#011: How to Spot Bad Clients Early (and How to Gracefully Fire the Ones You Can No Longer Serve)

Summary: In this episode of Smarter freelancing podcast Ed will speak with Anastacia Brice and David Ackert on how to spot bad clients early!

Not all clients are created equal.

Some are a true joy to work with. They value your expertise and experience. They never complain. And they happily pay you top dollar for your work.

Then there are those who are just plain difficult. 🙁

They complain. They beat you down on price. And they always want it yesterday.

As a solo professional, your long-term happiness depends on what types of clients you work with.

And the better you become at spotting bad clients BEFORE bringing them on board, the better off you'll be.

For this discussion, I brought in two of the industry’s top pros on the topic of identifying good (and bad) clients and projects: Anastacia Brice and David Ackert.

Anastacia Brice formalized the Virtual Assistance profession in 1997 by founding AssistU.com. She’s trained, coached, and certified more than 1,000 talented VAs who now have heart-centric businesses doing work that lights them up for clients they’re passionate about supporting. Anastacia’s also a business coach, writer, community builder, italophile, and a happy girlie girl who finds biz foundations and biz standards two of the sexiest things in the world!

David Ackert has served in the corporate, education, and non-profit sectors as a trainer, marketer and strategic planner since the mid ’90s. Through his company, The Ackert Advisory, he has developed and implemented business development programs for numerous national legal, accounting, and financial service firms. He is the founder of Practice Boomers, a distance learning program that teaches business development skills to service professionals internationally. You can read his work at www.AckertAdvisory.com and watch some of his business development videos at www.4WaysToGetMoreReferrals.com.

What follows is a condensed transcript of my lively conversation with Anastacia and David.

The notes that follow are a very basic, unedited summary of the show. There’s a lot more detail in the audio version. You can listen to the show using the audio player below. Or you can subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher to get this show delivered straight to the Podcasts app on your smart phone, tablet or iPod.

Ed Gandia: Why don’t we start by defining what we mean when we say “bad clients.” What would you consider to be a bad client?

Anastacia Brice: For me, a bad client is someone who doesn’t respect me as a business owner and shows that through his or her actions. And that’s probably that in a nutshell.

Ed Gandia: How about you, David?

David Ackert: I would say there are two types of bad clients, and it all comes down to a mismatch. There’s a mismatch to our business, so that is to say that their problem isn’t exactly the problem that we can solve. Or their expectations for fees or timing or a mismatch to what we’re comfortable delivering or charging.

And then there’s a mismatch to our personal standards. And that would probably tie into what Anastacia just mentioned, which is just bad chemistry. The way that they communicate is not the way we want to be communicated to and we perceive it as being disrespectful.

Ed Gandia: Good points. This all sounds good on paper, but it’s sometimes hard to turn down a client or prospect, even if you get this nagging feeling there's some sort of mismatch. Many of us live with this constant fear that if we turn down a client, there may not be anything else coming down the pike for a while. Or maybe we really need the work right now. What do you say to that?

Anastacia Brice: If someone absolutely needs money and for whatever reason—say they’re in a difficult situation—then it's OK to sometimes take on less-than-desirable clients and projects. I call these "KTLO clients," which stands for "keeping the lights on." I talked to a woman this morning who has a child who is severely handicapped; she doesn't always have a lot of choices.

But we also need to make a distinction between ideal clients and KTLO clients. If you honestly cannot find any other work right now, having clients who are not ideal but at least help pay the bills until things improve, that's not any different from when you worked a traditional job you disliked but you stuck to it because  you had bills to pay.

But don’t ever confuse that with building a business that bring you clients who actually do fit with you and your business, as David was talking about before, which is really important.

So, I tell freelancers all the time, your standards can always be higher. No matter how high they are, they can always be higher. And I don’t think anyone, unless they need a KTLO client temporarily, should ever accept bad clients as a long-term reality.

David Ackert: I certainly agree with what Anastacia’s saying. I want to talk about the territory here for a moment, because as service professionals, one of the things that I find is that we tend to gravitate to this line of work because we have a servant’s type of personality.

