Why You Cannot Be Trusted With Opportunity

You’ve demonstrated that you can’t be trusted with opportunity.

You smile when you hear that, partly because you know it’s true, but partly because you pride yourself on actually converting questionable prospects into good clients. Seldom great ones, but certainly acceptable ones.

Your memory has a way of playing tricks on you, though. You tend to remember your successes more than your failures.

I’ll make a statement about how you shouldn’t work for clients who haven’t worked with a firm like yours before, and rather than acknowledge the fourteen cases where that’s proven to be true, you’ll instead remember the one time when you turned an inexperienced client into one of your best ones. Instead of seeing that as an exception around which you should not build your policies, though, you use the experience to justify repeated attempts to distort reality.

How do you get to the point where you don’t try to wear a shoe that won’t fit or a belt size that’s too small just because it’s the only size they have in stock? Or because you’re in the mood for some aspirational clothes shopping?

Disciplined, confident firms:

  1. Describe their ideal client, in writing. They may even put a modified version of that on their website. It’s easier to point prospects to an “established criteria” rather than muster a unique courage each time. This checklist is normative and you evaluate each opportunity against its elements.
  2. Probe a prospect’s fit very early–typically on the phone–to find out how to proceed. Doing it on the phone minimizes the sunk costs that are always so difficult to walk away from. “But we’ve already invested this much time–maybe we should play it out and see where it goes.” No, they are not afraid of the truth. They want to hear the truth as early as possible in the process and then make a decision.
  3. Include at least one other person in their new business reporting to keep everybody honest. Using that same list, they both agree where the prospect might not measure up, and then together they decide how to proceed.

Having said that, there are times when you should work with an unqualified client. Yes, I just said that! Those of you who have been reading these missives for 24 years will be surprised.

But here’s the thing: when you compromise because you need the work, accept the fact that you will not turn them into a suddenly qualified client. You’ve given up the right to whine about them, and you are fully prepared to sever the relationship–kindly–as soon as you can replace them.

You can’t be a total purist, though, and many times it makes sense to keep people employed on the backs of unqualified clients. This does not give you the right to lie to yourself or to turn it into a regular policy.

From a mathematical standpoint, every client has to have a “first creative firm” but the smart ones let someone else train them on:

  • How long it takes to do really good work.
  • How the decision makers should be in the loop from the start.
  • How much it costs to move the marketing needle.
  • How courageous objectivity feels like when it’s delivered gently. How they should smile and nod and be grateful for your expertise.

If you want to build your firm around breaking prospects in, knock yourself out. The rest of your competitors will thank you.

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