I had a Power Hour with a client named Misty recently, we really got into the nuts and bolts of how working with clients who aren’t your dream clients or aligned clients can really sap the life out of you.
You know that feeling when some clients are like moral hoovers and energy vampires? Their projects drag hind tail and you dread it when they phone.
So it got me thinking that what every agency and business owner really and truly want is: a stream of happy clients who pay their invoices on time.
Living the dream right?
Well, you can’t make a wish without getting really clear on what it is that you want (and what you don’t want).
What you do want: aligned clients and best buyers
I’ve taken inspiration from the good old Boston Matrix framework originally created for looking at market share. I’ve made my own adaption to look at and categorise your clients. And this is powerful if you do it.
Here’s a little summary of the client analysis matrix
Think about your best clients. When they call you love picking up the phone, they treat your team with respect and like creative partners, they pay their invoices on time. Hell, the might even bring up scope creep before you get a chance to. These are aligned clients (or ideal clients) and I’d bet that you’d love to find a dozen more just like them.
Now think about your dream clients or the whales. They’re big spenders and if you landed another 2 or 3 best buyers it would be a game-changing for your agency. On the flip side, if you landed 5 or 6 of them you wouldn’t have the productive capacity to deliver at a high level of quality, and service might start slipping.
Now think about the clients who are like squeaky wheels, they need a lot of oil. And yes sometimes with a strategy and a lot of nurturing they can become good clients because they fit in your niche or they want services you like to sell. Ultimately you over-service these clients because they shout a lot and that means they’re not profitable.
Then you’ve got the tough nuts. These are the question marks, they don’t necessarily fit into your niche or align with your services, maybe they operate in a market that’s on the decline. Revenue is falling with this client and things aren’t looking great.
If you really want to get clear on what you do want, grab this matrix and create your own definitions for each quadrant. Then grab your current client list and start plotting where they go. I promise you this is an eye-opening and highly revealing exercise to get clarity on what you do want.
What you don’t want: more squeaky wheels and tough nuts obviously!
No one wants more energy-sapping, moral-sucking vampires. It starts by knowing what those clients look like and really qualifying the leads that come through your door.
Have you ever taken on a client when your gut instinct was screaming “Don’t do it, don’t do it” and here we are trying not to rip your hair out six months later with a project that never ends? I bet you've had a few of them.
Think of the brand John West and their slogan, “it’s the salmon that John West rejects that makes John West salmon the best”. The same is true for clients and your agency. You can literally increase your win rate if you stop pitching for every single prospect that comes your way!
I’m sure you’ve got plenty but here are some red flags to watch out for (and top of where you think they might fit in your client matrix).
Red Flags For New Agency Clients
RFP but no meeting
If you get sent an RFP from a brand you’ve never met or spoken to, ask them for a quick connection call. If they refuse then you are nothing but a number to them. Often larger businesses need to get a set number of quotes for comparison when they already know who their supplier is going to be. No meeting, no proposal.
Pitching and doing spec work can be exciting. It takes a lot of time and if it pays off, great. But when it doesn’t it’s like a sucker punch to the gut. Let me spell this out, spec work is no. Back in my agency days, I can’t tell you the number of times I delivered spec work only to be unsuccessful and then find our ideas out in the wild having not been paid. Spec work is a guise for crowdsourcing ideas. Of course, it’s your choice to do spec work but if a client is asking for “free ideas” up front are they going to be a great client?
Those four little letters are so loaded. "Can you just, this will just take a minute". Just clients will send you briefs late when they’ve been sitting on them for weeks and ask you to "just" do this for them like it’s nothing. To a just client, you’re nothing more than a short-order cook pushing pixels around a screen.
Hard to spot in the wild, sometimes prospects can come across so charming. And when you’re in that new honeymoon energy of overdelivering it’s hard to set boundaries (more on that later). If your prospective client has a deadline and you ask why that specific date is important, be vigilant of their response. No word of a lie I had a client going on a cruise holiday once and we had to get the job done which was near impossible.
I have a major bee in my bonnet about this one. If a client doesn’t have a budget, they can’t be your client. Think about shopping for a car. You know if you’re shopping in the region of a Suzuki Swift or a Bentley Continental, and it isn't always to do with affordability and everything to do with what a client wants to spend based on their perceived value. Every client has a budget and if they don’t want to share it’s a raging red flag.
Resisting your terms
If a client isn’t taking on board your terms, your processes and is shoving an NDA in front of you before we’re even out the start blocks it’s time to sit back and let your gut take over. I’m all about being flexible but you don’t roll in your dentist’s office telling her how to drill now, do you?
6 am on a Saturday morning is no time for any client to be calling. I genuinely had a client who wanted a Saturday morning call to get an update, I’d send an email on a Friday evening to try to avoid it but she’d call me up and expect me to answer. I suggested she paid extra for the weekend time which was met with a fierce objection. If a client doesn’t respect boundaries, they won't respect you or your team.
Too good to be true
Oh this one is a favourite. When a prospective client and project come along and it sounds too good to be true it probably is. Check-in with your gut and your pre-flight checklist to make sure the client can give you a brief, a budget, a reasonable timescale, who’s responsible for sign-off, when and how they’re going to give you assets, and what you need. All that glitters isn’t gold.
This one doesn’t need any explanation. If you’re going to spend time working on a proposal for someone and they ghost you, they’re going to be a pain in the ass client who take forever to make a decision. And will probably ghost your invoice chasers. Having some common courtesy and good manners is essential to the start of a good client relationship.
I love it when a client says, “I’m not sure what we want but I’ll know when we see it”. I’m being sarcastic and if you hear those words, run. A client with no vision can’t get you or anyone else to buy into it and they won’t be able to give good feedback. The project will be a shit show and they’ll end up asking for a refund. Ask me how I know.
True story. I once took a male employee to a kickoff meeting with a brand-new client. For the whole meeting, they addressed Chris and spoke over me. Now that sort of thing didn’t usually get through my thick skin. But when they asked us to go back to our office and speak to our boss about a discount on the fees, I stood up, ripped their cheque in half, and said, “our boss says thanks but no thanks”. The point is, the red flags were there sooner but I thought I could put it aside in the name of new business.
You aren’t for everybody and everybody isn’t for you. That’s ok.
It’s time to ask your team what they think makes a great client and for their red flags. Having open conversations about this will help your whole agency or business to attract more of those lovely aligned clients and repel the squeaky wheels.
What red flags do you have? I'd love to hear from you.