Whether you’re a solo freelancer or a manager of an agency, client acquisition is so important to get right. You want clients who suit you and your way of working – not just anyone/everyone. After all, we’ve all heard the advice that you can’t be all things to all people…
I recently conducted an exercise to establish the traits and common themes between my best clients, so that I know who they are and what they’re like, and therefore ultimately to try to find more clients like them. Unfortunately, in doing so, I also came across the similarities between my… not-so-best clients (to put it politely).
There’s two sides to this post. Firstly, by sharing my outcomes of the exercise, you’ll see which client traits are good and bad from my perspective, and that might be useful to you for your own client acquisition efforts. Secondly though, and perhaps more importantly, there’s nothing stopping you from conducting the exercise – which I’ll detail and lay out in this post – so that you can see for yourself who your best clients are, too.
Introducing The Pumpkin Plan
When I first started out as a freelancer nearly three years ago, I watched a webinar all about choosing clients as an SEO consultant. Mackenzie Fogelson (@mackfogelson) – who’s well-known in the SEO industry – recommended The Pumpkin Plan by Mike Michalowicz. I bought the book (Amazon link/main website link) and it became one of my favourites – I also have it as an audiobook and still listen to from time to time. In addition to being filled with great advice covering a variety of topics around business growth, the author has a great writing style and a cracking sense of humour (he also narrates the audiobook himself and sounds just like Saul from Breaking Bad, which adds to the awesome – but I digress…)
Why The Pumpkin Plan? Because growing a giant pumpkin is just like growing a behemoth of a company, of course! In all seriousness though, the comparisons do make a lot of sense:
- Plant promising seeds = identify and leverage your biggest natural strengths,
- Water, water, water = sell, sell, sell!
- As they grow, remove all the diseased and damaged pumpkins = as the business grows, stop taking on bad-fit clients,
- And so on…
One of the chapters – Assess the Vine – covers client acquisition… or more accurately, changing your way of going about client acquisition, so that you take on clients better suited to you (and therefore better clients). He does this via the Assessment Chart, which you can use to figure out your best clients.
How the Assessment Chart works
The Assessment Chart allows you to rate your clients based on a mix of scoring criteria. In addition to their revenue worth (which can be one column), you include High Qualifiers and Low Qualifiers such as whether they’re fast payers, good communicators, provide repeat revenue, and provide opportunities to key partners. You then also include your Immutable Laws – as Mike (the author) calls them – which you can customise yourself. Mike’s examples are “Give to Give” (give for the sake of giving and work for the joy of working), “No Dicks Allowed” (pretty self-explanatory!) and “Blood Money” (working with clients who – like him – are frugal and not splash-the-cash types). I pinched “No Dicks Allowed” for myself, but swapped his other two for “They ‘Get’ It” (i.e. they ‘get’ SEO), “Collaborative” (i.e. they like my collaborative approach, in that they get stuck in and involved with the work) and a fourth: “Flexibility” (they allow me to work freely and don’t put awkward contraints on me, such as expecting me to work evenings and weekends unnecessarily).
Once your columns are ready and your clients have been entered in as individual rows, you put a score in each column alongside each client: from ‘3’ (great) to ‘0’ (ouch…). Add up the numbers in a ‘Score’ column on the far right and bingo: your clients have been scored, which you can arrange to see who your best clients are.
Running the Assessment Chart on my business
Now I don’t know if you’re like me, but I have a terrible habit of reading business books but glossing over do-it-yourself exercises. When I first read the book, I saw the Assessment Chart, thought “oh, that’s nice” and moved on. It wasn’t until my business was nearly 1½ years old that I finally decided to give it a go. And I’m so glad that I did. “Better late than never,” as they say… What made me feel even sillier is that I bigged it up as this task that would takes ages to do, and in the end it only took an hour or so to do – no time at all really, yet such a crucially important task for recognising my best-fit clients.
Here’s what mine ended up looking like (with client names and revenue amounts redacted, of course) from when I ran it about six months ago:
When it comes to scoring, The Pumpkin Plan‘s Mike recommends not holding back. Be brutal. Don’t give one client a higher score just because you’re fond of them or you feel bad judging them too harshly. Try to be as fair about the process as possible across the board.
You’ll see that my top client fits almost all of my criteria perfectly. I say “almost” because interestingly they actually scored ‘0’ in one column (“Flexibility”), so they’re not 100% perfect but they’re pretty great in all but one area.
