12 Criteria for Qualifying Marketing Agency Clients

By | March 7, 2013
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Below is a guest post from David C. Baker (@Recourses). He is the principal of ReCourses, Inc., under which he advises firms in the marketing space exclusively. He has consulted with nearly 800 firms in this space over the last 19 years. He's published four books, been in countless publications, and speaks 35 times per year.

David C. BakerIf a client relationship is like marriage, then the marketing process is like dating. Since one will flow from the other, it’s difficult to overestimate the importance of “intentional dating” as you seek new client relationships. In other words, now is the time to date only marriageable people (unlike college, right?).

Unless the standard is set high at this stage, you’ll be exerting far too much effort in trying to change your clients ongoing. That’s energy not very well spent. It’s better to screen potential clients and be choosier about prospective partners at the onset.

Here are some thoughts you might adapt to your own situation. Ideal clients:

  1. Are experienced users of professional providers. If they aren’t, let somebody else break them in. It might be okay to work for a start-up, but at a minimum, the decision maker has to be experienced. If this isn't true, two things will plague the relationship: the unqualified client won't be prepared for the cost and the time required. This is the only one on the list that I would never compromise on.
  2. Listen to your advice. The best way to do that is to pushback on something they say, or give them feedback about a portion of their website that doesn't fit the new direction they are describing—just to see if they'll be defensive or appreciate how perceptive you are.
  3. Are not too big for you—i.e. they represent more than 25% of your fee base off the bat. If they are larger than that, they will put you at risk if they leave. It's called a client concentration problem, and it's such a pervasive issue in the industry that the best RFPs (is there such a thing as a good RFP?) will ask: "If you win our business, what percentage of your client base in revenue will our account represent?" The most qualified clients are looking for a low number, only because they know they won't get objective advice otherwise. You'll be too afraid to lose the account.
  4. Are not too small, making it difficult to delve into their situation deeply enough to make money or a difference in whatever it is they are trying to solve. You’re looking for usually about 10% of your fee base (perhaps as low as 5%). Between this and the previous point, you can do the math, and correctly assume that you should end up with 8-15 clients, regardless of the size of your firm.
  5. Are forthright about their budget. Qualified clients generally reveal it, and then ask: “What can we get for this money?” Unqualified clients are mum, and ask instead: “How much will these things cost?” They don't trust you with the figure.
  6. Spend a budget. While access to the top person(s) is very good, the person you are working with should not be spending their own money, but rather be working from a budget.
  7. Identify a specific decision maker versus a group of them to work with you. This person has the authority to make decisions, and will build consensus for you behind the scenes.
  8. Let you designate a contact at your firm and don’t require you, the principal, to be their daily contact. You have much better things to do, and there's a good chance you aren't very good at client services anyway. Most entrepreneurs are not.
  9. Value your focus or expertise. General providers are never valued as highly as specialists, so you may want to find out if this is one of the reasons they are pursuing a relationship with you.
  10. Are credit worthy and don’t balk at a significant deposit up front. The only certain way to mitigate financial risk is to be prepaid completely upfront (which is my policy for 100% of my work). Failing that, at least don't work ahead of what you have been paid. For example, don’t issue an invoice and start work before you are paid.
  11. Are fun to work alongside. Trust your instincts on this one.
  12. Are comfortable with you making a profit on their account. There is no point in dancing around this issue; just ask them if they are.

What should you do with this list, after you modify it to fit your own voice and policies? Two things. First, create a printed list with checkboxes next to it for internal use. As you have that first conversation with the prospect—and it should always be on the phone and not in person—check the boxes off and see where they don't qualify. You’ll be making a more intentional decision without getting overly optimistic about "opportunity."

Second, pare the list down and publish it on your website. A primary purpose of your website is to attract leads, and then let the prospect self-select themselves out of the running if they are not qualified. That way, you never even have the opportunity to compromise. Chasing unqualified opportunities is the biggest time waster in business development. For a great example of this, look at Interrupt Marketing’s pricing page.  

Effort qualifying clients is time well spent. There is only so much “shaping” you’ll be able to do once they on are board. If you find yourself lacking the courage to be choosy, it's because you don't have enough opportunities to choose from. If that’s the case, it’s time to reduce your capacity or increase your leads with better positioning and smarter lead generation.