4 Questions to Ask Yourself When Qualifying Potential Clients

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a crystal ball to predict which prospects will be problematic clients or a bad fit for your business? Everyone knows a good crystal ball can be expensive and unpredictable. What we really need is common sense, preparation and a strong will.

Over the last five months I’ve answered hundreds of calls for a local service company. I’ve learned a ton about saying “yes” to quoting as many projects as possible but also not being afraid to say “no” when the caller wasn’t a good fit.

Below I’ve outlined four questions ask yourself when talking to a potential customer/client. Listen for cues to tell you whether you should take on this person as a client.

Am I the right person to help this person?

I got a call from an online learning company that needed a certain kind of programming. I spent time learning their business and finding a person who did the necessary programming. I realized the learning curve was too steep and chose to say “no” to the project. But I wasted a lot of time along the way.

If you have little experience in what this person needs, just be honestly pass on the project. Also, you may have the expertise but you don’t have enough personnel to handle it effectively in their timeframe. They’ll appreciate your honesty and you can move on to clients that are a better fit.

Can I work within this person’s budget?

Some people have a defined budget. If your business is slow then maybe you take a project for a lower price than normal. If you’re super busy and you don’t need to discount, then you can pass.

In the summer of 2009 my yard was an embarrassment and needed an irrigation system. We got a good price on the installation because the different companies bidding on the project lowballed it so they could get the job.

The same is true for you. You can decide how low you will go and your client can decide whether they will pay your price if it’s more than expected.

Your company may be built for bigger projects. You have people and systems geared to operate at a higher budget level than this person can afford. No matter how much you want to help this person, taking on the project will likely get your team out of their groove.

Would I feel comfortable having this product on my kitchen counter?

If you have friends come over, would you hide the product in the cupboard or in the garage? Would you feel okay telling your parents you are doing marketing for a certain product?

When I started my business in 2000 I had an opportunity to do some copywriting for a company selling Royal Tongan Limu, a seaweed extract distributed through multi-level marketing. They had gorgeous corporate offices, a nice website, and beautiful marketing material. I was desperate for income but the product seemed fishy.

I asked a trusted friend about it and he said, “If you feel a burning in your stomach, then you should pass.” I did choose not to do the project. My concerns were warranted when they were shut down two years later and fined $2 million by the FTC and Department of Justice for illegal claims about purported health benefits.

You have to decide what your standards are before you get phone calls like this and have a diplomatic answer in response so you don’t waste your time. We’ll talk about this later in the article.

Do I want to spend the next two weeks, two months, or two years working with this person?

Unless you are psychic, you can’t know with certainty what working with a person will be like. But can they pass the initial sniff test?

This past year I met with a woman having trouble with her website. She started bashing the web development company who designed her site. Okay, maybe they really are that bad and she needed someone like me who was more conscientious.

She did the same thing the next time we talked. I get it, the old company sucks.

But the kicker was when I forgot my phone at home. My wife answered the phone and the woman spent the first 10 minutes talking about how awful the other company was.

I had enough. I’m pretty patient but there was no way I was going to win with her. So I wrote her a diplomatic email telling her that I would not be working with her. It was a relief to not interact with her any longer.

What a potentially bad client looks like

There are some telltale signs someone isn’t going to work out as a client:

  • They begin by bashing their previous vendor: They’ll likely bash you to their next vendor when you haven’t met their unreasonable standards.
  • They talk a lot about how little money they have: I’ve never met a client who started like this that changed into someone willing to spend an appropriate amount my work.
  • They aren’t friendly: Unfriendliness comes across the phone. Life’s too short to work with a grumpy person.
  • They are too friendly: I spoke several times with a guy offering tub-refinishing services that needed help with marketing. He seemed very eager to move forward every time we talked. But there was something odd about him: He laughed too hard at things that really weren’t funny. It felt like he was just blowing smoke, which it turned out to be true. I suspect he was just fishing for information so he could do it himself.
  • They make many promises but never seem to follow through on even the tiniest of them, such as meeting in person, getting you necessary information and signing a contract.

“We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it…We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible an depending as much time as possible in deliberation. We really only trust conscious decision making. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world. The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”

― Malcolm Gladwell, “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”

What a potentially good client looks like

Okay, now the flipside. This is what a potentially good client looks like:

  • They have an appropriate budget: They understand your time is valuable and you should be reasonably compensated for your time and skills.
  • They ask hard questions: Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to answer many hard questions but you have to respect someone who is doing their due diligence.
  • They are prepared with information: Maybe they don’t have all the information but they know enough about what they need to communicate this to you.

Principles of qualifying

If you are on the bubble from the first conversation then it might take some extra time to see if the two of you are a good fit. Here are some things to consider in the whole qualifying process:

  • Take your time: Time can be your friend most of the time. If they aren’t ready to pull the trigger on a larger project then experiment with smaller ones.
  • It’s okay to say no: Give yourself permission to reject someone even if we are hurting financially.
  • Qualify early in the process: They could be too big or too small for you. You want to know if you can really help them. It comes down to knowing what you can handle, not what they need.

How to say no

There is a saying that says, “Diplomacy is saying ‘Nice doggie’ while you grab a big rock.”

  • Be vague with your answer: Say, “I’m afraid I’m going to pass on your project. I appreciate you thinking of me and I wish you well.” Then shut your mouth. If they ask why then have a good diplomatic reason but don’t volunteer this at first.
  • Suggest someone else: If it’s more about capabilities or budget, make a recommendation if you have one. Don’t feel obligated to spend a ton of time – you have business to run. Especially don’t do this if they seem like a stinker, not even to your competition.
  • Learn how to confidently keep your personal boundaries: Read “Boundaries” by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. This is a great book for people who have difficulty saying no and let people run over them.

Following these guidelines will help you work with the right people and avoid the stinkers. You’ll save time and emotional energy by listening to your gut and following through on what you’re feeling.

You might consider posting these four questions above your computer and referring to them as you talk with potential clients.

I’d love to hear your good and bad experiences with qualifying customers, and what you learned from them.


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