Round Two! And it’s a KNOCK OUT.
I joined the awesome folks over at WPwatercooler again for a topic that really got everyone fired up — Red Flags. We’ve all had that client but we didn’t see the tell-tell signs that they are going to be “one of those clients” until it was too late.
In this episode, we discuss the red flag indicators of horrible projects, prospective client red flags, and red flags that indicate it may be time to fire a client and part ways.
Frank, Honest, Candid Commentary
Like I said, one of the fastest ways to get a group of service providers fired up is to turn the discussion toward tough situations, times they’ve been burned in the past, and hard conversations to have with prospects and clients — not because we don’t love our clients, but because we love them so much and want everything to be amazing, that when it doesn’t work out, it makes us really sad.
This topic is one many service providers often skirt around:
- Maybe they don’t want to admit publicly that every client relationship isn’t perfect
- Maybe they don’t want anyone to know they parted ways with an unhappy client
- Maybe they are afraid that by being honest they’ll lose business and scare prospects away
But I think of it differently:
- Potential clients should be thankful we’ve been in business long enough and have worked with enough clients over time to have complete clarity about who we can best serve — It means they can feel more confident in our partnership
- Prospects and clients should be happy we have a red flag list — It means we’ll dig deeper, ask more questions, and have a longer conversation to get to the heart of the matter at hand
- A red flag list and the policies put in place if they get raised, mean that prospects and clients can feel reassured that we will only ever say yes to projects and clients who are a great fit; those for whom we know we can knock it out of the park
- Clients should welcome the raise of the red flag, pause in the project, and deeper discussion, even if it means parting ways — This way clients know they come first, and that when the relationship stops being a great fit, that we are confident and honest enough to not force it, and instead gift them with an opportunity to be served by someone who is
While no one wants things to go badly, projects to slide downhill, relationships to falter, or clients to be fired, it is a reality of being in business.
The more people you serve, and farther you step into the spotlight, the more it will happen. The key is to handle it with grace and integrity, and to always make the client or prospect feel like you’re doing what’s best for them (because you always should be).
Now, as I mentioned before, the crew on this WPwatercooler episode got pretty frank about the red flags they see most often (and how they feel about them). I’ve recapped the episode below:
Prospective Project, Potential New Client Red Flags
- Can’t give you clear direction on what they are looking for. If they can’t communicate what they want clearly, how will you ever be able to provide a proposal and deliver a final project that meets their needs/goals.
- Can’t provide any indication of budget or budget range. Refusing to share budget information shows a lack of trust and that isn’t a good way to start a relationship. Plus, if they can’t talk budget with you, you won’t be able to provide them with an accurate solution to their problem — and the last thing you want to do is spend an hour on the phone with a potential client discussing solutions for a $10,000 site only to discover their maximum budget is $3,000.
- Offer you a portion of their new business revenues or an ownership stake for your work. Asking you to work for free in return for potential future profits is absurd, and it is an insult to your skill, talent, and expertise. This is a clear sign that they don’t value what you do, they have no money, and are grasping at straws.
- Offer to barter for future referrals. This assumes the project will be perfect, you’ll love each other the entire time, and you’ll be be besties at the end of the project — Which, even is it does happen, doesn’t mean you’ll ever actually get any referrals. Why? First, by not paying you for your services, they are devaluing you and your expertise. Second, a referral doesn’t mean anyone will ever call you, or that you’ll actually make any more sales. This is just a different way of saying, “If you do this project and I like you, I’ll tell some people about you.”
- Think their idea is revolutionary and wants you to sign an NDA. In most cases, while the idea may be revolutionary to them, it probably isn’t to you. In fact, you’ve probably heard it before or seen it done before in other industries. This combined with the clear lack of trust, is reason enough to not sign the NDA and walk away.
- All past designers, developers, or consultants were bad. If they’ve worked with several designers or developers in the past and it didn’t work with any of them, don’t get sucked into believing you’ll suddenly be different and be their savior — the one who will save the day and miraculously have a great relationship with the client. One bad experience and maybe it could have been the service provider, but lots of bad experience most likely means the client is the challenge.
