#6 - How to qualify your clients

October 15, 2020

Have you ever ended up in a project you wished you’d never taken on?

Today, Matt discusses how to qualify your clients and avoid the common pitfalls that many agency owners can fall into when working with new clients.

He runs through his own experiences and things that you should be watching out for.

Finally, Matt will leave you with four questions that you can ask yourself to see if a client is a good fit with you and your business.


Hey friends, Matt here with you again. Today we’re going to talk about how you can qualify your clients and stop working on projects that aren’t a great fit for you.

Firstly, let me just apologise that this episode is a couple of days late this week. I was a little tied up earlier in the week with finalising a product one of our businesses working until the early hours of Wednesday morning. So here we are, I’m recording this for you today on Thursday, October the 15th.

Let me ask you a question. How are you qualifying clients to come into your business? What steps are you taking to weed out tyre kickers? What processes have you got in place? Are you referring anyone that you can’t help to someone more suitable who can assist? Think about how people seeking a service will try to look for the right person to help them.

Let’s imagine that someone has a problem with their boiler, maybe it’s not heating up properly. And they need to get an engineer in to take a look. So the typical process that someone might take is that they’ll ask their friends for referrals. So they’re going to reach out to their network, maybe their friends and family, people in the local area that they have on social media. And they’ll ask for a recommendation of someone who is trustworthy.

They’ll search online. So they’ll open up their web browser, they’ll look at Google or their search engine of choice. And they’re going to search for an engineer who can help them in the local area.

They’ll check out reviews. So there’ll be reviews in Google My Business. So that’s in your Google search results. There may be some reviews on the websites that people could be using, trustpilot or similar websites. And you’ve also got the service aggregators. So in the UK, there’s one called Checkatrade. And that’s where engineers and tradespeople could sign up and pay a fee, so they can be part of the website. And then they can accept reviews on their profiles. And those profiles are then made visible to people who are searching in the local area.

People who are searching for a service are going to have various criteria that they’re looking at. So some might be motivated by price, they’ve only got a certain amount they can afford for the work, so they’re going to look for someone who can help them inside the price that they have. They’re going to be looking for quality. So in that case, that’s really important. They can see referrals and reviews, they can understand that the person is able to do quality work and can help them. Availability is important, so if it’s a really urgent tasks, they need someone who’s available soon. Or it could just be that they work a certain time in a day, they need someone who can kind of fit around their schedule. And sometimes for some types of work portfolios are interesting. So if someone’s looking for a landscape gardener as an example, it’s really nice to see a portfolio of quality work, especially before and after images, that show the type of work that the tradesperson can do.

Looking for the right person really does work both ways. You need to qualify clients to make sure that they’re a great fit for you and your business. You want to make sure that you’re not wasting time on meetings or telephone calls with someone who just isn’t a good fit for what you’re doing right now. You want to have better quality projects, you always want to keep progressing forwards. You want to keep your sanity in check and you don’t want to end up on a project that’s going to have you biting your nails and potentially throwing your computer out the window. You have a goal and a mission with your business as well. Is the client going to align with the goals that you’ve set out? And what are those goals? Have you thought about them recently? Have you been looking at how you’re taking on clients at the moment and comparing them to your goals? Is that something you’re doing right now? How has 2020 changed those goals? These are things you should be thinking about on a semi regular basis and making sure that whatever the goals and mission that you have in place, and the reason why you do what you do, make sure it still aligns all the time.

Can you proudly display the work in your portfolio? One of the great things when we do web design or marketing or branding, or whichever particular category of work that you do, there’s such a wide variety of clients. Some people will niche (or “nitch” for our American friends), and they will drill down to a particular service type or a particular audience type. So as an example, maybe they’ll make websites for lawyers who have 10 employees and generate over a million dollars in revenue a year. Or maybe they’ll do branding for podcast owners or something like that. Whatever the type of work is that you do and whether you have niched or “nitched” down or not, it may be important that the work you do can be displayed in your portfolio. To give you a couple of examples from my time as an agency owner, there’s two that really stick out to me. The first one was a job that I did take on but it didn’t end up in my portfolio. And that was for a website where someone wanted to sell adult toys. A perfectly fine industry to be in, but not something I’d have at the top of my portfolio. The second project and one that I turned down was mainly for someone who wanted to offer tantric massage but only for female clients. I wasn’t quite sure on the messaging they had and to me it didn’t really fit my mission statement and the goals that I had for my business.

