Hardly! I used to think the hard part was “getting to the yes,” but over time, I’ve learned that the hardest part isn’t closing the deal, but ﬁguring out which deals are actually worth closing. It all begins with taking a hard look at the prospective client you’re talking to, and keeping an eye on early behaviors that all too frequently lead to problems.
“You can’t afford to be picky”
Determining which client you want to work with is often considered a luxury. Don’t think of it that way. Even if the economy is in the dumps and you absolutely need the work, you should be very critical of the prospective clients you’re considering working with. These are the people who will become part of your immediate and potentially long-term future, and you want to make sure you don’t spend that time drinking whiskey to get through the day or grinding your teeth at night.
Remember: the prospect you’re considering is the client you’ll have.
The Five Red Flags
Years ago, when I first started noticing these signs, I’d often ignore them or say, “They won’t be this way when we start working together.”
Oh yes they will. Bank on it.
Be on the lookout for these classic signs that can lead to Costco-sized bottles of antacid.
If you ﬁnd yourself unable to come to terms after negotiating ten versions of your contract or design with your prospect, or if they keep asking for updated project plans before you’ve even signed an agreement, beware. They may show similar tendencies during the actual project. All deliverables may be scrutinized to an extraordinary degree. In rare cases, such scrutiny garners better results, but it more frequently results in watered-down, design-by-committee mediocrity.
Be sure to ask your prospect up front about how many people from their side will be part of the project effort. If it’s a number greater than three, be careful. Large project teams, especially those in which everyone has equal input, often lead to unfruitful compromise and watered-down results. They also tend to extend timelines, because receiving and digesting feedback from large groups can be a tedious process—especially since it can be delivered in contradictory fragments.
A simple pre-project-questionnaire helps identify the prospect’s project goals and expectations. Often it uncovers valuable nuggets of information that help decide whether or not the opportunity is viable. If the answers are vague or unanswered, it's a sign that the prospect may be hurried or disengaged, or that they don't fully comprehend what they’re looking for. On the ﬂip side, if the answers are verbose, well constructed, and even conversational or witty, that’s a sign the prospect “gets it” and that the relationship could be very rewarding.
If your prospect comes to you in March and says the site needs to be up and running in April, be very careful. Not only should that seem unreasonable, it also means you need to ﬁgure out why the timeline is so short. Is the prospect simply trying to use up the budget? Are they rushing to beat a competitor to market? Are they being pushed by higher-level management not familiar with the work the project requires? You'll need more time, especially if you already have other projects cooking. Another situation: You receive an inquiry from a prospect asking you for an immediate phone call to discuss an project right away. Like in an hour. You should ask yourself why they are in such a hurry. If a prospect imposes a deadline for an introductory meet-and-greet phone call, imagine the deadlines you’ll see pop up during the project.
If you’re dealing with an organization (say a startup or small company) with a head honcho who has a lot of things on their plate, learn what role the boss will have with the project. Often, a prospect may tell you that the boss will be peripherally engaged, but the day-to-day management and approvals for the project will come from the boss’ team. Don’t buy that for a second. It’s not uncommon for the boss to be present at the kickoff, vanish for the entire project deﬁnition and architecture phases of the project, and then pop in after you’ve presented your second round of design comps to tell you “it’s all wrong.”
Just because I’ve focused on some warning signs here, it doesn’t mean there aren’t a host of positive signs to look for when evaluating prospects. There are, but that's another article. And it’s always easier to point out the problems, right? My hope is that with these ﬁve red ﬂags in mind, you'll avoid potential headaches in any engagement, making your life a happier one.