When to Say “No” to a Prospective Client

If you had a magic time eraser, how many projects or clients would you edit out of your history? A project or client relationship can fail for many different reasons, but sometimes projects are destined for failure. There are inherently bad client’s out there, whose only concern is paying as little for your work as possible. They will complain about everything, just as leverage to dispute your invoices. Some clients are simply unqualified right out of the gate. They will undermine your work no matter how hard you aim to please.

We all have stories of nightmare clients and would love to get “do-overs” on those bad decisions. But what have you learned from them? What can you look for as portents of miserable projects, as signs of toxic clients? How can you more accurately qualify your prospects so that you don’t get burned?

There are things to look out for, which if you heed them, will protect you from unwinnable scenarios. But keep in mind that these signs are not absolute indicators—there will always be exceptions. Think of these signs as risk factors, and the more you see in a single opportunity, the more likely you should walk away.

Whose Money is Being Spent?

One big warning sign is when a potential client is spending their own personal money on a startup idea, or in a highly speculative way. Established businesses understand the costs related to branding, marketing, and advertising. Not that a particular business can’t be as penny-pinching as an individual, but when a person is funding a project with their own money, which might otherwise be used for a new car or a vacation, you can anticipate that every hour you spend will undergo careful scrutiny.

“Better Work Later”

Another tell-tale budgetary sign is when a prospect asks you to accept their currently low budget with promises of much more work, and better-paying work later. Don’t fall for this. It never happens. A client will never voluntarily pay you more, especially after you prove your willingness to work for less. This is an ignorant suggestion at best, and a disingenuous scam at worst.

Have They Ever Done This Before?

Another indicator is the previous experience of your prospect. Have they ever engaged in a project with a creative like you before? Is this the very first time they’ve ever had a logo designed, or a website built? If your prospect has never walked through this process before, you should at the very least factor extra fees into your budget that you’ll need to educate your client about the process itself, and for extra communication time along the way. Additionally, you should pad your budget knowing that this client is simply not going to be able to provide the kind of concrete input and direction that more experienced clients can. They won’t really understand what you’re saying until they see a finished product—and then, and only then, will they be capable of providing the kind of feedback you needed at the outset. So plan on more revisions and alterations when you’re working with clients new to your process.

Becoming Attuned to Prospect Attitudes

Another warning sign to look for is the overall attitude of a prospect. You need to listen carefully in your initial conversations. Do they really understand the value that you bring? Or do they indicate that they could probably “do this themselves” if they had the time? What alternatives to hiring you are they considering? Is it either you or their nephew who does design work as a side gig?

Similarly, look out for prospects who come to you claiming to have been burned by a previous designer. Not that this can’t happen, but it might be that they’ve “been burned” by many creatives—all of them in fact—and you’re just next in line. They’ll be complaining about their experience with you to someone else in a few months.

Take such stories with a grain of salt. Never presume that you’re more competent than your peers. If another creative had trouble with this client, it might not be them. And so don’t hesitate to ask specific questions about those complaints. What exactly did they not like? How much did they pay? What were the particular failures? You can couch these kinds of questions in such a way that expresses that you simply want to ensure that you won’t make the same mistakes. But if their answers are vague, be warned—the prospect is probably the common denominator to their own frustrations.

Where is the Final Decision Maker?

Another warning sign to keep a lookout for, during prospect qualification, is the relationship between the person you are talking to and the actual decision-maker for the project. Ideally, you should always aim to have the decision-maker in the early conversations about the project. But it’s far more likely that you’ll be talking to a manager who is tasked with identifying a resource and reporting back. If you can’t get the decision-maker in on early meetings, that’s a negative sign. It may also mean that the decision-maker will be absent from the project process as well. You may end up doing lots of work at the direction of your contact only to have the ground shift from under you when the decision-maker finally pipes in.

Watch Your Own Part in the Process

The last thing to watch out for in the prospect qualification process is your own rose-colored glasses or your desperation for new work. An ungoverned ambition for new creative opportunities, or financial desperation for new business, will easily override your willingness to perceive and evaluate warning signs. Our “risk tolerance” goes way up when we’re imagining the great work we could do, or the check we need to make payroll.

Operating your creative practice profitably, with sufficient savings in place, and some guidelines you rarely override will strengthen your position when engaging in new business. And they will give you the confidence to just walk away when the warning signs are clear.

Are you ready to take the struggle out of finding new clients?