Those weren’t the only two slightly out there experiences that I had. There were many over the years that I was an agency owner. But what I did was I actually learnt and put together a really simple criteria for this and I’ll share that with you now. My criteria was simply, can I show this website to my mum, without there being an awkward pause or silence. If I can do that, then the website is perfectly okay to put in my portfolio.

Now some people are in a position with their business where they don’t have the luxury of choosing their clients right now. You need to put food on the table and keep a roof over your head. It’s really important to look after your family and loved ones and that may mean that you tend to not make so many choices in your business. And not being choosy means you’re sometimes work for less, or you’ll take on jobs to have red flags just so you can get by. So maybe you would take on jobs that don’t really align with your goal or mission. Maybe it would be a job that you’d work for, for less than you normally would just because there’s a job right now and you need to take on that work. And I get that I really do.

In 2010. I’ve been suffering from depression for two years. And that had really affected my work and sales pipeline. It got to the point where I was kind of reaching a money deficit and all I could do was sell all of my favourite things. So we’re talking all the collectible things I had. So I was big into gaming and movies and all sorts of bits and pieces. And those items literally just got put onto eBay because I needed to get the money in a week or so to make sure my bills were covered. It’s a time that I regret, but it’s a time that I completely empathise with when anyone says, “Look, I’m really struggling right now and I have to take on work that I don’t want to do”.

In fact, later on in 2010, I met a landscape gardener called John. Now John hooked me in immediately with the idea that he needed two websites designing. So as you can imagine, I was quite excited, my work hadn’t been going great at that point, because I was suffering from a depression. So the idea of being able to create two brand new websites was exciting for me. I was able to use my design skills, it could be encouraging, it might be able to get me back on track. But more importantly, I was going to get paid for two website builds. So I went along to meeting with john and we talked through his ideas and what he wanted, and he was quite dominating in the conversation. But again, I wasn’t really able to make too many choices. I wasn’t quite sure if he was really respecting my expertise. I didn’t really feel valued. But I went along with it because I felt well hey, I need the money. And you know, this could work out better than it seems right now. So the meeting ended, and I needed to go away and put together some ideas and a proposal plus some other elements we’ve agreed on. And it took me about a day of time. Again, this is not something I wanted to do. I knew better than this. But I was doing it because of the position I was in.

And a few days later, I had another meeting with John. And we talked through the proposal and the ideas. And as we were going through everything seemed great and it seemed like he was just ready to get started with the project. And then he started bargaining on the price. I can’t remember the exact specifics of the price. But let’s just say it was around about £1500, or about $2,000 per site. Now John suddenly wanted to pay £500 per site, or about a third of what I’d quoted for. And that wasn’t acceptable to me, I’d already put in a fair bit of time here, I’d put in a day of time plus the initial meeting, which was a good few hours. And he was asking me to work for less and moving the goalposts at the same time. Now at this point, I stood my ground, I was not going to take any more of this from John, it wasn’t fair what he was doing. And although I was struggling and needed the money, I wasn’t going to be demeaned to that level. I possibly didn’t handle the situation brilliantly. I wasn’t rude to him, but I certainly wasn’t super polite. It ended with him saying he’d get someone else to do the work. He took all my planning and details, then he did that with someone else, who was happy to work for a very low amount. So if you are in this type of situation, right now, I do understand that you’d need to do anything you can to make sure that you pay your bills, you’ve got food on your table and there’s a roof over your head. So do the jobs that you need to do, do what you can to get back on track. But as soon as you are, take the opportunity to set up processes to qualify your clients.

