Like many other issues in business, this is something that is easiest to learn about from getting burned by bad experiences. Sometimes one has to exercise poor judgment to become a better decision-maker long-term.
Here’s an instructive case study to mull over.
More red flags than Soviet Russia
A few years ago, I was approached by a lead through my network. The business in question was just getting started and the founder wanted some help with marketing. The client was well-funded and I was hungry to take on whatever work I could find, so I eagerly agreed to the contract — overlooking what I am about to share.
- The client was a pre-revenue startup that had no business model or customers whatsoever. The client had a product, but no idea whatsoever how to take it to market.
- They contracted me to build a business model and marketing system for them… on 10 hours of consulting per month.
- The CEO was content to sit back and let me do all the marketing experimentation alone. He had no plans to talk to customers himself and gain the market feedback which is so essential to running an early-stage business.
Just writing this now brings a knowing smile to my face. If it were that easy to build a start-up from scratch in 10 hours per month (!!!), everyone would be doing it.
These days, there is no way I would take on an engagement that was as ambitious and broad as this one was. The services I provide are strictly limited to blogging and inbound marketing — that’s where my expertise lies. I don’t provide value in terms of market research, let alone fundamental business model design. That’s something I expect my clients to bring to the table.
Unless your expertise is in market research, it’s a bad idea for service businesses to work with clients which are not only pre-revenue, but pre-business model as well. It’s a recipe for frustration when it comes to getting paid on time and dealing with less than professional clients.
I actually think that the biggest red flag of the ones I mentioned is the third one. If I were an investor, there’s no way I’d invest in a company in which the CEO is unwilling to get his hands dirty and gather first-hand experience of his marketplace. Setting up a startup requires so much failure and experimentation that this process of trial and error cannot be outsourced.
It’s fine to engage a third party to help you scale up your marketing efforts (I’ve done this before myself), but only after you have achieved a certain amount of product-market fit through failing your way to success.
Many business owners are scared of this. It requires getting of the building, talking to real customers who might reject you, and being willing to fail. This requires a level of courage and personal resilience that most people don’t have.
Unsurprisingly, the client got frustrated at the lack of progress and ended the relationship. They seem not to have learned their lesson: rather than be vulnerable, experiment with marketing and risk getting rejected by real customers, they have since tried to get their money back from me. Rather sad, really.
4 characteristics of a good client
In the years that have elapsed since my poor decision to work with the above client, I have learned that good clients demonstrate the following common traits:
- They are unfailingly communicative
Business produces lots of uncomfortable situations by its nature. Sometimes contracts need renegotiating. Sometimes clients can’t pay you on time, even though they want to. Sometimes marketing fails. Sometimes clients don’t know what they want.
A good client is calmly prepared to discuss all this and more. They don’t just vanish when things get tough, let alone get angry and abusive.
2. They have reasonable expectations
Set up a new business model in 10 hours of consulting per month? Produce content for free and only get paid when the content generates a lead? Find a way to launch your business in the Martian market?
These are not things that good clients will ask you to do. Good clients state up front, in writing, what they need from you, and expect you to deliver the value you promise.
3. They pay on time
Nothing signals “good client” to me as quickly as a client that pays on the same day we send them an invoice. This is professional and shows that they value my time.
Conversely, lesser clients will find excuses to drag out the payment process. They’ll be “busy,” unresponsive to emails and pay late, or not at all.
Businesses can do a lot to ensure they have repeatable systems in place that ensure that they always get paid on time, but that’s a story for another time.
4. They are prepared to be vulnerable
This is one that might just be relevant to the marketing world, but I’m prepared to bet that good clients in other industries are also comfortable being vulnerable.
I’ve noticed that the clients I enjoy working with most are those that appreciate that marketing inevitably involves a certain amount of trial and error. They’re prepared to get their hands dirty by working with me to come up with blog topics, learning from reader feedback and adapting their marketing strategy together with my consulting.
Compare this to the attitude of the bad client I mentioned before, who was so scared of rejection that he was unwilling to experience any negative feedback from his marketplace at all. The difference is night and day.
Look for these traits in your clients and let me know if you notice the same patterns in your industry.