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By Megan Totka

Your business relationships are just as important as the other ones in your life, and your clients in particular have the power to enrich—or destroy—your livelihood before you know it. Many seasoned small business owners can look back and say they saw that bad client coming from a mile away. The good news is there are steps you can take now to make sure a potential client is right for you before all the fun begins.

1. Imagine your soulmate

Okay, so your first (or next) client may not be your “forever love” but you two do need to be a good match. Who you trust and associate with can end up affecting every area of your life. The same is true for the clients you choose to work with.

Take the time to figure out who your ideal client is. Are they a company? If so, what size? What do they want from you? How often do they check in or expect you to check in? Do they care more about price or quality? How often will they pay you? Do they hand you the reigns or give you set rules they want you to follow? Construct a client in your head that has all the characteristics you desire and create clear guidelines your ideal client will follow when it comes to payment, number of rounds of feedback, and so on. You, my friend, have just built yourself a prototype.

2. Don’t be too quick to commit

You should have at least a few interactions with the potential client before signing any paperwork. Make these in-person or phone meetings, if possible. During these interactions, watch for things like how they work with others and what they value. You can use CRM to track interactions, noting things like punctuality, or adding a tag that lets other decision makers on your team know this prospect is adventurous and open to new ideas. After a couple weeks, you should have a general idea of how your relationship will flow.

It’s okay to feel out a potential client before committing. Not every prospect is going to be the soul mate you created a moment ago. Don’t be afraid to date around a little. Take some time and you’ll find what works.

3. Watch for warning signs

Hopefully you wouldn’t enter into a financial contract with an acquaintance who appears unstable, has anger flare ups, or throws even one red flag. Surely you wouldn’t trust said acquaintance to pay your bills for the next six months just because he met you for coffee and seemed ‘nice enough.’

During the dating phase, watch for warning signs and ask yourself some tough questions: Are they a tad flaky? Always in a rush? Is there an excuse (ahem, “reason”) for everything? Is it always someone else’s fault? Do they roll their eyes before answering a call, are nice as can be to the person on the other end, and then say, “Oh God, finally,” once the call ends? Are they complaining or making jokes at someone else’s expense? Look out—you could be next on the list.

4. Consider the exes

You may think that a potential client’s past isn’t any of your business, but how someone has cycled through vendors and projects in the past is a good indicator of future patterns—with you. If your prospective client seems to switch vendors often, has high employee turnover or routinely fires people on-the-spot, you may be treated similarly when the time comes. A potential client who is generally respectful is always the way to go, but we can dig even deeper. If your “soul mate” client will respect your time and be consistent and considerate, skip those who haven’t maintained any long-term relationships.

5. Be true to yourself and know when to move on

Stepping out of your comfort zone is more than encouraged (and often required) in the small business world, but don’t let your desire for clients push you completely outside of your wheelhouse. Accepting or chasing projects that just don’t fit the style or scope of your business is asking for dissatisfaction on one or both sides of the client relationship. If you’re a boutique web design company, accepting an event planning project because your cousin recommended you is not the best plan of action. Know what makes your small business unique and why you chose the small business route in the first place.

Once you’ve got that on a sticky note and tacked to your bathroom mirror, start preparing yourself to let things go. That’s right. If a potential client just doesn’t seem like a good fit for you, or you have a gut feeling that you’re overreaching a bit and somebody could plan that event better than you, you need to let it go. There are plenty of fish in the client sea, so make sure you’re casting your net for the right ones and don’t be afraid to toss the not-so-right ones back in.

Everyone has had what they would consider “bad clients” during their time in business. It’s inevitable. But it doesn’t have to be the norm. Determining your expectations, learning the warning signs and being true to what makes your business spectacular will help you weed out the less-than-ideal clients and usher in the great ones you most certainly deserve.

Megan Totka is the Chief Editor for ChamberofCommerce.com. ChamberofCommerce.com helps small businesses grow their business on the web and facilitates connectivity between local businesses and more than 7,000 Chambers of Commerce worldwide.  Megan can be reached at [email protected] Follow her at @MeganTotka.