Qualifying clients is fair and kind. Kindness is about doing the right thing for you and your business. And sometimes the kindest choice is not to work with a client. That might sound strange to some people, but there is no innate right that you must work with everyone. Just because you provide a service and you have that service listed on your website, does not mean that you have to work with every person who asks about it. You have every right to turn down the opportunity to work with someone. And if they’re just not a good fit for you, that’s fine. Say no thank you, and refer them on to someone else. You’re doing the right thing and the kind thing by giving the client the opportunity to work with someone who is better aligned with their needs and requirements.

It’s really easy to waste time talking with people that aren’t suitable. Time is precious. And as I always say it’s a finite resource, we can’t get time back when we spent it. There’s an opportunity cost when you’re spending time on the wrong task. So if you go ahead and spend hours on a telephone or if you spend a day working on something, that’s hours or a day that you can’t get back for something else. Maybe another client needed a day of your time, well, that’s a day of time that you can’t bill out now because it’s gone. It’s not just your time wasted but it’s also the client’s time as well. Now that gets a little bit further down the line but if you know they’re not a good fit and you continue having meetings with them and spending time because you’re not quite sure and you may be thinking that you might take on the work, but really, you’re probably not, you’re wasting the clients time as well as yours. It doesn’t help either of you because you’re both losing your precious resource and your finite resource, but you’re still in that situation. So it’s much better and kinder to say no, when you know, it’s not going to work. And let’s not forget the mental health impacts as well. When you’re spending time you’re putting in effort and it doesn’t lead to paid work, this can bring you down. Those lost opportunities can be really demoralising. And that can have an impact not just on your business, but also your personal life, if you end up taking some of your work home with you.

You are not a commodity, you’re an expert. And if you don’t like saying expert, let’s just say you’re someone who is very good at what they do. The services that you provide, are not the same as someone purchasing a simple product, like a candle, they are completely different. You spent time, probably years, gathering up the knowledge and skills that you have. And these skills are valuable. So when someone wants to work with you, it’s not because you’re great at pressing a button or moving a mouse or making a logo bigger. It’s because you’re really good at what you do. And they want you to do that thing for their business. Some clients will try and treat you like a commodity, which is a major red flag. This could be something like, hey, it’s just a simple task, or hey it will only take you a few minutes, or it will be this much time.

It’s unusual for the average client to know exactly how long a task might take you. Let’s say for example, that they’re asking you to make an advertising video, maybe they’re asking you to do some SEO work on their website, they’re asking you to do some branding, they don’t know how long the tasks take you. So when they’re trying to tell you that something is easy, or it only takes a few minutes or a few hours, or whatever the time period is they state they’re treating you like a commodity, and essentially a monkey with a paintbrush. And that just isn’t acceptable to anyone who’s serious about their business.

It’s also really easy to accidentally become a commodity by being a “yes person”. So when you keep saying yes to the client and acknowledging everything they say, particularly if something they do doesn’t really align with you… but you’re saying yes to kind of keep everything calm and nice, you can end up accidentally becoming a commodity. It’s also possible to do this by taking on tasks that aren’t a good fit for you. I lost count of the number of times, certainly in the early years of running my business, where I would go into an office for a meeting and suddenly someone would go, “hey, can you fix the printer for me”? Or, “oh, our emails aren’t working could you have a look at this”? Now these tasks weren’t a million miles away, I guess from say making a website…if we’re really generous to the clients. Yes, it’s technical, because a printer is kind of in the same realms as a website in that they both use electricity. But let’s be honest, they’re not the same. And these clients also probably already pay someone to do this type of work. And they’re just trying to leverage your knowledge to get something done for free. You’re being treated like a commodity. And that’s not fair because you’re an expert, or someone who is very good at what they do.

When you qualify clients, you can avoid some of the typical comments that you’ll see from other agency owners online. These are things like boundaries that get crossed and one of the easiest ways for this is through communication. Sometimes you get clients emailing you in the evenings, or calling you at the weekends, or calling yoor mobile or cell number, perhaps something you haven’t encouraged. These are boundaries that are getting crossed and if that’s not dealt with fairly early on in the relationship, it will end up with continued cross boundaries, and it will cause some problems for you. You will often see people talk about payment issues and that can be resolved by finding out the client’s budget early on, preferably in your discovery sessions, which you’re getting paid for. You can also bill in stages. What I mean by billing in stages is that you can split up a payment into milestone payments. So let’s imagine there’s a web design project for $5,000, we might set 50% aside for a deposit that starts – that’s $2,500. And then we could have two, three or four payments after that, which covers stages such as wireframing and prototyping, design, development, and then the final payment, which is before the website goes live.

