Avoiding the Customers You Don’t Want: The 10 Warning Signs of Trouble

Avoiding the Customers You Don’t Want: The 10 Warning Signs of Trouble

The truth is, not all customers are equal. It’s common knowledge: to succeed, we must concentrate our marketing efforts on the customers who are most profitable.

I believe that the obverse is true, too. At the other side of the profitability bell curve is that pool of customers who drain our time, talent and energy, customers so enervating that they are not only not profitable, they represent real losses in money and momentum.

I call these potential customers the Pain-In-The-Assets or PITA Prospects. Fortunately, you can frequently identify them within the first ten minutes of conversation. While the following observations may be drawn from the field of marketing consulting, I’m sure you’ll recognize (perhaps with a sigh) some of the tell-tale danger signals all professional service providers inevitably cross in their careers.

1) “I’ve tried X, and X just doesn’t work.”

Advertising. Websites. Databases. Your would-be customer insists that they’ve already tried a common, business-tested tactic and found failure where others have succeeded. Instead of analyzing why it went wrong, or making the effort to learn from their experience, they assume the tactic itself is flawed. So they reject your very reasonable recommendation and move on to some other “magic bullet” solution. Which, given their impatience, is also likely to fail.

2) “My cousin’s nephew will handle the coding.”

Ah, a two-fer danger signal. First, a desire to “save money” by consigning important work to an amateur (plus an implied disrespect for real, professional expertise). But as an added bonus, you get the specter of family politics. Any criticism on your part, no matter how diplomatic, becomes an assault on a loved one. Run!

3) “I love the way Microsoft does this.”

Yeah, me too. And if I had a loose $250 million lying around, I’m sure that’s the direction I’d go as well. But I don’t, and that’s one of the reasons mere mortals, such as myself, have to do things differently. More modest resources demand alternative methods and adjusted expectations. Beware clients who set unreasonable expectations based on comparisons to businesses several leagues above themselves.

4) “You know, I showed this to my neighbor and now I have second thoughts”

You’ve spent weeks conducting research, compiling information and composing plans. After several more weeks of discussions, negotiations and long, tedious meetings, the client has finally achieved internal consensus and committed to a plan. Or so you thought. One day you get a phone call out of the blue: your client contact discussed your plan with his neighbor (the propane salesman – the brilliant nephew coder must have been busy that day) and now, based on one over-the-fence conversation with someone who knows absolutely nothing about the business at hand, the entire project is torpedoed. Yes, it is time for second thoughts – your own. Dump this client.

5) “Our budget is kind of tight on this.”

You look around your client’s office. There’s plenty of money to spend on $1,000 office chairs, gourmet coffee brewers and the collectible pinball machines in the corner. But not for your particular project. Is this really an issue about money? Or is it about what the client really values? If something is worth doing right, it’s worth spending money on. No money? No you.

6) “We’ve tried four vendors already and none of them could ‘get it.'”

Sure, we usually believe that we’re better than our competitors, but our honesty compels us to acknowledge that, on the whole, most of them are fully competent and capable professionals. One or two may let a client down, but when it becomes three or four or more, I get suspicious. When there’s a high burn-through rate, chances are the fault lies with the client’s working process, not with all the vendors.

7) “Give us a big discount on this – there’ll be lots more work ahead.”

Such a deal! Do this project for less than its worth – and maybe you’ll earn the opportunity to do many more cut-rate, nickel-and-dime projects in the future. Again, this is about values. A prospect who makes price the top criterion for choosing a vendor is not the kind of client who respects quality work.

8) “Why? Because my competitors are doing it this way.”

There are lots of good reasons for pursuing a policy – but to follow a competitor’s path usually isn’t one of them. You often don’t know why a competitor takes a particular action, and more importantly, without data regarding its effectiveness, you don’t know whether it works. A competitor’s behavior is poor rationale for an important business decision – but the application of that rationale is a clear sign of trouble.

9) “We need your quote tomorrow.”

Drop everything, because this is a rush, rush, rush. No matter that there’s no time to gather relevant information or assess the true scope of the project – your detailed quote has to be surrendered right now. But funny thing…

10) “We’re still reviewing your proposal.”

A few weeks have passed since you and your team stayed up until 2:00 in the morning to hammer out the proposal your prospect just absolutely had to have in the morning. But the initial deadline for the company’s decision has long passed and you can’t get straight answers from any of its representatives. Okay, so maybe that’s the way business goes sometimes. But if you eventually do get the work, guess what? The original deadline for deliverables will remain in effect, even though there’s now half the time to get the job done. Consider this bad start an ill omen.

A final observation.

To some degree, all customers present their own unique challenges. Part of our responsibility as professionals is to rise to these occasions, to deliver that extra edge of service or brilliance or persistence our clients may require.

By John Vaughan

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