How to Pick Good Clients—and How to Avoid Bad Ones!

May 8th, 2013   •   no comments   

When people ask me what I like the most about owning a public relations and marketing firm, my answer usually varies depending on whom I am talking to and what they are looking for. Sometimes it’s young entrepreneurs who want to know what it’s like to start a business. Occasionally, it is a peer working in a corporate role with the desire to know what it feels like on the “other side.” But, a large reason I enjoy owning my own firm is working with the people I like the most. This doesn’t mean the job all roses and honey, at all. The work we do can be tough and my firm has to earn its spot in the boardroom (and the budget) every day by creating real value and results for clients. This doesn’t come easy or instantly and it is an investment in time and trust on both sides of the relationship. Through the years, I have learned that it is vital to choose the right clients.

So, how do you do this and why is picking well important?

First of all, you must decide what type of client mix is right for your business. By this, I mean looking at complimentary types of businesses you would like to serve.

For example: We work with a number of physician practices, so I like to look for other types of businesses that would compliment that medical component of our firm, such as a medical device manufacturer or a medical service provider. For this client, a law firm that specializes in medical corporate legal would be a complimentary client, but a law firm that specializes in medical malpractice would NOT be a good fit. My firm operates under the policy of not representing clients that directly compete or oppose one another.

Another key to making wise client selections is identifying people who truly believe that you add value to their bottom line. In my business, this means attracting likeminded businesspeople who share our passion for marketing, PR and social media. These are businesses that are usually mature, have sought after the magic wand and know there is no magic wand.

Last week, we were interviewing a potential client (they asked us to the table) and after that initial meeting, I knew it was not a fit and, in fact, would be a waste of everyone’s time. One of the owners of the business just flat out did not believe in PR and said that in their experience, it was not worth the investment. WOW! The other business owner (are you getting the picture here?) felt differently. I knew then that it was a pass. You can’t expect good results if the client is torn on which direction to go.

Sometimes, you enter a relationship under the impression that it will work, only to realize once you are “in” that it is not a good fit. Yes, it has happened to us. You can vet a potential client all you want and every now and then, you still end up with one or two that you later realize don’t mix well in the client bag. It’s okay—these experiences are valuable because they allow you to learn and thus, grow. If you aren’t learning from failure or mismatches, you won’t be able to move ahead.

What we do when we find ourselves with a bad client fit is to address it head on. I am usually the one to tell the client that we won’t be renewing the contract OR that the contract is up and we’ve enjoyed our work. Parting ways on good terms is very important to me. Often, clients will simply not be ready for a firm like ours and there have been times when present bad fits have turned into future good fits. As businesses flex and change, we are able to flex and change with them.

To outline our experience, is a checklist for selecting good clients:

  • they are healthy financially and can pay our fee
  • they are a mature business with staying power
  • they have realistic expectations and understand the importance of long term planning
  • they are at the top of their game in their industry (we like working with smart people)
  • they fit in well with the other clients we serve
  • they are good referral sources and tell others about our work (a recommendation is the highest praise we can ask for and we know we have a client for life when they are recommending us)
  • they have good people on their team and a culture of excellence

And, here is a checklist that will assist identifying a “problem” client:

  • they say “tight budget” often and cannot manage their cash flow
  • they are unrealistic about what can be done and demand a full blown plan right out of the gate (I’ve learned not to give them a plan until they pay for one)
  • they tell me they are interviewing many other firms (this is always a turn off for me—while it may be fine and true, why say it?)
  • they say things like, “You know we are the best at everything we do and we want the world to know it.” This is a red flag because no amount of good PR can cover bad customer service
  • they have bad credit reports and a reputation for not paying bills
  • they have bad press (lipstick on a pig comes to mind here)
  • they know more about marketing than we do
  • they are fueled by revenue and ego versus profit and being grounded
  • they can’t pull the trigger and hire you even after two meetings (we charge hourly after the initial meeting)

I hope this has been helpful to anyone reading this as it’s been years of work in the trenches—and a few not so great client fits—that has enabled me to experience and share these tips. What are some of yours?

 

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