The general advice is that as a busy business owner, you don’t have time to fuss with the clients who show you their red flags – those who aren’t right for you. You need to run when a red flag pops up. I agree with this – we just don’t have time to waste with the wrong folks.

But, situations or behaviors that are red flags for you might be opportunities for others. In a previous article, I talked about referring these clients on. Still good advice. On your own list of red flags, though, could any be an opportunity for you?

In this article, I’m going to talk you through which red flags are my personal no-way-no-how red flags, and which ones I do try to overcome and turn into an opportunity. Use these as an example and refine your own list of red flags.

Can you overcome client red flags?

Red flag or opportunity?

A couple of days ago, a client reached out to me. She seemed a little overwhelmed, a little scattered, but knew she wanted help building out her website and getting started with some email marketing and possibly affiliate marketing. Like most of us, she wanted to do ALL the things right now. 

I wanted to get her on the phone to walk through some qualification questions – I could tell I would get a better result than sending her to my questionnaire page. Sometimes, I get a gut feeling that I’m going to need to talk with someone as an early part of qualifying them, and I go with it.

Anyway, over email I ask her about her overall strategy (because I suspect that starting with some strategy consultation would be best), and let her know how to schedule a call with me. She emailed back fairly quickly that she didn’t have a true strategy, just some notes. 

Ok, I’m thinking, I was right she’s a great candidate for a strategy consultation. I can help her get a little clarity about what she needs to be doing and how to move forward. She’ll feel a lot less overwhelmed and will be able to calm a bit.

But then things get a little odd. She tells me that neither of her last two marketing consultants were very helpful and she had to terminate their services. Oh dear.

3 Red Flags

In the brief bit of communication I had with this prospect, I identified 3 red flags:

  • She was all-over-the-place scattered,
  • didn’t have a business plan,
  • and she had already cycled through two marketing consultants.

Typically, if I see more than one red flag, I know I need to pass on the project. But, I could see that the first two red flags with this lead were really one and the same – she didn’t have a plan, which was causing her overwhelm and scattered communication. Because I do offer strategy consultation, I saw this as a great opportunity to help.

Unfortunately, when she said that she had already tried working with two consultants and still didn’t have anything to show for it, I knew I couldn’t take this project on. While there may be one or two in a million leads that genuinely mis-hire twice in a row, I don’t have the time to take that gamble. I’m running my business during school hours and I need to focus on clients who are a good fit from the beginning. For me, this red flag isn’t one that I want to try to overcome.

Make a Red Flag list

Have you already started a red flag list? The more leads you talk with and clients you work with, your list will grow and change. But even if you’ve only had one customer, go ahead and draft a list.

To think of red flags that might really be opportunities, think about what you offer, and if what you offer solves the red flag, it may be an opportunity in disguise. You may not have any, and that’s okay. The important part is to think through what the different red flags mean for you and your business.

Red flags worth trying to overcome

Remember – these are worth it to me – they may not be worth it for you.

These are red flags that I will try to overcome. I have two rules though: if the lead shows more than one of these, I won’t try to overcome them, and I will try just once to overcome the red flag.

Refusing to follow your qualification or intake process from the very beginning 

When a lead approaches me, I either ask them to fill out a project planning worksheet or I try to set up a call (to go through that worksheet). Either way, I want that project planning worksheet answered before I think about working with that lead. It’s part of my qualification process and it lets me see if I can provide a good solution for this lead. 

When someone refuses, or answers all the questions with, “n/a,” or, “tbd,” (yes, I get that), I will explain why I’m asking those questions, let them know that it will make our first phone call much more productive, and redirect them back to try again. One time. It could be that they’re busy too, and didn’t realize how important a part of my process the worksheet it. If they then happily fill it out — opportunity! If they still won’t, then that’s a true red flag, and I have to turn them down.

Trying to negotiate a low rate

Three types of clients ask me to lower my prices: some are just seeing what they can get, some really don’t have the budget (even though they said they did during qualifying), and some want me to do work for peanuts.

