A wise man once said there’s only one thing worse than no deal: a bad deal.
As consultants, we tend to look at new clients more as “opportunities” rather than “deals.” Regardless of the terminology, the fact remains the same. A bad situation can impact both your productivity and quality of life.
If you’ve worked with small business owners for very long, you’re already familiar with the roller coaster that comes with the territory. The ups and downs are common to any engagement; however, some clients seem to offer more downs than ups.
In this article, I’ll share ten warning signs for my fellow consultants to spot a problematic client.
#1: Insists on Discussing Pricing (First)
You’re a competent person. You have years of industry experience and dozens of happy customers, many of whom gladly pay your asking rate. Clients value your opinion, as it helps them solve problems and grow their businesses.
It’s therefore disconcerting when a prospect’s first point of interest pertains to billing. Sure, providing a clear pricing structure is important. It should not, in most cases, be the first (or most important) topic of conversation. Since you’re in the business of adding more value than what you’re paid, experienced clients will want to know more about:
- How you’ve helped other companies
- Why you’re a good fit for the job
- What you’ll do to increase revenue and/or decrease costs
- How you plan to exceed expectations
Use your intuition to understand the prospect’s heavy focus on cost. In some cases, they may have already done their due diligence on your track record and be sold on you. This has happened to me a few times, although it is rare. The more likely circumstance is that you’re dealing with someone who may cause headaches down the road.
#2: Refuses to Sign Your Service Agreement
While a virtual handshake can reduce the barriers associated with closing a deal, most consultants maintain service agreements. The goal, as with any contract, is to have both parties agree to the terms, exit plans, and other important criteria. From the consultant’s perspective, such an agreement can also help reduce liability risk.
If customers truly want your services, few will take issue with providing a signature. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. When pushback is received, it is important to determine the root cause. Is your contract too complicated? Is it too one-sided (in your favor)? If the answer to these questions is no, then you must reevaluate the situation.
Perhaps the customer is not serious about working with you. Or worse, maybe they are expecting you to bare all responsibility should something go wrong. Either way, now is the time to find out. Be polite, yet firm. Your company is too important to gamble.
#3: Insults Others
People come to you when things are broken. Whether it’s a malfunctioning piece of technology or poorly designed system, you’re an expert at bringing order when others can’t. Many business owners grow anxious by their staff’s inability to arrive at similar outcomes.
While this is certainly good news for your job security, it also puts you in a weird position with certain clients. Most of your customers handle it with grace, bridging the subject carefully. They say things such as:
“We appreciate your ability to fill the gaps in our company.”
“You keep us on our toes, and we always learn new things from you.”
“You’ve done more in days that would have otherwise taken us weeks.”
Some clients are less tactful. Others devolve into finger pointing and behind-the-back insults, such as:
“Fred is a failure and can’t be trusted.”
“Janet is proving herself to be totally incompetent.”
“Joe needs to get a clue. I’m tired of his nonsense.”
This can be especially concerning when dealing with a relatively new account. The customer barely knows you and is already bad mouthing his employees. Will you be treated in the same way? It’s worth considering.
#4: Complains About a Hostile Company Culture
A business owner who routinely laments the toxicity of their company culture should also give you pause. Granted, no culture is perfect, and most entrepreneurs struggle with cultivation. However, there is a difference between a constructive and destructive solution.
Your natural tendency as a consultant is to help however you can. In fact, it can be quite fulfilling to assist customers in defining a more robust culture. Unfortunately, some cultures are simply too far gone - even for your expertise. How can you tell when this is true?
Start by listening to how the business owner describes the situation. Are the problems simply the result of poor communication? Or, are there deeper causes? Is there a lack of trust between the founder and their staff? Has this led to resentment or all-out mutiny? Does the business owner actually want to solve the issue - or are they happy to have something to complain about? Keep your ears open, ask the right questions, and then make an informed decision.
#5: Offers No Feedback
Let’s pause for a moment to examine the word “consultant.” The root word (“consult”) as a verb means “to seek information or advice from.” The suffix “ant” means “serving in the capacity of.” Put the two together, and it’s clear to see what your responsibilities should include: offer advice or information to those who seek it.
Few things are more frustrating than providing suggestions and receiving no feedback. You’re getting paid to express your opinion, so why won’t the client acknowledge it? Were your recommendations poorly received, thus warranting no response? Is what you’re working on not important? Is no feedback an implicit approval to proceed? Or, is the client simply too busy? Is this a sign of things to come?
Most business owners struggle to balance their schedules. Gaining explicit client buy-in for every project or task therefore may not be feasible. However, when customers exhibit a pattern of offering no feedback, wise consultants take note.
