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I’ve never met a B2B service-based business owner who doesn’t have at least a billion stories about shitty clients. You know, the ones who…
- Haggle with you about price.
- Force you to confront them with yet another conversation about ‘scope creep.’
- Try to manipulate you into doing things for free.
- Hold payment hostage or take forever to pay you (despite your contract terms).
- Cancel the project after you’ve spent 3 full days working on it (despite being sick as a dog) because they “found somebody who’ll do it for free” and refuse to pay you because you haven’t finished anything yet. (This actually happened to a friend of mine last week.)
I have a couple of these stories myself. Like that one time when I was just starting out (and didn’t know how to protect myself), and a magazine publisher filed bankruptcy and left me on the hook for 2 months of work. When I saw a fellow designer ranting about her on the evening news (seriously!), I knew I wasn’t the only one. Come to find out she did the same to dozens of vendors all over town (to the tune of a quarter million dollars!). And, it was the second time she’d done it (those were the bankruptcy heydays). Thaaat was fun.
If you’re just starting out in business, or you’re transitioning from “job mode” into “entrepreneur mode,” you may think this kind of thing would never happen to you.
But trust me when I say there are shady people out there, and having a contract isn’t always enough (although definitely have a contract).
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It’s better to repel as many bad apples as you can so they never become clients in the first place.
For me, occasionally one slips through, but since my early days I’ve made it my mission to only work with “my people.” People who are passionate, engaged, respectful and all-around top shelf. People I like. People who inspire me. It’s not a lofty dream to only work with people like this, you just have to decide that’s what you’re going to do and be intentional about it. Because I’ve always had that mindset, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in attracting clients I genuinely adore.
It’s just as important for you to repel shitty clients as it is to attract your dream ones if you ever want to achieve the vision-board version of your business. Here’s why:
- Horrible people only know other horrible people, this is going to be your referral network (yuck)
- You’ll be stuck doing work that you resent doing just to pay the bills, and that’s no way to build a business that fulfills you. And your fulfillment matters.
- It’ll kill your energy, your enthusiasm, your spirit and that will spill over into everything, including the quality of your work and your service (which is all part of your brand experience)
- The frustration and negativity you feel will show up in everything you do and your dream clients will notice (you’ll repel the wrong people)
- You’ll begin to question your own worth, and you simply can’t build your dream business with that mindset. You just can’t.
So how do you repel shitty clients?
First, figure out exactly who they are.
You know the exercises you do to figure out who your dream customers are? Do the same, only in reverse.
This is actually a fun and liberating exercise: list out all the qualities a nightmare customer possesses. It might look something like this…
- Doesn’t value what I sell, so resents paying for my services.
- Works in X, X or X industries (doesn’t align with your values).
- Sends me URGENT!!! HELP!!! emails on the weekend for things that are neither urgent nor require my help (see: Google).
- Egotistical, manipulative, rude…
Whatever those things are for you, HAVE FUN WRITING THEM DOWN. It’s useful AND cathartic.
Once you have clarity about who they are, you’ll begin to show up — in your sales copy and in your consultations and sales calls — in a way that will naturally turn them off.
When you know who you’re trying to avoid, you’ll be less likely to “just give them a chance, maybe they’ll be okay” — you’ll see them coming from a mile away and take a pass. (Always trust your gut.)
When you’re clear about who your dream customer is and you focus entirely on speaking directly to them, your nightmare customers aren’t going to “get it.”
What you’re offering isn’t what they’re looking for, so they’ll keep shopping around. (And that’s what you want.)
Everyone is not your customer.
Wait, walk away from a paying client?
Now, if you have bills to pay and you can’t afford to say no to a nightmare client, I get that. Do what you need to do.
But the more you do that, the more you’re just prolonging building the business you want. FILLED WITH CLIENTS WHO LOVE AND VALUE YOU.
Right? We all want that. It will never happen when you spend all your time working with the wrong people.
If you’re consistently attracting the wrong people to your business, I want to ask you some questions:
1. Are you an order-taker? Or an expert?
>> Clients are in full control when they hire an order-taker, and how the project turns out depends entirely on how great they turn out to be (results may vary).
>> Experts are in full control and know how to create great experiences for great clients.
Are you positioning yourself as an expert?
When you get on a sales call, can you articulate your process and why the experience of working with you is different (and worth every last penny)?
2. Are you competing on price?
HORRIBLE CLIENTS are generally looking for the cheapest rates. That is not to say that everyone who’s on a shoestring budget is a bad client, in fact, some of my very favorite clients have been flat broke but still determined to get their business launched.