I’m no longer offended when someone wants to negotiate a lower rate. I have learned to say, “Sure, I can lower the project price. Which feature(s) would you like to remove, or move to a second phase?”

The first type of client will say something like, “No, just asking…” The second will be very happy to break the project into phases – this was an opportunity. If I had refused to budge, I would have lost a good client. And the third, well, that’s a red flag I have to refuse.

Slow to respond from the start, and then hoping for immediate turn-around from you – & –
Calling or texting late at night

These two fit in the same bucket to me. I either caused or allowed these red flag behaviors to happen because I didn’t properly set expectations at the beginning of a project. So, I will politely and calmly remind a client of the project schedule and/or my communications policy.

Most will give me an, “Ah, sorry, I didn’t mean you had to right away….” – definitely an opportunity to educate my client. Most folks want to work together peacefully, at least the ones that come my way. 

Some will say, “ok,” but will do it again. I generally stop addressing these, and continue to operate my own way, and that ends up fine. Not quite an opportunity, but handle-able with processes like a business phone line on silent after work hours. 

Rarely though, someone will tell me my policies are unreasonable or won’t work within them. At that point, we have to part ways. I can’t change how I do things for every client – that would eat up all my time.

Not sure what they really need from you

I used to either turn away leads who didn’t really know what they needed, or push them into a service I provided. Neither were good solutions.

Finally, I realized what an opportunity this situation presents. If someone doesn’t know what they need, I can help them figure it out. A short consulting session can be a great place to start with a client like this. I can help them clarify their ideas and their vision, help them see where they are now, and help them figure out where they should go next. Big opportunity for both me and the client that I used just let slip by. 

Red flags not worth it

I think most of my no-way red flags are pretty obvious but the truth is that they’re on this list because I’ve had them all come across my path. Thank goodness I saw most of them coming and didn’t work with them. But some slipped through. Now I know!

When a client tells you he hasn’t paid other service providers

Come on dude, really? I’m not about to try to take that on. Why would I think you would pay me? This really did happen. My second ever lead. And he had an awesome-sounding website project too.

When a client cycles through vendors because none are just right

Guess what, you won’t be just right either and this will end in frustration and disappointment at best. 

Promising great exposure or more work in the future (in lieu of appropriate payment)

No thank you. While I love my work, part of what I love is getting paid. The mortgage is due and braces are around the corner. What this really shows is that this lead doesn’t see value in my work. Besides, what would the more work in the future look like? More unpaid work? Nope.

Disrespecting your skill set or presuming to know your skill set better than you do

I ain’t got time for that. Really, this makes me feel really crummy and bad and start to worry and doubt and I don’t need that negativity. I have to turn this lead away immediately before any of that starts to get into my head.

Rude or violent language directed at you

I haven’t had this since I was an employee, so it was a client of that company, not of my own business. I know this happens to more female business owners than we’d like to admit. Sometimes clients think we can be bullied. This is a hard no for me.

I’ll know it when I see it!

Oh, this is a tricky one because it can come from someone who otherwise passes all your qualification steps. And even worse, it can show up mid or late into the project. If I hear this during qualification, this is a big enough red flag for me to reject a project. I know that this lead would never be happy because they can’t provide enough direction for me to work with. You can protect yourself though during a project by being very clear on number of revisions available before charging extra and holding fast to your policies.

Now, go work on your red flag list

I hope that you can see how some red flags might, for you, become opportunities. I passed up some folks would have likely become great clients if I had thought out my red flag list a bit more. I chalk a lot of that up to inexperience dealing with client relationships – I come from a corporate background where our clients were internal and we were the best development team in the division. The relationships were already defined.

Now, I realize that while I do have to turn down leads that will never be good clients, I also have to recognize when a potential red flag is just a client who needs some direction.

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overcome client red flags
overcome client red flags

Featured photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

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