#6: Never Shows Appreciation for What You Do
Experienced consultants realize that compliments are often rare. Unlike employees, there is no annual or bi-annual “performance review” and obligatory “exceeds expectations” write up. No, consultants view paid invoices as the affirmation of their value.
While lavish praise is uncommon, good customers do find ways to express their appreciation (albeit subtle at times). For example, when I write a case study that the customer shares on social media, I view that act as an indirect endorsement of my services. The customer didn’t pat me on the back, but they did make the effort to share my work with the world.
Sadly, some clients consistently send all the wrong signals. For example:
- Pointing out minor oversights instead of noticing a project’s greater value
- Using ALL CAPS to emphasize why (or how) you’re wrong
- Dwelling on the negative and never stating the positive
- Finding delight in your mistakes
Sound familiar? If so, maybe it’s time to look for better clients.
#7: Expects Work that You’re Not Qualified to Do
I’m a marketing consultant. In a perfect world, my role would stand independent from all other non-marketing business functions. We obviously don’t live in a perfect world, which means that I routinely interact with legal, accounting, finance, and HR-related client issues. I know enough about these disciplines to be dangerous, which is helpful neither for me nor the client.
Sometimes customers can exploit a consultant’s can-do attitude, thereby pushing the consultant to do work for which he is not qualified. Savvy consultants must know where to draw the line and when to recommend additional professional opinions. Most business owners appreciate the candid humility expressed by a consultant in this position. Saying “I don’t know” is usually better than providing poor advice.
However, some clients won’t take no for an answer. When put in this situation, you have some important questions to answer. Is the client just being cheap, or are you overreacting to the severity of the situation? How can you better communicate the need for outside counsel? Will standing firm result in losing the account?
There are no easy answers, but they are questions you’ll have to regularly consider in your field of work.
#8: Blames You for Things Outside of Your Control
It’s 6:00 am, and you awaken to a frantic voicemail from your client. His website is down, and he’s really angry. Despite frequent previous discussions about how websites work, it is clear that he holds you responsible for the crisis. After a quick chat with the hosting company’s support team, you learn that it was purely a downtime issue on their end. The site is back up, and everything is better (so you thought).
You pick up your phone to call the customer and relay the good news, but you see five increasingly hostile text messages. The sky is apparently falling, and it’s all your fault. This is going to be a fun call. You dial the number, and the customer picks up. He immediately launches into his list of grievances. Despite your best efforts, he is no longer interested in hearing about the cause of the issue. It’s your fault for recommending that hosting provider, and it’s also your fault for not noticing the site was down - at least according to him.
As illustrated by this example, there are people who will try to blame you for everything. This is especially true when faced with adversity. Pay close attention to how customers treat you when things go wrong.
#9: Requires Constant Prodding for You to Get Paid
You are your own accounts receivable department. Filling this role can be at odds with your daily responsibilities of serving clients’ needs, especially when invoices are overdue. In virtually any engagement, invoices can be lost or overlooked. When a pattern of past due payment occurs, however, it might be a sign of a larger problem.
Any time money is involved, the situation must be handled delicately. You deserve to be paid on-time and for the correct amount, but give the customer the benefit of the doubt (at least initially).
Delayed payment often involves one or more of the following. Do some digging to understand if any of these apply:
Accounts payable staffing issues - Like any department, accounts payable has been known to drop the ball. Your client may be totally unaware that his AP team is creating unnecessary friction with vendors. If this is the case, you’ll want to be sure to have plenty of facts before bringing this to his attention.
Workflow issues - Small business owners have a difficult time letting go of bill-related activities. It could be possible that your check is getting generated on time, but the founder simply runs out of time to sign on the dotted line each month.
Convenience issues - Are you sending a PDF when an electronic invoice is preferred? Don’t be shy to inquire about this, as it shows the client you’re trying to make life easier.
Cash flow issues - Possibly the worst case scenario, cash flow issues are particularly troubling. Will the company still be in business next month? Are you just wasting your time trying to salvage a sinking ship?
If, after evaluating the situation, you are still not sure why payment is consistently delayed, it may be time to move on. You don’t work for free, and chasing delinquent checks is counterproductive.
#10: Gives Your Gut a Bad Feeling
We humans were designed with an innate ability to sense danger. Our ancestors relied on this when hunting for meals. Consultants should do the same when hunting for new customers. If something “just doesn’t feel right,” chances are it’s not. Trust your gut.
Avoid Problematic Clients (When Possible)
Life is too short to work for people who don’t appreciate your true value. Your goal should be to build a book of business that is not only profitable - but also fulfilling. If you find yourself already intertwined with problematic customers, fear not. You don’t have to achieve this goal overnight. Spend time regularly reviewing your client base and look for ways to enhance your quality of life. In time, you’ll start to feel more energized, happier, and professionally engaged.