The difference? They did not expect me to make their business problems my business problems. They respected my time and had expectations that were in alignment with what they could afford.
That said, “bottom dwelling” clients — the ones who don’t respect others, who are trying to get something for free or to take advantage of others — are generally shopping for service providers and comparing them on price.
So if you’re positioning yourself as the ‘cheapest option’ … you’re going to attract these people like flies on honey. And then you’ll become known as “the cheapest option.” Even if it works out well, in the end, these people will refer you to others as “the one that’s cheap.”
If you think that if you do a great job for them that one day — like, when they start making profits in their business and have more money to spend — you’ll eventually be able to raise your rates… you’re fooling yourself.
When those clients you slave for start making more money and can hire someone more expensive, they’ll go out and look for someone more expensive. “You’re the one that’s cheap.” Your perceived value will always be diminished in their eyes.
3. Are you clear about your value?
On the other side of that coin, GREAT CLIENTS aren’t looking for the cheapest bid, they’re looking for the best value. Just this week, I landed an AMAZING new client and I know for a fact I was the highest bidder. It takes more than just a premium price tag to attract people willing to pay that price, you have to understand your own value proposition inside and out.
It’s up to you to own and communicate your value. It’s up to you to set boundaries about who you’ll work with and who you will not.
4. Are you a “people pleaser”?
You know that building your business is going to require amazing testimonials, reviews, and happy clients who’ll refer you to others. This gives clients tremendous power over those of us with “people pleasing” tendencies. In an effort to make sure everyone’s happy when the project is complete, you’ll do just about anything to avoid confrontation and to keep them smiling.There's a difference between good service and 'people pleasing.' Click To Tweet
Business owners who provide good service do not:
- Work for free
- Tolerate abuse
- Allow the scope of work to creep out of control
- Discount their services to the point where it harms their business in order to benefit someone else’s
Business owners can only provide good service IF THEY ARE TREATING THEIR BUSINESS LIKE A BUSINESS.
If you are not managing your business properly, clients will not respect you. They’ll see an open door with a sign outside that reads, “Please! Take advantage of me as much as possible!” and they will. If you think that bending over backward to please them will lead to rave reviews and testimonials, you’re in for a disappointment.
The clients I’ve lost control with, the ones who put me in the position to do this, that, and the other thing to please them (so I could get paid), are the ones who’ve given me the most “meh” feedback and nary a referral to be had. Blech.
You are in this not just to make your clients happy, you are in business to make a profit. This means you have procedures, systems, and processes in place to guide clients to a successful result.
And you have your own terms and conditions that clients must abide by.
Your clients are not in charge of dictating the terms of how you conduct business, you are. If you don’t have this sorted out; if you don’t have a contract; if you don’t have an intake process… you’re still in “job mode.” Get yourself into “business mode” and your clients will respect it.
If they don’t respect your terms, you can fire them.
Never feel afraid of what might happen if a client relationship goes south and they’re not pleased with the final result. You literally can not please all the people. Stop trying. Do a better job of attracting your dream customers and repelling your nightmare customers and you’ll rarely (if ever) find yourself in this position.
Fear keeps you small, and it keeps you from doing what you need to do to make your business successful.
5. Do you have a bad attitude about your clients?
Do you think they’re all shitty? Do they annoy you? Do you hate working for most people? It might not be them, it might be you.
When you approach client relationships with a bad attitude — you’re suspicious, resentful, irritated from jump street — it sours the relationship from the get-go. And that’s not fair to them.
They’re not adversaries, they’re not enemies, and most of the time they’re not trying to annoy you. They just need help. You’re in business to help them.
Have patience, have compassion, don’t be an asshole. They need you. Stop making fun of them, complaining about them, and wishing they’d just pay you and shut their pie holes already. Stop hanging around other people who only complain about their clients too.
Let that shit go. It’s not helpful and it’ll only make you miserable. Shift your mindset and you’ll be surprised how joyful it can be to work with “difficult clients” (because most of the time, they’re really not difficult).
Care about your clients. Care about the outcome. Get in the game, get on their team, and make it your mission to help them. I say this all with love and good intentions because I know this is how you will succeed too.
The key to attracting better clients (even clients you love) is to get clear about who you want to attract and to create a system for attracting them to you
Does any of this ring true? Do you have a strategy for avoiding “bad apple” clients to share? Hit me up in the comments!
Taughnee Stone is an award-winning designer, brand strategist, and location-independent business owner for over 15 years. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she now lives in Croatia with her husband, energetic Samoyed, and three bossy cats.