It’s impossible to be in business for any length of time without coming across the occasional problem client – it’s just part of the process. And if we’re being truthful with ourselves, it’s not always the client’s fault, is it? Sometimes it comes down to a simple personality clash. The idea that we’re capable of working well with every client simply isn’t realistic.
We’ve all had those days when we secretly wish we could do our work without relying on clients. On the other side of the coin, there are probably days when our clients wish they could get the job done themselves without having to worry about managing or dealing with a freelance developer. Which is fair enough.
But strained relationships, discontented clients and heavy-handed bill collecting don’t need to be part of your day-to-day routine. With a little planning, filtering and improved communication, working with clients can become more calm and less calamity. And that’s exactly what we’re going to discuss in this post.
The Warning Signs of a Problem Client
What is a problem client to you?
We all know the definition of a problem client can change from day-to-day. It varies with our moods and the types of issues we are dealing with on a particular day. For this reason it’s a good idea to create a written definition of a problem client. Have a crystal clear picture of what you won’t accept. For example:
A problem client for my business is one who consistently contributes negative energy and prevents me from maintaining a work environment that is productive, profitable, client centered and mentally satisfying.
Spend some time identifying specific actions or traits that in the past have been the key indicators of a future problem client. Here are some common ones:
Decision by Committee
Projects by committee can be a disaster waiting to happen and thus, should be approached with great caution. I’m not suggesting that committees are a bad thing, simply that they take each one of the potential problems listed below and increase it exponentially based upon the size of the committee.
However, large projects that pay well often have committees attached to them. The promise of great cash flow for the next six months can be pretty darn appealing. Any time you are working with a group of people, it’s a good idea to require that they make someone captain of the ship – one individual who can make decisions without having to ask for a show of hands.
Failure To Return Calls or Emails
Few things can sideline a project like poor communication. You know the ones I’m referring to, right?
It goes like this: a new client tells you that they are in a rush to get their website up and running. Being someone who loves to provide great customer service, you agree to fast track their website development. Putting personal projects on hold, you move them to the top of your priority list.
The day arrives when you need some feedback on design ideas. You send them an email with some files attached. Nothing. No acknowledgement, no feedback, it doesn’t even look like they’ve opened their email. Ten days and three emails later you get your first reply. It’s full of apologies and excuses about how busy they have been. It quickly becomes apparent that the only person who will be rushing to complete this project is you. To the back of the line you go!
They Don’t Pay On Time
Payment for services is always a tricky subject. You don’t want to commit time without being paid and your client doesn’t want to pay for something up front and risk having their developer disappear with cash in hand.
You need to find a balance that is fair to both parties, and at the same time quickly identifies clients who are a payment risk. One simple solution is to invoice based upon certain milestones, often with the first invoice going out the day you begin work.
Outline your payment expectations in the interview process and make it clear that prompt payment is required for you to continue working on their project.
The Indecisive Client
Almost as bad as clients who don’t communicate are the ones who can’t make a decision in a timely manner. As a small or independent developer/designer, your capacity to manage multiple projects is limited. That means you need to keep things progressing at a reasonable speed.
When a client can’t make up their mind about each small step along the way, it becomes very easy to double the time to completion for a project. Along with your milestones, it’s a good idea to set a time for completion of each phase. If a client is struggling with a particular decision, encourage them to defer to your judgement and experience.
The Do It Yourselfer
Also referred to as ‘bite-your-tongue clients’. These are the clients who critique every aspect of your work – from letter spacing, to color selection, to the poor resolution photo they sent you two days ago. Although they are a lawyer by profession (or any other profession for that matter), unbeknownst to you they also have design and development skills worthy of their peers’ admiration. Who knew?
Once you’ve identified the qualities that signify a problem client, it’s time to go through your roster and make some adjustments where required. Keep the following two guidelines in mind:
- There is no such thing as a perfect client. You’ve got to find the balance between good qualities and bad ones. If you finish refining your list and have zero clients left, it might be time to look internally.
- For clients where you feel like a solid case for severing ties exists, do it gently and on good terms. You never know what might happen next week or next year. Provide them with some suggestions that will help them keep their project moving forward.
How to Attract the Clients You Want
Avoiding problem clients is more about discovering what you do want than what you don’t. If you start from a solid foundation and a well thought-out plan, the end result is a business that’s more satisfying.
If you plant weeds in your garden, no matter how much you cultivate it, you’ll still have a garden full of weeds. On the other hand if you plant a garden full of roses, you’ll still have to pull out a few weeds, but the end result will be a beautiful garden.
There are three relatively simple steps to filling your sales funnel and client roster with awesome long-term clients:
Step 1: Define What’s Important to You
In any service business, we must learn to accept the good with the bad. That means a client might have five great qualities and two bad ones. If you can live with that, you’ve got yourself the basis for a long-term relationship.
Refer to the indicators above that cover the major types of problem clients. It’ll be rare for any client to escape all of these qualities, so you’ll need to figure out which ones you can live with and which ones you can’t.
A client who always pays late but is also low maintenance may be an acceptable balance. As long as they pay eventually, is this something you can live with? A client who is high-maintenance and pays late might prove to be entirely unacceptable and not worth the effort. Would you agree? There is no ideal answer here, it’s up to you to decide what works for your business.
Step 2: Create a Client Persona
We often hear the word ‘persona’ used in content marketing circles. While the goal here is not to delve into the creation of the ultimate client persona, it’s worth exploring this concept for the simple fact that most businesses have no idea where to start.
Your objective in creating a persona is to identify the common traits of your ideal client:
- How old are they?
- Are they male or female?
- Where do they live?
- Do they have children?
- Do they have pets?
- What activities do they participate in outside of work?
- What is their income?
- What are their core values?
- What are their motivations?
- What problems are they facing at work?
- Do they prefer Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter?
This list is only a start, but you get the idea. Don’t be cheap on the details! How can you target your ideal client if you have no idea who they are or where you can find them? And if you do find them, how can you sell them on something if you don’t know what they need? By creating a clear and concise vision of your ideal client, the whole process will become much easier.
Step 3: Speak to Your Prospects in Their Language
No, I’m not suggesting you learn another language! Lets imagine you go through step one as described above and discover several common threads across your target audience:
- The average age is 48
- They’re split 50% between male/female
- They are entrepreneurs earning in excess of $250k per year
- They have 2-3 employees
- They are married with 2 children
- They spend in excess of 70 hours working each week
- They dislike technology
- Their digital presence is self-managed (poorly)
- They are in search of a better work/life balance
Through this discovery process, you’ve identified 2–3 pain points which you are capable of resolving for your clients. Does your marketing campaign speak to their needs? Often it doesn’t, which is why you may find yourself attracting clients who make you want to pull out your hair.
If your marketing efforts speak to low prices and high client participation, you’re going to have a hard time attracting clients who want high value and a hands-off experience. Looking at it another way, if you want high-end, low maintenance clients, but your marketing speaks to the discount-seekers of the world, you’re not going to be happy with the leads you are generating!
Building a healthy client roster happens largely through trial and error. You have to get burned once in order to learn the warning signs and you need one high-maintenance client in order to avoid the second.
An ideal client to one developer might represent a nightmare to another. Figure out what attributes are important to your business and create a marketing message that attracts what you’re looking for. For the occasional weed that pops up, create policies that tell you when it’s time to cut your losses and move on.
Have you ever experienced a problem client and how did you deal with them? Did the relationship end on a positive note? Please share in the comments below!