Another problem people talk about is when clients are moving goalposts, so when they’re asking for something different to what they wanted when the project started. This is resolved through having a good discovery stage and also a clear scope of work document that’s been signed as part of the proposal. Similar to that ’11th hour’ change requests can also be a pain. And these are typically when the website is ready to go. You’ve done everything in the scope of work, you’ve got all the deliverables in place, everything’s ready, you just need the client to sign off. And then you get the email. And you know what I mean? The email that goes, “<sigh> there’s a few changes that I need here”. And you’re thinking, okay, but we’ve done everything that was in the scope of work, we’ve done everything you asked for, what is it this time? And maybe the email goes: “So I was talking with this other person or company” or “I was talking with one of our customers about ther website”. And I had one once where the client sent me an email saying, “so I was going through the website with my partner, and I also asked the customers who came into our store what they thought of the site….”. And then immediately that’s the point where you go and make yourself a stiff drink because you realise someone’s about to send you a ‘design by committee’ email. Now those emails and questions can be handled and it’s a slightly different topic from what we’re talking about today, but the point is that that’s also handled through having a clear scope of work. You can refer back to the scope of work document letting the client know that the changes that they’re asking for are outside the scope of work, you’re happy to include them, but it’s going to cost this much as an additional fee.

And finally, people have disagreements about pretty much everything you can imagine. Many of these comments come because people either missed or ignored red flags, or they simply just don’t qualify their clients.

The most important thing that I always wanted to know was if the client was actually serious about the project. Have they set aside a budget for the work and was that realistic for what they were asking for? Did they have a clear idea of what they want? Or what they essentially giving me a vague idea and asking me to fill in the blanks? Did they trust my expertise? Were they speaking to me as a human being politely? Were they being kind? Do they have reasonable timelines? Were they asking me to make the new Facebook or to set up an e commerce website by the weekend?

And really importantly, this one… Did they make any comments about previous designers, marketers, branding experts, whoever it might be that they’ve worked with. That, for me was a huge red flag. If someone comes to me and tells me that every single person they’ve worked with previously had a problem doing this or a problem doing that. They’re full of negativity, and they’ve got lots of reasons why something failed. If every single relationship they had failed, the issue was usually not with the people they worked with, but actually with themselves. So I was able to use this red flag to pinpoint people who was a great fit for me, and that would immediately qualify them out.

So how do you effectively qualify a new client? Well, firstly, through the messaging on your website. The content that you have on your site should be aligned with the type of people that you want to serve. So you’re going to want to have the right message for the right audience at the right time. And this message can include copy that dissuades the wrong type of people from working with you.

You can have a conversation over the phone with a prospective client, but do be careful with that. One of the things that used to catch me out and it was why I stopped answering the phone about four years ago, was that people would ring me up and ask a question. And because I’m a kind person, and I’ll listen to people, and I’ll try and help them with their problems, suddenly I was on the phone for one or two or three hours. I think the record was almost four hours on the phone. And by that point, the phone was hot, stuck to my head, and I really needed the toilet. But aside from the joke there, that’s time I couldn’t get back. So I could have been working with some of the projects that we had on at the moment, I could have been doing maintenance tasks for our clients. But I couldn’t do that because I was being nice and helping over the phone.

You could choose to list prices on your website. That doesn’t mean you have to go out and put an exact price for everything. That’s not really possible with the service based industry unless you’re doing really productised services. But instead, what you could do is put web design from “$x price”. So let’s say maybe from $5,000, or from £5000. That would help to dissuade someone who’s got a budget of say $500, because they’re going to see that your starting point is a lot higher than where they are.

