Picking the Right Clients

chasing every rabbit

Some solid advice I received long ago was that “you can’t chase every rabbit.”

My dogs would disagree, and I see their point, but as business advice goes, it holds up.

You need to cultivate long-term relationships with the people you can do business with, not just to look after their needs on a repeat basis, but to earn the referral business you’re going to get from people who trust.

And when it comes to people you can’t do business with, you need to gently detach. Wish them well, maybe point them in the direction of someone who can do a better job for them and say goodbye.

That was the entire rationale of charging a design retainer when I worked as a designer for a boutique AV installer. As my boss so aptly put it, “If they’re going to be a pain in the ass about $250, they’re going to be a pain in the ass about EVERYTHING.”

And he was right. The design retainer is an effective filter to identify the people you can work with and the ones you can’t. It’s such an effective filter that we increased the price of the retainer (and there were a few prices, all relative to the expected size of the project) several times. That allowed us to further hone in on our ideal clients.

Having a good fit with your customers applies not only to end users but also B2B clients. I’ve had accounts where the company owners are difficult people.

Sometimes the reason they’re difficult is because they feel they’re not being looked after. That’s an easy fix. Not to pat myself on the back, but my job is to solve problems, and I’m pretty good at it. I’ve got more than a few clients where the relationship was initially antagonistic, but they warmed up to me once I proved I could solve those problems.

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And then sometimes some people are just difficult — full stop. For whatever reason, the way they choose to run their business isn’t going to lead to a mutually beneficial relationship. Some people need to “win” at all costs. That’s fine, I support that in principle, unless it means that for them to win I need to lose.

If you don’t manage to filter out difficult clients, what then?

Fire them.

It sounds extreme when you word it like that, but it’s usually not difficult to let go of an unproductive business relationship without too much drama. But what if there is drama? In that case, sometimes it makes sense to pay them to go away.

I’m going to tell this story because it is the most absurd instance I’ve encountered with a customer relationship that went off the rails. None of it needed to happen. One of my dealers in the phone repair channel had a customer who was dissatisfied with the $30 screen protector they sold her. She wanted a refund. They refused. That right there is a problem, but I’ll go on.

The customer went ballistic, including ranting and raving against the dealer on social media, and a one-star Google review. Then the dealer gave them my cell number and made them my problem. I managed to get the customer calmed down, but that led to me having a much more heated conversation with my dealer.

I pointed out that if they can’t afford to refund $30 they have bigger problems than an angry customer. And that ALL OF THIS, literally DAYS of nonsense could have been avoided for the low, low price of only $30.
Fortunately for me, all of my other dealer clients have more sense than that.