And if you just look at the etymology of service professional, it has the word "service." It has the implication of servitude. It has kind of a co-dependent dynamic in it. And sure enough, most of the clients that I work with, most of the people that I encounter have this co-dependence to them in one way or another. They avoid conflict at all cost, they want to please people, they want to hear positive feedback from their clients. They’re not necessarily the kind of person who can give themselves that kind of positive feedback, so they look to their clients for that feedback and recognition.

The other thing is the unreliable income of a freelance model. And it triggers this scarcity-oriented fight-or-flight mechanism that’s programmed into our central nervous system. If we are in the position where we’re not sure where our next check is coming from, we’re likely to make emotional decisions.

Some of these decisions are necessary for survival. And in some cases, they’re irrational. So we think to ourselves, “Gosh, I don’t know. The pipeline’s drying up. I don’t know where the next few clients are coming from. I better do something desperate right now, right?” Instead of saying, “Okay, well, time to go back to marketing. I’m just going to trust that the pipeline’s going to refill. This is the cycle.”

So instead of going to that more rational place, we’ll sometimes make a more emotional, irrational decision, which is, “This guy’s a jerk but at least he’s here, so I’m going to work with him.” And we sell out. We sell ourselves out. We sell out our standards, and we lower our ability to have leverage with that client because we’ve essentially given all of our power over to them.

This scarcity-based, unreliable income landscape that we’ve opted into as freelancers, coupled with the need to receive recognition from our clients for providing an excellent service, that's the lethal combination. Especially if we’re talking about any kind of boundary setting, any kind of consistent standard setting for our business. It demands that we keep a really high tolerance level for the kinds of people we shouldn't take on as clients.

Anastacia Brice: I'd like to add something to what David was sharing. That whole thing about people pleasers, co-dependence, all of that stuff. That all speaks to getting our needs met inappropriately through our business relationships. And whenever I see that in my clients, I coach them around getting their needs met appropriately. If that actually ends up being a pathology, they should be talking to a different kind of professional. That’s going to get in the way of their success no matter what, unless they take care of it

David Ackert: There's something else to this. As service professionals, most of us have home offices or we have a modest kind of a setup where we have maybe an assistant, maybe an employee or two. But even then, it’s kind of a family. It’s a mom and pop. We’re not really running it with a corporate culture in mind. Yet without those kinds of structures and boundaries in place, our practice becomes a combination personal/business experience. And it becomes a bit of an emotional mess unless we’re really being conscientious about it.

We will go to our business to get the validation that we aren’t getting at home. We will find it really difficult to shut off because we don’t have a nine-to-five anymore; we have nine to ten. And then we take a break for twenty minutes and then we work until seven, and then we play with our kids and then we go back to work. It’s all kind of stirred together. And so that distinction between personal and business really gets lost unless we draw the line.

Anastacia Brice: Michael Gerber, in his book The E-Myth Revisited, talks about the "technician" versus the "owner," and he explains that the mistake most entrepreneurs make is letting the technician make the critical decisions that the owner should be making for the business.

The technician is always going to get into the “oh, but my client, my poor client; he’s having trouble. I understand he can’t pay me.” If you are thinking as a business owner, which is what a freelancer ultimately is, you’d have to say, “No, I’m really sorry, Mr. Person, that you’re having trouble but if you can’t pay me, I can’t do work for you.”

Ed Gandia: Let’s start talking about some strategies that you’ve used to better screen and qualify a prospect. How do you determine who’s a good fit and who’s not a good fit? What has worked for you?

Anastacia Brice: Well, first off, when people come to freelancing, most of them come directly from a traditional employment model. They’ve probably been employees somewhere. And so the model that we typically have about getting traditional work is that we want the job, and so we do whatever we need to do in order to get that job. We jump through whatever hoops are put in front of us to show the prospective employer that we're the perfect person for that job.

And I think that the first thing to do is to step very far away from that model, because it doesn’t apply anymore. Now there’s a prospect who's coming to you. He has a business and you have a business. You’re as much the key holder as he is. And so you can turn that model upside down and suddenly say to yourself, “You know, what if I decide for myself who a client has to be to get a place in my practice?” If you do that, the whole conversation, the inner conversation, changes.