You could set up a project enquiry form which interested parties could fill in and send over the details to you. This would typically be a series of questions kind of like a mini discovery meeting. The downside of this is that you’re going to find that people are impatient. Internet users in general are very, very impatient, they don’t have a lot of time. Everyone is used to having access to information within just a few seconds these days. So if you’re asking someone to come to your website and fill out 10, 20, 30, or more questions, and the longest I’ve seen was about 60 questions for one of these forms… you’re going to push people away who could otherwise have been a great fit just because they weren’t ready to answer lots of questions. So it’s important that you find a balance with any enquiry form that you set up. And that might be something that needs a bit of trial and error as you go forward to find the right set of questions for the type of audience that you’re chasing.

And finally, you need to have a clear understanding of the audience that you’re targeting. And I mentioned this when I talked about messaging, but you really need to understand who you’re targeting and the problems that you’re solving. So that everything you do is aligned with that audience. If you need some help with defining who your audience are, check out Episode Five, where we talked about that in more detail.

For all of the trials and tribulations that I had working with clients, I came up with four questions that I use to see if a client was a good fit with me. You can use these too. Ask yourself the following questions:

1) Is this a job that sounds interesting or fun to me? So you’re hearing about the project, you’re learning about the requirements that the client has. Does it sound fun? Does it sound interesting? Is it something you’ve done before? Is it something that aligns with your mission or goals? Some of the best projects that I worked on were ones that were really aligned with goals that I had, or hobbies that I enjoyed, and they made the process really fun, exciting and memorable for me.

2) Do I have the appropriate knowledge and skills to help the client? If not, can I outsource part of the work to someone I know? Now, with this one it’s really about can you help the client right now. And if you can’t, is there someone in your network who can do part of the work that you can’t do so that you can still deliver the project? As you’ll know from our previous episodes, I’m not a massive fan of people learning on the job, I think it’s really disingenuous and it’s unfair to clients to do that. So having the appropriate knowledge and skills to help the client is really important. And if it’s not something you can work on right now, can you refer it to someone else?

3) Does the client have a reasonable budget? This one can be subjective for some people, I understand not everyone likes talking about money. But the point is that you are worth something, you are a valuable person and therefore your time skills and effort comes at a price. Does the budget that the client has align with the type of work that they’re asking for? Does it fit the timelines that they want? If they’re asking for something really quickly and urgently, that’s going to make the budget higher, because you’re going to have to push other clients out of the way to serve them. So is the budget right for the project? Now, sometimes you may decide actually, that you’re happy to work for a little bit less. As an example, from work that I did, there was a children’s charity that contacted me once who didn’t have a huge budget. They were essentially a startup charity. I believed in their cause and it meant a lot to me. So what I agreed with them is that I would help them out at a much lower rate, but their work would be towards the back of the queue. So if I had more urgent work to do, their work could be set aside to do that. And they were really happy with that.

4) Has the client respected my boundaries? Like I mentioned before, this is really important to me. I treat people with kindness and respect and I want people to show that same kindness and respect to me. So have they respected my boundaries? Have they treated me like a human being? Have they been kind to me? Were they calling me and emailing me and texting me at the weekends? Were they sending me an email and then deciding to send me an email two hours later, because I hadn’t replied, using capital letters this time. If they haven’t respected my boundaries, they’re not going to be a good fit for me.

If you can answer all four of those questions with a yes, then there’s a good chance that the client may be a good fit to work with you. Obviously, you’ll want to do the other due diligence that you do normally, but it should give you a good indication.

Sometimes you’re not really sure about a client and you want to push on ahead anyway, sometimes you don’t have a choice, like I mentioned earlier on. But one thing you can do, and something I want to share with you as an extra tip here, is to separate out a test task from the project. So this should be something you can do easily in half a day or less. So if there’s a big website project, take a small part of it, and have that at the start. That could even be a paid discovery meeting because you should be getting paid for discovery. Don’t spend hours on the phone like I did, and like all of us have experienced at some time in our lives and not get paid for it. Because you’re just getting milked for your knowledge. The task should be easy for you to do. But if things go really wrong, and a client turns out to be a nightmare, it won’t be hard for you to walk away from a project if you make sure it’s a short project. It’s far easier to walk away from a couple of hours of time and not receive payment for that than it is to be stuck in a project worth thousands of dollars and to realise that the red flags that you ignored have come true. And the client you’re working with is now El Diablo.