- Blew the budget with the last person and want you to reduce the rates as a result. Ouch! Why on earth should you reduce your rates and work cheap just because their last provider didn’t provide (or the client got fired, who knows!). Their past experience and issues have nothing to do with you or the new relationship you’re building with the client, and should have no effect on your pricing. Plus, you don’t want to set the tone for a long term client relationship by discounting your own prices — That’s like admitting you were overcharging to begin with!
- In a hurry, needed it yesterday, and wants to skip normal process. Lots of red flags are raised here, including not understanding what’s involved, not respecting the work you do and the time it takes, and having unrealistic expectations.
- “My neighbor’s son could do it for me, but… / I’d do it myself, but…” Both of these statements make designers and developers cringe. They are like nails on a chalkboard. In one short statement they have completed negated your industry, skills, experience, talents, and education and training. Plus, if it was so easy they could do it themselves, or a high school kid could do it, why are they calling you?
- Want the moon, but have no budget. Typically, “The smaller the budget, the more challenging the client.” Often, these clients don’t mean to be challenging (and don’t know that they are). They usually just don’t know any better and are very green to the process. They aren’t sure what to expect, how it works, what things mean, etc., so they keep asking for more, figuring you’ll let them know when it’s too much.
- Desperate for success. If the prospect is broke or has experienced failure, or a trauma of some type, and they are betting on this sole project to be their savior, you need to ask yourself, A) if you can make them happy, B) If your end product will deliver the results they desire, and C) if you want to be responsible for “saving them.”
Pretty much everyone agreed that a preliminary project inquiry form is a great filter to weed out the tire-kickers and those who are obviously not a great fit.
Mid-Project, Existing Client Red Flags
- “Make it POP!” No one has any idea what that statement means, and it means something different to everyone who says it. As a result, there is no clear scope of work, and much more digging is required to figure out what they are really saying.
- “Make the logo / everything bigger.” If everything is big, nothing will stand out and there will be no visual hierarchy to guide people. These statements require a lot of education and consulting time.
- “I’ll know it when I see it.” In this instance, contract enforcement will be your best friend. This is the perfect time to remind clients that while it would be awesome, you don’t have ESP, and to refer clients back to your contract and the number of revisions included.
- Come to a meeting and say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” Daydreaming about additional features, new ideas, and changes the the project can be deadly. It’s your job to reign them in and communicate, “Yes, it would be nice, but it wasn’t included in the original scope of work. Would you like us discuss the costs of that new feature?”
- “That should be pretty easy, it should take you very long.” If they think it’s so easy and will be so fast to get done, it’s a clear indicator that they either don’t value the work you do (and that they may think anyone could do it), or they have no idea what is involved in the work you do and what goes into completing a project like the one they hired you for. It’s your job to educate them.
- Know everything — more than you in fact, and want to tell you how to do your job. Know-it-all clients can be the toughest ones to work with, because no matter how much you try to consult with them and educate them, often their mind is already made up. At this point, you must decide if you’re okay being nothing more than a production grunt for their ideas or not.
- Answer questions with, “I don’t know, isn’t that your job.” If clients can’t answer any of your questions, can’t provide any direction, and answer everything with “I don’t know,” you have to either invest time in educating them and helping them figure out the answers, or you need to part ways.
- Disappearing act and lack of communication. When clients disappear for weeks or even months, they become disengaged with the project and with you as the service provider. When they finally reappear, often the decisions and strategies agreed upon in the beginning have been forgotten, they may have changed direction in their business, and they may have changed their mind about what they want. You now must re-educate them and bring them up to speed, and possible provide a change order for the new/changed scope of work. You may also want to consider a dormancy clause in your contracts.
Red Flags That Warrant A Parting Of Ways
During the conversation, it became pretty apparent that disrespect is a theme among all of the major red flags, especially the ones that warrant parting ways, such as:
- Failure to pay invoices. This is pretty clear. If they don’t pay you, you don’t work for them.
