collect money from someone who wants to give you money, however, you have to be the adult in the room. If someone wants to pay you to design their dream site in a way that you know will ensure it never ranks or converts, are you going to do it?

The client lives a similar business culture

Company culture is really important. At Outspoken Media, we hire based on culture and we pick clients based on culture. We want to make sure that we’re going to enjoy working with the clients we take on and we also want to know they’ll enjoy working with us. That’s how referrals are generated. When you’re in the talking stages of things, get a feeling for how the prospective client does business and how they’ll expect you to do business. If there’s a gaping difference of opinion, then it might not be worth taking that client on. You spend a lot of your day working. You want to enjoy what you’re doing. We said no to a company that (at the time) would have been our biggest client. We walked away and never looked back. Why? Because the culture didn’t fit and that’s something we won’t compromise on.

Michael’s right in that businesses aren’t taught how to say no to clients. Especially in hard times, we’re told to take whatever we can get and do whatever we can to hold onto them. However, that’s pretty bad advice. Filling yourself up with clients you don’t love just means you’ll be too busy to take on the right ones when they present themselves. As my dad told me, you always have a right to say no. ;)

Your Comments

  • netmeg

    I have learned through multiple painful experiences that when a potential client starts listing all the problems they have had with previous service providers, you really need to pay attention. Sometimes there are clues that will tip you off that it might not necessarily have been the service provider that was the problem.

  • Will Scott

    Great post Lisa,

    I think this extends from just saying “no” in relation to taking on a client to saying “no” in relation to work you’re willing to do, corners you’re willing to cut and contract language you’re willing to change.

    One really simple example for us is that we require a credit-card for accounts below a certain monthly retainer amount. Why? Because my controller hates receivables and much as I love the collections agent down the hall from me I don’t need to give him more business.

    But some other examples are: length of engagement, budget and others which to a client may look like you’re in it for you, but really prove you’re in it for them.

    We know for a fact that there are some things we can’t do in 30 days. Or at least that there are some results which won’t show for more than 30 days.

    A good client is also one who recognizes that your recommendations are really, at least in your opinion, in their best interests.

    Good expectations and clear boundaries set everyone up for success.

  • David Zemens

    Learning how to assess potential clients was one of the *most difficult* things I had to learn how to do as a freelance web designer. It was tempting to say “Yes” to every client, and I often did at the outset, but experience taught me that was often a mistake.

    With experience it’s possible to learn how to get a feel for a client. Do they understand what they need? Do they understand that it takes *money* to get things done *properly*? Are they willing to *invest* in their future? Or are they looking for the *cheap way out*?

    After some bad experiences I have been able to pretty accurately determine which potential clients are *for real* and which clients are just looking for the cheapest way to meet their *perceived goals*.

    My advice? Learn how to go with our gut. You can never go wrong. You might not always be right, but going with your gut means you never have to say you’re sorry, at least to yourself.

    • Lisa Barone

      Hopefully Rhea won’t mind me speaking for her, but I think this is an area where she really had to learn to run before ever even crawling. She does the majority of our early vetting so she’s had to get really good at being able to quickly tell when someone would work with us and when we’d clash. Luckily for Outspoken, she developed that gut feeling pretty quickly. It’s saved us all a lot of headaches.

  • Cijo Abraham Mani

    Every market is different and the customers are also different. Some online businesses do have good response like Airline Industry in which huge number of transaction happens online while some other businesses do have less online transactions. The target audience also differ from business to business and online marketing plan must be created considering targeted customers. Clients should be willing to accept that each business is a separate entity and every online marketing method won’t work in same way for different businesses.

  • David Wallace

    Great article. After being in this biz for 13 plus years now, I think I’ve become pretty good at sniffing out those potential clients that are not “the ones.” How many a time I’ve gone against my intuition and even the traits you mentioned to watch out for, and have regretted the business relationship.

    Thanks for reminding us that are in the service/consulting industry that it is far better to get “good” clients than to simply take the money.

  • Todd Mintz

    I recently got an inquiry that began, “Whats up Todd?”

    Experience taught me that I really didn’t need to go any further before discarding the lead…

  • Michael Dorausch

    So now I have the luxury of sharing this with my staff rather than keep repeating it every week, thanks for that.

    From reading the comments it appears everyone has learned these things (often times the hard way) while in business, rather than before launching.

    I love that you ask the question, “Do you know what your perfect client looks like?” If the answer is not YES, your business may want to do some studying of current client behavior to gather ideas. Make a list of factors like ability to pay, attitude, level of work involved, etc… It may surprise you to find what order you organize into.

  • Kristin

    I agree, i think its incredibly important that the clients click with those who they are working with. There are times when that connection just isn’t there.

    If you are in a desperate situation than any client seems great, but cheers to outspoken for walking away from a potentially big client!

  • Kelvin

    Great article Lisa.
    Have said No to my fair share of clients. But my way of saying no is to just give a ridiculously high quote.
    That way, at least I would be well compensated for the mental trauma if they still accept.

  • Susan McKeon

    Thanks for a great post Lisa.

    I’m just starting out with my own business, making the switch from being the client to service provider. It’s quite scary taking the plunge to self employment (well for me, anyway) and I don’t want to fall into the trap of taking on a client just for the sake of it. When you’re starting out, any client seems great. Saying no is hard but empowering.

    When I was the ‘client’ my decisions on working with service providers was always based on a mutual relationship – did they: “get me?” “understand the company culture?” “speak the same language?” (jargon doesn’t impress me), “understand the expectations?” did we “click?” “what was their working style/culture like?” “what were their expectations?”

    I realise I need to apply these same criteria to establishing my own business too and be honest to myself and clients.

    Today, I turned down what could potentially have been my first job/contract – a product launch. I delivered the proposal but in discussing it with the client and exploring their expectations in more detail, talked myself out of it. Some may say that is rather stupid, but…

    …being totally honest and saying no led to another conversation about a project with longer lead times, that I’m better suited to. The client respected my honesty (I think) and the product launch is being dealt with my a London based agency, who will be able to deliver the goods with much more clout than me and my one-woman band.

    Only time will tell if this was the right decision. In the meantime, I’m still out there, building my business and brand and searching for the ‘one’

  • Jim Rudnick

    @netmeg — “…there are clues that will tip you off that it might not necessarily have been the service provider that was the problem…”

    truer words have never been spoken, eh & we’re in total agreement up here in canuckland!