Some Prospect Red Flags are Redder Than Others

I really like the notion of setting specific criteria for determining who your best clients are, and I think you should use that list in two ways.

First, go through the checklist on the phone, before you ever have a meeting, to see if you'll be using everybody's time and money smartly. "What agency are you working with now?" You don't really care who it is--you just want to know if you'll be their first agency. Having a checklist to prod you will not only help promote thoroughness, but it will remind you of some good ways to ask those questions.

Second, make the language a little more friendly and let prospects self-select themselves out of the running before you get a chance to talk yourself into the fit. When agencies are eager for work, they may not be as objective about the fit as the prospect! Here's an example of how one agency phrases the fit they are looking for. I respect their courage.

All Red Flags are Not Equal

But very few prospects will satisfy all of the criteria on your list, right? That doesn't mean you don't proceed, necessarily, but it does call for some degree of caution. For example, you'd always want a prospect to be forthright about their budget. The best prospects say: "I think we can scrape together $260,000 for this initiative. What's the most that you think we could do with that?" Other prospects say: "We're pretty sure that we're going to need these things. What's that going to cost us? Sharpen your pencil, please." I wouldn't rule out a prospect who isn't forthright about their budget, though. You'll miss too much opportunity.

Of the eight or nine critical things you should ask, I'd never compromise on two of them, though. These are the red flags that are really red, and while some agency somewhere can always tell me how a great client didn't pass this test, please don't build your policies on exceptions. Here they are.

The First Really Red Flag

In your shoes, I would never work with a new client who has no experience working with an agency, and that's because they'll be surprised by how much things will cost and how much time you need to do good work on their behalf. Note that this doesn't rule out startups, as long as the decision maker has worked with an agency in a previous life. Let another agency break them in and disappoint them, and then swoop in with real expertise, tight processes, and solid work wrapped gloriously in account and project management.

If you decide to ignore me on this front, at least insist on personal access to the decision makers, and then get everything agreed to verbally before you craft a lengthy proposal. Throw money under the bus and see if it keeps rolling toward you.

The Second Really Red Flag

The other critical qualification I'd never violate in your shoes is working for a client who is spending their own money. This would include a restaurant, a developer, a startup without a marketing director, etc. I know for sure that two or three examples of this popped into your head immediately, from your own painful experience.

For Further Exploration

If you'd like to do some more thinking about this, try downloading this longer discussion on qualifying clients or this treatise on how to start new client relationships with more strategic work.

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