So, that’s the first thing that I’ve ever done is I’ve changed that inner conversation with myself. Who does somebody have to be so that I want to work with them rather than who I have to be to get the gig.

Beyond that, again you have to have high standards—higher than you probably think. Be willing to uphold your own standards. Know exactly who is ideal, and who isn’t. If you don’t know who’s ideal and who’s not a good fit for you and your business, figure that out, because that in and of itself is important.

I also have crafted an incredibly strong interview process. And if a client wants to work with me and doesn’t want through go through my interview process, that’s fine with me. There are other service providers who will take you on without putting you through a process like this. But if you're interested in working with me, we're going to do it this way because I can’t work with everyone and I need to make sure that we’re going to fit—and that’s is much for me as it is for the client.

Finally, it's important not to work from a fear-based place. If you’re talking with a client and you’re afraid that the client is going to walk away, as David was saying, you’ll make emotional, irrational decisions. You have to calm your "monkey" mind and really come from a very centered place. And if that client walks away, you know what, you’ve probably dodged a serious bullet.

If you want to be thought of as a commodity, then take anybody. But if you have something of real value to offer and you don’t want to be just another service provider, kind of like a gas station on every corner, then differentiate yourself, have some standards, be willing to say, "You know, I work with these kinds of people only”.

In my case, I only coach women. Not that I don’t love men. I love men. But I don’t want to work with them. I only coach women. And so if a guy shows up, there’s no conversation to be had. I don’t care what kind of money he wants to pay. I’ve been coaching since 1996 and I know myself. It's not going to happen. So you have to be willing to stand for yourself. If you’re not going to stand for yourself, who is?

David Ackert: That’s too bad. I was actually going to ask Anastacia after this session if we could perhaps do some work together.

Anastacia Brice: As long as it’s not coaching, I’ll do anything with you, David. Just not coaching.

David Ackert: Actually, you sound great; it’s my loss. Anyway, I want to touch on this word that keeps coming up: "standards." I think that most of us haven’t set them. I think we have a really unclear sense of what our standards are in terms of what makes up a bad client. Now, we’ve done the bare minimum, right, so we know that we won’t work for any less than X, or for any less than X an hour.

We kind of know where our minimum is there because we’ve probably gotten burned on it once or twice. We know geographically what our minimums are. For instance, I’m not willing to drive any more than such and such miles. Or I’m not working with people who are outside the English-speaking world, or whatever. The point is, we’ve got those bare minimums set up.

But beyond that most of us don’t have anything else listed for ourselves. The standards most of us set are situationally based. They have nothing to do with the person. Remember, we’re talking about a client, we’re not talking about a job. So we also have to create a list of the characteristics of the kind of person we want to work with. Because if we don’t know what this person looks like, we may walk right by them and not notice. Or we risk taking on clients that are not aligned with our values and personality.

That said, the personal criteria probably comes down to things such as generosity. They have to have a generous spirit to work with me. If they start pushing back on my fees before I’ve even started working with them, that’s a red flag. This is somebody who, you know, they may be completely justified in their stinginess, maybe things are tight for them. But it may not be a fit from a personality perspective.

They have to be understanding. If they’re demanding about timing of work product or unreasonable demands on service offerings, that’s also a red flag. If they’re abusive in any way—and this ties back to Anastacia’s point—if they are inappropriately curt or stubborn or uncommunicative, if they don’t return emails for a week, guess what? That’s how it’s going to be, even after they become a client of yours. They’re not going to suddenly improve their behavior just because you’ve engaged them.

And for me, if they aren’t referral-minded they are not a great client. I’ve got plenty of clients that pay the bills and that’s great; they‘re good clients. But I wouldn’t call them a "great" client. Why? Because I’ll only sustain my business with those kinds of people. So the only way I’m going to grow is if I have a sales force. And for me, my client base is my best sales force.

