I recently learned a hard lesson about the need to pre-qualify prospective new clients that come knocking. Our natural response as “people in business” is to welcome the knocks and listen intently, hoping to identify the challenge that we can efficiently and elegantly solve. But we must also listen to the warning signs that are often plainly evident from the beginning, or trouble is likely to ensue.
In the great majority of cases, when client and agent are not on the same page, the result is no more work for the agent following the completion of the open project. Sometimes however, the client or agent can’t wait for a peaceful resolution. They must end it now. When a firing in either direction happens, you lean on the contract to determine the kill fee and move on. If there is no contract in place, both parties are at a serious disadvantage and the chance of an equitable resolution is scant.
In my recent off-the-rails experience, I heard the signals on the first call with the client, but brushed them under the rug, thinking I was premature or possibly wrong in my initial judgment. I wasn’t. What I heard on the phone that day from was enough for me decline the project, but I didn’t do that and I didn’t present a contract. Two massive mistakes that I don’t intend to make again.
Now to the tough part…how do I pre-qualify a client? It has to be a process that makes prospects feel more secure about working with me, and more excited to work with me. If, on the other hand, prospects head for the hills in a rapid about face, that too is effective.
I think a quick series of rather innocent questions will aid in the process:
1) Are you hiring for a tactical piece of communications, or are you looking to make an investment in your brand?
2) What percentage of your firm’s operating budget is reserved for marketing?
3) How do you feel about an outsider challenging you to think and act in ways that may make you slightly uncomfortable?
4) How do you spend your Saturdays?
The first question addresses the nature of a client-agent relationship. Great work comes from long term partnerships where there’s a lot of trust. It does not result from one-offs.
The second question addresses money head-on to help determine if there’s a match. But it’s more than that, because when the answer is, “no, we don’t have a marketing budget,” or, “we have one, but it’s very small,” the chances are the client wants a tactical piece of communications and a vendor, not a partner, to create it.
The third question is bald, and some might recoil from its shiny top. But it’s a good question nonetheless. When you hire a copywriter, or a creative team, you’re asking us to dig into the heart of your operation. To see what is special there, that might then be presented in a memorable way to prospects and customers. More times than not, the brand and its managers, need and receive a realignment during this body check. But that’s not always comforting news, even though it feels good in the end.
The last question is there to encourage a personal story, in hopes that a real human connection can be made. A transaction of services for money is good, but long term partnerships are the ideal, and that’s what I’m aiming for.