When there’s new client money on the table, it can be all too easy to ignore red flags and gut instincts. Our judgment can be temporarily clouded if it means account and wallet growth. However, I’ve seen how signing the wrong clients can cause agencies to lose money, reputation and even employees.
What does this look like in practice? For one thing, it’s nearly impossible to make a misaligned client happy. Even if your team regularly scrambles to complete extra work for this client, your contacts might not make time to meet with you — or give your employees a chance to do their best work. While the old adage “the customer is always right” still applies in many cases, adhering to it when the customer is, in fact, a bad fit can destroy your team’s morale and productivity.
Likely, you’ve experienced this kind of client before — or perhaps you’re currently dealing with one — but don’t worry. It’s a problem all agency owners, including myself, have dealt with at one time or another. To make things easier, consider a proactive “client filter” approach.
Identifying The Ideal Client
While every agency hopes for clients that pay well, another consideration — one that’s just as important — is how to get rid of clients who cost an agency (and how to avoid them in the future).
This requires defining the kind of client that’s right for your agency, your employees, your budget and your sanity. Begin by exploring what’s right for you through the following steps:
1. Organize your tangible needs.
Tangible needs might include a client’s industry size, marketing department size or company location. For some agencies, it might be best to work with companies that don’t yet have robust marketing departments. Or perhaps your agency works best with local businesses because you value in-person meetings. Catering to client needs is a must, but don’t forget your own needs in the process.
Other tangible necessities might include client budgets and potential future marketing goals. Also, consider specific industries in which your team has more experience and expertise. Finally, look for companies with seasonal work that will round out your year.
2. Create a list of intangible needs.
Intangible needs might include how collaborative a client is or whether a client has worked with an agency before. Additionally, discerning the type of cultures that gel best with your agency is imperative. Some companies are straightlaced, while others have giant gumball machines next to their ping-pong tables. What type motivates your teammates the most?
Digging a little deeper, figure out the other intangibles that matter most in the culture space. Perhaps you love the challenge of being the first agency to work with a certain company, or maybe you enjoy working with a more traditional corporate culture, even if your agency is rather modern.
3. Determine levels of sophistication.
Your agency has most likely worked with the following client types:
• “Big fish” clients: They’re at the top of their game, and their needs might be so grand that you struggle to actually meet them.
• “Minnow” clients: These types of clients require a lot of work, too. Perhaps your team is forced to burn the midnight oil to get them where they need to be.
I call this “varying levels of sophistication.” And while it’s easy to identify which clients aren’t sophisticated enough, we often make the mistake of taking on clients that are too sophisticated. The truth is, we can’t make them happy. To avoid both problems, create a “sophistication scale” to help recognize when a client is too big, too complicated or too nuanced.
These scales will be unique to every agency. Each one varies based on whether a client has previously worked with an agency, the point of contact’s experience level, the agency’s background, how complicated or nuanced its current marketing strategy is, and the complexity of the agency’s sales cycle.
4. Draw your lines in the sand.
After you’ve nailed down the levels of sophistication, narrow your list of the traits (tangible, intangible, and otherwise) you can’t do without. From now on, rank every prospect according to that list.
Work with your leadership or business development team to determine how to rank prospects. For example, if you have 10 top traits, everyone should agree that possessing at least seven of the 10 indicates an excellent fit. If you meet a client that doesn’t meet that benchmark but still seems promising, open it up for discussion. The simple practice of going through the ranking and having an open discussion will prevent you from getting stuck with a poor fit.
It’s our job to delight clients. Taking on the wrong ones, however, makes this near impossible. When you first discern what kind of company makes for an ideal client, you’ll find that the delight is mutual.