If you run a marketing agency, you've either got a sales team working for you or you're making sales yourself. As you build out your client roster, especially early on, it can be tempting to accept everyone. You think to yourself, "I don't need to screen clients. I need every client I can get."
When you're selling anything to anyone, it's easy to get caught in the "ABC" mindset.
Always be closing.
Building a book of business is a high-pressure exercise. If you don't make enough sales, bad things start happening.
It can make any reasonable person forget that good salespeople have another important bedrock principle.
Prequalify the prospect. Sell to the right buyers.
There are some clients you don't want to take on, no matter what. They're energy vampires, draining the life and soul out of your agency.
So ask yourself these questions before signing a client.
Does the client fit your business model?
If you have a certain niche, this one's easy: don't work with anyone who isn't in your niche. The advantage of being a niche provider is you know your chosen industry or area of the country inside and out. There's no good reason to dilute the formula.
Allison Evelyn Gower | Freelance Copywriter and Brand Strategist
But you need to ask this question, even if you don't have a niche.
"Get clear on what type of projects you want to work on and what type of individuals and companies you want to collaborate with," suggests Allison Evelyn Gower, a freelance copywriter and brand strategist.
Does the client have a basic understanding of what you'll be doing for them?
Here's an especially prevalent problem for SEO providers. Some people who approach you don't understand what digital marketing can or can't do. They don't understand what you might need from them so you can do a good job.
Natalie Athanasiadis | Owner of Ormi Media
For example, some don't understand they can't just throw money at you and walk away without any engagement or collaboration.
"We've taken on clients in the past who didn't dedicate time to what we needed," notes Natalie Athanasiadis, the owner of Ormi Media. "Like content approvals. It really held our campaign back. That's not a good experience for us, nor the client."
You can always try to educate clients on what matters most in local marketing during the initial meeting, of course. Some clients will come to you a bit fuzzy on how it all works, but eager to learn. But if you take that route, you should still feel sure they're ready to do their part to get the program implemented.
Does the client have realistic expectations?
Having realistic expectations is closely related to understanding your service.
"We want them to understand SEO, not expect it to work immediately, like Google ads," Athanasiadis says.
Her example is a common one, but unrealistic expectations pop up everywhere. Like clients who think you should do work for free. Or clients who want it all yesterday. Or who engage in all sorts of scope creep.
It helps if the client knows what they're hoping to accomplish, too.
Morgan Taylor | Owner and Director of Jolly Content
"Without clearly defined goals, it's hard to generate solid results for a client. That's bound to lead to conflict," says Morgan Taylor, Owner and Director of SEO at Jolly Content.
There is nothing less fun than wasting time and energy with a client who keeps moving the target. That is what's going to happen if the client has no idea of what they want to do. People like this have a sort of "I'll know when I see it," mentality. By the time they've decided they've "seen it," you've already put in 5 times as much work as the project is worth.
Do you have a positive opinion of the client's brand, product, and/or service?
If you have a negative opinion about the client's industry, steer clear. Or, perhaps, the company itself is the problem. They deliver bad service or screw over their customers. Or their products break and don't deliver as promised.
You're not going to feel good about working for them. You're going to be conscious of the fact that you're directly responsible for leading other people to this crappy company. In small ways or large, you've made someone's life just a little worse.
Andrew DeBell | Digital Learning Consultant at Water Bear Learning
"If you start work with a client and you morally disagree with their company product, it causes the whole project to feel empty and unsatisfying," says Andrew DeBell, a Digital Learning Consultant at Water Bear Learning. "I've been on many of those. Now I limit our clients to those I can stand behind."
Nobody knows your values like you do. Nobody knows what you will, and won't do for money like you do.
It will come up more often than you think.
Once I had a guy who wanted me to write articles about Hitler. Not historic articles. Propaganda ones, all about what a great man he was. I took a hard pass, blocked his emails, lost his phone number. I was shocked the ask was even being made. It was a quick reminder that some people suck.
How do you feel about the client, personally?
"Do I like them? Would I have a beer with them?"
Corri Smith | Owner of Black Wednesday
Corri Smith, Owner of Black Wednesday, doesn't just use the beer test, of course. She evaluates the potential client's product or service and asks herself if she thinks what they do matters. And she wants to know her clients are sustainable.
"That is, one who will pay us, and be successful themselves."
But the beer test is a pretty good one. Almost everyone who shared their thoughts with me brought up some version of it.
A prospect doesn't have to be overtly rude for you to say, "Thanks, but no thanks." Some people rub each other the wrong way. If you cringe every time you see a client's name in your inbox, you've got the wrong client.
Bonus question: What does your gut say?
Sometimes, you just know the client's going to be a problem. You can't point to any specific issue, but you just know.
Eric Elkins of WideFoc.us has learned to listen to his gut.
"We've had negative outcomes from the times I didn't listen to my intuition, from clients who lost funding and weren't able to pay us for the work we did, to ethical concerns about a product we were representing, to painful interactions and micromanagement that kneecapped us from providing the service we normally would."
So if something seems off, don't be afraid to walk away. Your intuition is probably correct. Our subconscious brains process more than our conscious ones do. If a client makes you uneasy, there's no good reason to work for them. Walk away!
Working for clients who make you uneasy is a good way to court burnout. You don't need a reason any firmer than that one. Life's too short to work for people who make your work unpleasant.
Remember: Trying to take all-comers leads to concrete problems
Burnout. Failed projects. Unpaid invoices. Headaches and nasty encounters. Chargebacks. Lawsuits.
You're not saying no for frivolous reasons. You're not being irresponsible by turning down revenue.
You're saying no because sometimes "no" is the only answer that's good business.