When you rank clients in this way, there’s naturally going to be people ranking at the bottom of the pile – not everyone can be a winner…
Extraordinarily, the client who outright refused to pay me (resulting in us fighting it out in court) didn’t rank last – they ranked last-but-one. Can you believe that a client ranked lower than them? This process is full of surprises, and you really end up discovering who works best with you and who really, really doesn’t.
What did I learn from the process?
Ultimately you’d need to run the Assessment Chart for yourself in order to get the most from it, but if you’re interested, here are the comparisons – and therefore takeaways – from my best clients:
- They ‘get’ SEO – They have enough of an understanding of SEO to realise that it can take time; that there’s no magic button that gets results instantly; that SEO overlaps with other online marketing activity. It’s a pleasure to educate them and I’ve found that they genuinely understand me. Educating them is a pleasure.
- They’re on-board with my suggestions and willing to try things – When I suggest implementing something, they’re happy to do it. They trust me. They realise that you have to invest big to win big: they’re not put off creating big things – e.g. a big content resource – because they understand that they have more chance of succeeding if they do, and less if they don’t.
- They’re great to work with – Simply put, they’re fun, decent people. I enjoy working with them – so much so that I suggest working from their offices as much as possible. It feels like working with friends.
On the other hand, here are the similarities I spotted between my worst-fit clients:
- They expect me to do non-SEO tasks – I tell clients that I’m an SEO specialist, and while I’m happy to advise on other areas (such as PPC), I make it clear that I have my specialism and other people might be better suited for other jobs. So if they’re roping me in to do social media marketing, basic image editing, or even configuring their emails (which has happened with not just one client, but two clients), then it’s probably not a good sign. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to help out wherever I can, especially if I’m adding value, but don’t treat me like your IT handyman please.
- They blame me for things that aren’t my fault – One of the most frustrating clients that I worked with got annoyed at me and blamed me for lack of results. When I pointed out to them that they hadn’t implemented any of my recommendations (i.e. they hadn’t lifted a finger to help themselves), despite constant reminders and borderline nagging, they still blamed me. Not good. I’m a strong believer in fairness: if I screw up then fine, go ahead and blame me, but don’t blame me for stuff that’s not only out of my hands, but is actually your own darn fault…
- They’re lousy payers – It took 18 months to get one of my debts paid. Enough said.
Sorry if the above comes across as ranty. I love my clients and I’m fiercely loyal to the vast majority of them. But only a fool would pretend that every project is 100% perfect and entirely faultless. That’s just not the way things works. You’re gonna have good projects and you’re gonna have bad projects – but hopefully you can work towards gaining more and more of the former.
Admittedly, you just won’t know what a client will be like until you actually get going with things – for example, you won’t know if a client is a good or bad payer until they pay that first invoice. But you might be able to recognise the signs between your bad-fit clients and future would-be clients that you come across. At the end of the day, go with your gut – if you’re in talks with a new client and they remind you of a bad one with similarities aplenty then it’s probably best to terminate things before they start. The Pumpkin Plan also gives some good advice on turning down (and even firing) clients, should you need it.
Running the process for yourself
Beyond the above bullet-point comparisons of good vs. bad clients, where the real value comes out the Assessment Chart is when you discover that your best clients have other similarities between them, such as:
Industry comparisons – Do they all belong to the same (or similar) industries? It can be tricky in SEO in particular to work with too many similar clients, as many of us operate on a one-business-per-profession basis, myself included – after all, it’s not right to work with two clients who are fighting for the same set of keywords, as one will always outrank the other. But there may be different ways around it (e.g. those serving different geographical locations). If you specialise in a certain industry (e.g. be an SEO who only works with PR agencies) then that can be a really great way to work with your favourite clients, plus it can be really appealing to the clients who fit that bracket.
Service comparisons – What if you discover that your best-fit clients are all Local SEO clients, for example? Perhaps you could drop all other areas of SEO and focus 100% on Local SEO – especially if you enjoy doing it and have a knack for it. When I first discovered that fellow SEO Steve Webb (@SteveWebb) only offered technical SEO audit services, I thought he was crazy, as he’d be turning away all other types of SEO work. But now I often think I’m crazy because I juggle all areas of SEO when I could specialise in just one dedicated focus area: keyword research, technical SEO, inbound link building, ecommerce SEO…
If you can steer your business towards clients you love and clients who love you in return, then you’re on your way to growing one heck of a mighty big pumpkin. So to speak.
Hopefully you can see the worthwhileness of running such an exercise on your own business. If you give it a go yourself then please be sure to let me know how you get on, whether in the comments below or via Twitter.
[Red panda high five image credit – Mark Dumont]