Resources  >> Dodging Bullets: How To Avoid Bad Clients

About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.

Written by: Vickie Sullivan  |  August 01, 2007

Dodging Bullets: How To Avoid Bad Clients

Originally published for

It’s a rite of passage for many professional service firms: a client who’s never happy and never quiet about it. Most autopsies after the disaster find one common theme: warning signs were ignored during the sales process. It’s tempting to sweep these red flags under the rug during the thrill of the hunt. The price for doing so is more effort and more aggravation, all without a happy ending.

Below are three scenarios to watch out for in the sales process that can spell trouble once the real work begins.

Scenario 1: Signing Up A Superhero

Many prospects approach us because they have a big problem. They have tried a variety of solutions and have learned that they can’t move forward on their own. They called us because they know they have a need. They need us. Sounds great, right?

Not so fast. Many prospects in trouble are looking for a superhero. They’ve been “ripped off” in the past and are unconsciously looking for the next person to make up for it. (These folks have a name in our office: the Walking Wounded.) Or worse, the prospect is so desperate that they need a savior, complete with a magic wand to make everything better.

It’s tempting to rush to the rescue. After all, who doesn’t want to save the day? Who doesn’t want the adrenaline rush? Most of us are happy to help in high-pressure situations. Those do-or-die situations allow everyone to rise to the occasion. But when it comes to “saving” clients, well…I don’t sign up to be a superhero.

What to watch for: Comments such as, “We’re being very careful here because we’ve worked with other firms and didn’t get good results.” Or, “We have very high expectations of your work. We need a Hail Mary pass here.” Really? Let’s spell those expectations out or run for the hills.

What to find out:

  • What happened with the other firms?
  • Why didn’t previous efforts work?
  • Best question: what did you learn from the experience and what are you willing to do differently now?

What to do: Correct the prospect immediately. Say something like, “I can throw the pass; you have to catch the ball.” This opens the door to discuss roles and expectations. Then ask yourself how much dependence you can stand.

Scenario 2: Willing But Unable

The second scenario is more subtle. The prospect understands their role and is willing to implement your suggestions, but can’t. The top three reasons: the cost is too high; they don’t have the staff; and — the most common one — your client doesn’t have the skills to pull it off. Sure, you did your job, but did the client really get value?

Two train wrecks can happen here. In the first, the client starts out strong, and falls apart after the first setback. Instead of learning from the experience and trying again, they initiate the blame game. The target: you.

In the second, the client does nothing with your recommendations. They can’t admit — or even understand — what is holding them back. So nothing happens. The report gathers dust. Again, it’s your fault.

Once the blame game starts, both sides end up losing. Clients rarely see their own blind spots; and there has to be some reason why the initiative didn’t work. We’re the ones left holding the bag, no matter how much extra work we do to fix the problem. Therefore, it is up to us to discover in advance if the client can implement our advice. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of non-billable hours.

What to watch for:

  • Comments about small budgets.
  • Small firms with little or no staff that say, “no one knows marketing/technology/etc.”
  • No discussion or questions about next steps or implementation.

What to find out:

  • Do they have the skills to implement?
  • What are they willing to do to reach their goals?
  • Will the extra expense to implement be prohibitive?
  • What’s their budget?

What to do: If the prospect doesn’t ask these questions, then we have to. Have a direct discussion about what could happen. Go to the dark side. Find out if the prospect has resources (money, staff, a sister who is an internet marketer) that can make things happen fast, cheap, or easy. Be prepared to say, “Look, these things have to be in place so you can take my suggestions and run. Here are some ways you can get ready. Let’s keep in touch so we can pick up where we left off at a better time.”

Scenario 3: Decision-Making Without A Timeline

The third scenario is the most common and easiest to miss. Everyone has a process for making a decision. Any professional worth their salt is gracious enough to honor where prospects are at. Yet, how we make a decision says a lot about how we proceed during the project.

If a prospect has to study all options and mull it over for months before they make a decision, then they will treat our recommendations the same way. They will mull it over and by then, inertia sets in, other priorities take precedent, and the momentum is lost. If that client wanted fast results, will they get it with this process? When they don’t, guess who’s in trouble: you.

If a prospect knows what they want, talks to you, checks you out, and decides within the timeframe you both agreed upon, then won’t they take your advice and run? And if they have the confidence (and courage) to move quickly, isn’t there a better chance that something will get done? I’ve learned the hard way that if someone takes a long time to decide, then I’m not being clear or they are not ready to go to the next level. Either way, it’s not a good fit.

What to watch for:

  • Initial excitement about what you offer, then tap dancing about the timeline to make a decision.
  • Won’t commit to making a decision, even if the answer is “no thanks.”
  • Makes a commitment and backs out at the last minute.

What to find out:

  • Are there concerns you haven’t addressed?
  • Is this really just a fishing expedition?
  • Can they explain the information they need, or how they decide?
  • Do they know when they want to start?

What to do: If the prospect won’t commit to a timeline, ask why. Find out what’s holding them back. If they want to spend too long studying the problem, discuss your concerns. Be prepared to say, “Are you sure you really want to consider this further? I have found that folks who can’t decide to decide really have other priorities that will keep them from implementing my suggestions. Let’s hold off until you are ready to decide one way or another.”


During the sales process, we’re already asking questions. By using questions to not only uncover possibilities, but also pitfalls, we can open up candid discussions that will help the prospect make a more informed decision. When we have the courage to see their behavior clearly, and walk away from prospects that can’t decide or implement, we can open up our schedules for more clients that will.

Filed Under: Sales

About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.