- Poor behavior, including rudeness, verbal abuse, meanness, profanity, disrespect. Never tolerate anyone treating you with disrespect or in a harmful way, ever — no matter how much they pay you. You should always be treated with respect as a service provider and deserve nothing less.
- Hate on your work, after design approval. Design approval is they key here. If they approve work, understand what that means and what happens next, and then get angry later and yell or scream at you because they decide days, weeks, or months down the road that don’t like it, more is going on here than you should be expected to deal with. You can’t argue with crazy.
- Revising your files for you in Microsoft Word. Nothing says “I value your work and skills” more than revising your own design files for you in programs like Microsoft Word or Powerpoint — especially when they want you to duplicate EXACTLY what they designed down to the line break AND expect you to make is responsive.
- In ability to communicate. If they can’t tell you what they like or what they don’t like, they can’t share what the indicators of a successful project would be, they have trouble answering your questions, they take a really long time to respond to your emails or voicemails, or their communications are either very short and vague or very long and confusing, you both may be better served by parting ways.
- Unrealistic expectations. If they expect you to jump through crazy hoops, meet insane deadlines, work nights or weekends, give them your private cell number, be available 24/7, etc., and they expect you to do it without adequate compensation, it may be time to set some clear boundaries and rules — and if they can’t abide by them, consider moving on.
- Requests against or not in alignment with your principles. If a project or request makes you feel icky, you should take a moment to evaluate that and listen to your gut. You should never accept a project or client that requires you to sacrifice your ethics, compromise your integrity, feel uncomfortable or unsafe, or act against your own beliefs.
Handling Red Flag Situations
We all agreed that the best way to handle many of the red flags I mentioned above is with proactive education, open communication, getting everything in writing, having a clear scope of work, and using rock solid contracts. We refer to this as being firm, fair, and friendly, which also makes enforcing our contracts much easier.
- Rachael Butts jokingly explained things perfectly: “Prospecting is like dating before marriage, but sometimes once you’re married, they realize they need a younger woman!”
- Sé Reed made a great point that what we do as designers and developers is so foreign to people who don’t do what we do, that is it is often hard for them to understand the magnitude of what goes into the creation of a brand or the design and development of a WordPress website.
- Alex Vasquez reminded us all not to negotiate on price, but instead to negotiate on scope. His comments reminded me of something Brian always says when asked for a price reduction: “Sorry, no. I don’t negotiate with myself.”
- And, as Steve Zehngut points out, these red flags aren’t always show stoppers. Sometimes they are just a great opportunity to pause for a minute, have a deeper conversation, and provide some additional education. Those who are receptive and understand your points may turn out to be great clients.
We LOVE Our Clients!
Luckily we get to work with our ideal clients almost all the time! They value our expertise and the impact we have on their business, and we value their passion, brilliance, and trust. Many of our clients have been with us for years, some since 2005, when we first started the company. The journey has been amazing so far, and we look forward to continuing these relationships and forging new ones in the years to come.
With that said, we also know that client relationships aren’t always be perfect and things do evolve over time. The key to successful, long-lasting client relationships is open and honest communication.
You also must know when the relationship is no longer a great fit, to be okay with parting ways gracefully. It is OKAY to let go of a client (or of a service provider) who is no longer a good fit.
You must let go of the worry and fear that you won’t get any other clients. Letting go of bad clients simply makes room for great new clients. Plus, those clients aren’t really bad clients, they just weren’t good clients for you.
In fact, you just may be surprised that a referral to another service provider whose ideal client is your bad client, may be a perfect and most welcome gift, and it may earn you a raving fan for life.
You Are Not Alone
I think it’s pretty obvious from this episode of the WPwatercooler, that if you have experienced any of the scenarios I have mentioned, you are not alone.
We all face the same challenges, deal with the same client issues, and are faced with the same tough conversations and touch decisions — and we get through it because we love what we do, and we know it will make us better.
What About You? Have you experienced any of the situations mentioned above? If so, how did you handle it? Have you ever fired a client, or is this idea new to you? Or, are you a client who “once upon a time, way back when” triggered one or two of these red flags?
We would love to hear your thoughts, comments, or opinions in the comments below!