Running a business is a learning process. It’s something we’re always going to be learning at and it’s not something that we’re ever going to be 100% perfect at. This means that there will be opportunities where you can make mistakes, and you will make them. Sometimes a bad client will slip through the cracks. But it’s important to use these moments as learning experiences. Don’t be hard on yourself, don’t let it get you down, take the opportunities as a learning experience, fix the cracks and put better processes in place for next time.

And finally, I just want to remind you to be careful about how you talk about your clients. There are a lot of people posting on social media, either on a public profile or in a private group about their clients experiences. Please, if you’re gonna say something negative about your clients, don’t do it publicly. It looks awful for your business. And it’s really off putting for any potential client who searches for more information about your business, if you’re making negative comments about previous clients. Put yourself in the shoes of a potential client and imagine that you’re on social media looking at the type of things that the company’s posting. If you’re seeing negative comments about people they’ve worked with previously, how’s that gonna make you feel?

In terms of Facebook groups, some of the comments that I’ve seen in Facebook groups actually reflect really badly on the person writing the comment. At the moment, there appears to be a trend to say negative things about clients. I’m not sure where the trend came from but people are posting on a daily basis comments and memes and sometimes even emails from their clients. And they’re saying negative things about them. And these could be justified and there could be a reason for it, but there’s not really a reason why you need to share that every day. There’s no special “I hate clients club” where people have to post negative things to become a member, or at least if there is I certainly don’t know much about it. But the point is really that the posts often reflect badly on the person who’s writing that comment, because there are many times when the comments actually end up exposing mistakes that the business owner made, rather than anything their client has done. And those mistakes usually come from wait for it… not qualifying your clients.

As we’re finishing on the topic of sharing and talking to other digital agency owners, it’s only right that I recommend a couple of my favourites to you. Firstly The Admin Bar which is a group run by Kyle Van Deusen and Matt Sebert. They’re just about to hit their 3000th member in the group as I speak. It’s one of my favourite groups because everybody in the group is really helpful and they’ll always take the time to listen to people’s problems or questions and they’ll try and do their best to help them or provide an answer.

My other favourite Facebook group is Agency Trailblazer. This group is run by my good friend, Lee Matthew Jackson, who is really passionate about helping agency owners to love their agencies. I’ll put a link to both of those Facebook groups in the show notes on our website, and that’s nurtureflow.com

I’d love to hear about how you’re qualifying your clients. Are you doing anything awesome that I haven’t mentioned in the episode today? Let me know.

If you found this episode helpful, please feel free to subscribe in your podcast player of choice. I’d also be honoured if you’d consider leaving a rating or a review if you feel the content is valuable to you.

Thank you for listening today. Have a great day ahead. You’re awesome. Take care.

Transcription by Otter.ai

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  • Hi Matt! This was a really valuable episode. I love the humanity and humility you put into your content. I wrote down your 4 questions and I know they are going to be super useful. I’m so glad you brought up the issue of agency owners complaining about clients in forums—I’ve been really put off by this “trend”. I mean it’s great to be able to let off steam about the common issues we face and I definitely have had my fair share of frustrated venting to my partner about difficult clients. But I do think that—as you articulated so well—we need to come from a place of service and do a better job of finding better fits for us so that we are able to create the kinds of mutually rewarding projects we are seeking.

    • Hey Greta! Thanks so much for your wonderful comment 🙂

      You’re absolutely right that we need to come from a place of service and kindness. It’s fair to say that we’ve all had one or two clients that haven’t been a great fit… and the frustration is easily understood.

      It isn’t great to see people attacking their clients though, whether it’s in public or private. To me, it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth to see it.

      Of course jokes and humour are fun… but we must always take care not to cross the line!

      Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts. Great to hear them!


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