So, plant what I call an "opportunity feed" in the first conversation. I say to them, “Listen, I’m really looking forward to working with you. I just want you to know that I have this expectation. I am going to 'wow' you. I promise you that. So I want to know if you’re comfortable telling other people about how you’ve been 'wowed,' assuming that I can fulfill on that promise. Because for me, your referrals are a really great way of acknowledging my hard work."

And I never have anybody push back on that. But sometimes I do have someone get a little defensive about it. Well, let’s see how things go, or they say yes but they fold their arms and they frown. So I can just tell from the body language that they are not the kind of person who's going to refer me to others. I don’t necessary refuse to engage them at point. But at least my expectations are set, and I just make sure that my client roster is not consisting mostly of these types of clients, because that’s a recipe for a flat line in revenue growth.

One thing you have both mentioned is this whole idea of being specific about your ideal client profile—and specifically including personal attributes in that description. I’m curious how you guys have developed your own ideal client profiles. It sometimes seems like an overwhelming exercise. Any ideas on how to make this less daunting?

Anastacia Brice:When I work with students on this, I make them do a brain dump. This includes listing all of the things they’ve liked about people they’ve work with before, as well all of the things they’ve experienced that they really wish they’d never encounter again. So think through everything, everything that matters to you, everything you’ve experienced you didn’t like and don’t want to do again. And create some sort of standards around that. And then those go into your ideal client profile.

Also, if you have an affinity to a certain profession, maybe you want to create a niche in that direction. For instance, I have no idea why, but for some reason bestselling authors love me. Okay, that’s great. I’m happy to work with bestselling authors who are women, of course. Somebody calls me and says, “Hi, I’m an author.” My ears immediately just perk up because I know there’s some reason—I don’t know what it is, some God-given reason—why I tend to resonate well with authors. Again, it's not all authors. Authors who can’t pay me are not ideal, for instance.

Ed Gandia: Can you walk us through your screening process, Anastacia?

Anastacia Brice: The first step in my screening process—the first filter, if you will—is a conversation with the prospect. It's a 15-minute "get to know you" phone call. And we purposely don’t talk about business. My thinking is that if I can’t talk to somebody for 15 minutes without talking about business, something's wrong.

The next step is an assessment questionnaire. It's about 20 questions, and I have every potential client fill it out. When I get that back I can tell, at a glance, whether any of my deal breakers are broken. If that's the case, I don’t go any further. So, I don’t spend a lot of time in conversations unless I feel that there’s a reason to move forward.

And I’m absolutely willing to pull the pin at any moment when I realize that it's not appropriate for me to be working with this person. I just stop. I don’t want to waste any one’s time, least of all mine.

The other thing is I only work in long-term relationships. It has to be a fairly long engagement or I’m not interested. I know that isn’t true for all freelancers; it just happens to be true for me. So that might not work for everybody.

From there, we then have a conversation that's really about business scale, scope, fees, the nuts and bolts of things. That’s usually about a 60-minute call. And then if that’s a go, then they’re invited to a 60- to 90-minute conversation where we talk through deeper discussion topics because they are places that a lot of people are scared to go. I want to know if there is anything that’s likely to show up in our relationship that is going to cause me to want to run like hell.

Ed Gandia: I should interject here real quick and make something clear: This is Anastacia’s process, this is what works for her. There are a lot of you out there who work in fields where this may not be appropriate. Your own screening process doesn't necessarily need to be this elaborate or involved. But the point is that you should have something in place that makes sense for you and that enables you to determine how closely aligned this prospect may be to your ideal client profile.

Anastacia Brice: Absolutely, absolutely, they have work for you. As long it works for us in our businesses, that’s the thing that matters.

Ed Gandia: David, tell us about your own screening process.

David Ackert:Well, my model is very different from Anastacia’s. Her coaching is very holistic, and she really goes deep with her clients. I don’t do that. I do business development coaching and most of my business is online. Because of that, I need more of a "step one, step two.” We’re either working together or we’re not. That's just kind of the way that I’m programmed. And a big part of the way I screen prospects is via my contract document.

I hope everybody’s got some sort of contract with their clients regardless of what you do, because that’s really critical for setting expectations, not just for protecting yourself. You’re entering into a business relationship; you’ve got to formalize that relationship.

