I’ve been fortunate to have had some wonderful clients – the kind that send flowers to family funerals and housewarming gifts to new homes after moving. I’ve also had some difficult clients. The kind that pay you late, expect you to be available for only them all the time, and even yell when dissatisfied.
I believe in learning lessons from difficult situations. So, every time I had a bad experience with a client I asked myself, “How could I have seen this coming?” Because I didn’t want to go through it again, if I could avoid it.
When I thought back to my initial encounters when these clients were prospects, I realized there were, in fact, signs. Hints that I should have picked up on, and things that I now look for when considering whether a prospect will be a good fit for me and my firm.
For Part 1, below are the first five of 10 signs that a prospect will be a difficult client.
But, a caveat: there are exceptions to these rules. If a prospect exhibits one of these signs, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to stop pursuing them as a client. Just take note and proceed with caution.
They are demanding of your time, starting from the initial request.
When I receive an initial email from a prospect that looks something like this, I now give pause: “We’d like you to come to our offices tomorrow at 3 p.m. to meet with our leadership team and tell us what you can do for us.”
While early in my True Blue days I jumped at any potential new business, I eventually learned that a request phrased like this carried a few presumptions: That I had no plans tomorrow. That I was, of course, interested in working with them. That I had the bandwidth to take on new clients. In other words, this demanding approach now tips me off to leaders who may treat me more like a servant than a respected partner.
They are super-focused on price.
In my experience, prospects who are hyper-focused on price tend to become clients who are never satisfied. They want big results but don’t allocate the budget to achieve them, which means their expectations may not be realistic. (More on that in Part 2.)
Also, prospects who seem preoccupied with price could signal the organization is having a funding or cash-flow issue. This is something to keep in mind when you’re wanting to get paid on time.
They’ve worked with many PR firms in the past and always had a bad experience.
I’ve worked with difficult clients who, in our first interactions, told me they’d had bad experiences with PR firms in the past. That the other firms just never delivered what they’d promised.
Naively thinking mine would be the firm to finally deliver, I’d take on the business. And, usually within a few weeks, I’d learn that it wasn’t the other PR firms that were the problem. It was the client.
They want you to start work before the contract is signed and/or the first payment is received.
Beware of any prospect that wants you to begin work before they complete the proper legal legwork. It’s reasonable – and smart – to ask for a signed contract and deposit before starting work on a new account, and a respectful prospect should have no problem complying.
Similarly, politely decline prospects who ask you to perform services for free to “show what you can do” – then run away as fast as you can. Such a request demonstrates a naiveté in how business in general works, and implies your time and services aren’t valuable enough to pay for.
They don’t understand public relations and/or the proposed scope of work, and have no interest in learning.
I have been in meetings with prospects where either they talked the whole time and I barely got a word in edge-wise, or while I was talking to them, I felt like they were barely listening.
Prospects who don’t take the time to understand the services you are proposing are likely to become difficult clients. Public relations is a nuanced business where most of the time results are not guaranteed. If prospects don’t clearly understand how PR works and what to expect from their scope of work, there’s a good chance they’re going to be unhappy during the engagement.
Check back soon for Part 2, where I’ll list five other signs that a prospect will be a difficult client.