It’s unfortunate, but all business owners deal with them.  Dishonest, disorganized or lazy clients.  I always try to partner in the success of my clients via the projects they hire me to build, but once in a while I deal with people who simply shouldn’t be in business.  That’s not to say that I have the worlds’s greatest bad-client-detector…once in a while one will slip through.  I always do Post-mortem’s on projects to see what we’ve learned and it’s pretty helpful.

Any boutique business like mine relies HEAVILY on good communication and setting expectations.  However, it is rarely beneficial to bombard my clients with contracts for small projects, so I tend to be very trusting (hence the partnering on the success mantra).  Here are some of the things I watch out for when meeting a new client to discuss a project:

Are they engaged in the project?

For example, if you are dealing with someone’s delegated project manager, make absolutely sure they are in line with any and all communication.  Include their boss in emails if you feel they aren’t in lock step.  Sometimes this is where I ask for a signed an estimate so they know they are on the hook to complete the project and pay for it.  Recently I actually had a client claim that she didn’t authorize the work personally, so the company had no obligation to pay the invoice.  At first I actually felt sorry for her, because I knew she wouldn’t last very long at all with such a dismal understanding of basic business ethics.  Sadly, she was shocked and didn’t understand how the arrangement went south.  Frankly, some of that was my fault for not running away and trusting my instincts.

Do they perceive the value of our work accurately?

I often surprise new prospective clients when I ask them what value the project has to their company.  For some reason, not a lot of consultants or developers ask this question, but to me it’s crucial.  I had a client once tell me that he thought the project would result in $20 million in revenue.  Since I thought his ego had inflated that value, I said “Great, would you invest $1 million to make $20 million?”.  Needless to say, the number that came back after that had 2 less 0’s in it.  Conversely, I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing clients that have a very accurate view of the value (whether it’s revenue or productivity gains) of the projects they hire me for.  

Do they perceive the value of the project accurately?

A big red flag for me is:  “We could probably do this in-house in a few days, but we don’t have the resources”.  Usually I try to talk them out of hiring me when I hear this.  Large companies have a really difficult time understanding the total cost associated with in-house projects.  Sometimes you find yourself in meetings or conference calls with large clients and they will have 15 or 20 people on the call for an hour.  Sometimes that call is more expensive than the project itself, but they don’t always understand that.  I rarely spend time trying to convince a prospective client why they should choose my company for their project.  I do ask a ton of questions and let them decide.

Are they someone I would be proud to be associated with?

All web developers eventually asked to build some really stupid projects, to put it bluntly.  You can politely refuse or give them your honest assessment of the viability of the project.  If a potential client is any bad combination of any of the attributes in this post, I’ll usually opt for the brutally honest answer: “I cannot work on this project because it’s not something I could be proud of”.  Basic business ethics.  The worst is when things aren’t what they seem and you come to find out that the “model” website they want you to build is really, just…well…you can imagine.

Run like hell if you find yourself in what I call the “Dude-Bro” situation.

Ever heard any of these?

“Dude, if you hook me up on this one I’ll get you back on the next one”

“I don’t have any budget for this project, but if it blows up like I think it will you’ll be glad you built it Bro”

“My client is asking for something we can’t do in house, but we know you can.  We need you to lower your price by 50% so we can all make a little money”

“I need a favor…”

Yes, well, unfortunately I’m not in the favor business.  I’m also 100% against the idea of spec work.  Again, if we can’t agree on the value of both the project and the work that goes into it, you will have to find someone else to hook you up, bro.  A business partner of mine who is an amazing photographer and creative designer gets hit with this all the time.  “We can’t pay for your photographs, but it will be good exposure for you”.  As a former touring musician, I eventually got wise to this nonsense.  Just say no and walk away.  You’ll sleep better at night.