It doesn’t have to be a long document. In fact, the shorter the better. You should run it by an attorney, but the attorney doesn’t have to be the one who drafts it. There are templates out there that you can use. But the key is to use it for setting some expectations, because those expectations are very much interwoven with your standards and they set the tone for what the working relationship will be. And if those standards aren’t communicated in your document, you’re signing yourself up for trouble.

So get your agreement letter nailed down and make sure that your standards are communicated very clearly. That way when they sign off on it, the moment that there is any issue, you can point to that contract you both agreed on.

Ed Gandia: That’s a good point, David. I actually use my contract as one of the filters in my own process. I believe in giving the client all that information up front, all my terms and conditions, and they need to pass that test. If they’re okay with my terms, they sign off on it, which tells me that they understand and that they're serious. If they balk at anything in that contract, I know I’m going to potentially have a problem, unless it's something that I need to clarify, of course.

Anastacia Brice: I should clarify something about my screening process: Besides my 15-minute call, that assessment that my prospects fill out takes me 14 seconds to direct them to it and one minute to review it, and it tells me whether I want to take a step forward. The rest of it is important to me, but if there are red flags, I can see those within two minutes of reviewing the prospect's completed assessment. So the process up to that point takes next to none of my time, which is why I did it that way. Because, again, I want them to show me that they deserve my time.

Ed Gandia: Let me play devil’s advocate here for a second. Someone listening or reading this might be thinking, “Well, that’s fine for you guys. You’ve been around for a long time, you’re very successful—you can afford to be that picky. But what if I'm fairly new to this game, or what if I'm struggling over here?"

Anastacia Brice: If you need to keep the lights on, you have to do what you have to do—temporarily. But again, don’t confuse the people you have to accept as clients in order to put food on your table with the people whom you ultimately want as clients. I mean, I cannot imagine that anybody ever goes into freelancing, starts a business regardless of the size with the thought, “I’m going to get into this, and I’m going to suffer and hate every minute of it.”

There’s too much risk involved. There’s too much self-employment freaking tax, there’s too much of all of that stuff inherent in what is that we do. So, if somebody wanted to be miserable, it’s just easier to go get a job at McDonald’s. So if, if you don’t want to be miserable then you need to fill your business with people that you genuinely enjoy working with. So, unless they’re "keeping the lights on" clients, you can’t afford not to do some of this.

Ed Gandia: David, any thoughts on that?

David Ackert:  Yes, two thoughts. I think everybody’s got a tolerance range, based on where they are in this process. I imagine for Anastacia and I, our tolerance range is pretty low. The longer I do this, the lower my tolerance gets for clients that aren’t a fit. And the people I know who mentor me and who are, you know, who’ve been at this much longer than I have, their tolerance level is like zero. So I aspire to be that intolerant.

But let’s say my tolerance level is between a five and a three, so I’ll aspire for a three. I know I’ll probably put up with a five, but what I’m looking for is to put myself in a situation where I can say "no" to clients or prospective clients that are really pushing that upper limit of my tolerance.

So if your tolerance level is really high because you’re just starting out and you’re somewhere between a ten and a nine, shoot for the nine, because from nine you can have a new platform, and then you can continue to lower your tolerance. And that’s really what it comes down to, guys.

Look, you’ve got to walk through the fire at some point. If it’s before the engagement and you have that conversation with them that says, “Look, I just don’t think that we’re a fit. I’ve got a policy that I put in place here and we’re just not arriving at the same place. I think I’m just going to have to say 'no.'"

If that conversation is hard for you, then that’s the fire you’ve to walk through. But at least you haven’t made an agreement yet. Once you make the agreement, you’ll also have to walk through the fire. But now that fire is about enduring what comes from selling out on your standards.

There’s no free ride here. If we’re talking in the context of bad clients, there’s going to be a challenging conversation that pushes you to the edge of your tolerance level.

Ed Gandia: OK, dear readers. This is important stuff. So let me ask you—do you know someone who can benefit from these ideas? If so, please send them a personal email with a link to this page. They’ll thank you for it ... and so will I!

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