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'Starter Clients' Offer Invaluable Lessons

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I never really understood the expression "be careful what you wish for" until I started my marketing consultancy. But I wished for a roster of clients so I could pay my bills, and my wish came true. I had a slew of clients, but most were new to marketing and required lots of hands-on attention. Working with them was increasingly frustrating, time-consuming and, ultimately, unsustainable.

From this, I found that having a good clientele is less about filling my dance card and more about aligning myself with people who understand marketing and have realistic expectations of our relationship. I now have antennae that allow me to detect a client from hell at 50 paces and keep me from accepting their projects.

I began thinking about some of these successful early business relationships when the notion of "starter marriages" was raised at a recent social gathering. This term was coined to describe marriages between people in their 20s who stay together for a few years and then split up before producing offspring or investing more time or energy into what is clearly a losing proposition.

In my naiveté and desire to start my marketing practice, taking on these early clients was my equivalent to entering into an unsuitable marriage. Eager to be productive and bring home the bacon, I metaphorically hopped into bed with whatever client showed interest or demonstrated the means to pay for my services. Thankfully, the relationships ended before I, too, committed too much time or emotional energy to them.

While my "starter clients" were self-anointed entrepreneurs, I'm not suggesting that nightmare clients can be categorized by company size or industry or by the founder's age or gender. In my case, they were a disparate group with small budgets, little to no experience working with marketing professionals, and unrealistic expectations. And while each starter client took me through my paces, they also taught me valuable lessons about work, life, letting go and moving on.

Sign on the Dotted Line

My first starter client, an equipment manufacturer, also was the first client I worked on both as a consultant and with Kate, my oft-referenced colleague who runs a national marketing-services enterprise. Kate and I were introduced to this client, whom I'll call George, through a trusted business acquaintance.

George was a mild-mannered, somewhat awkward but oddly charming man who was initially a pleasure to deal with. He was enthusiastic about both his product and working with us. It appeared to be a win-win situation for all.

Prior to commencing work, Kate provided George with an agreement that clearly outlined the parameters of the assignment, including its timeline, what we would deliver, fees, exit clauses, and other details. George was expected to sign and return this document. We also delivered an invoice for our retainer, which included first and last month's fees. Upon receiving the first payment, we immediately began work on George's business, spending weeks researching his industry, assessing his communications efforts and developing a marketing plan.

Just prior to presenting the plan to George and his management team, Kate reminded George he hadn't signed the agreement we presented a few weeks back. Kate explained we had proceeded in good faith but that we "would appreciate his John Hancock for our records." George, suddenly not so charming, refused to sign, commenting, "The agreement is legally meaningless." He chuckled, "What are you going to do ... sue me someday?" Three months later we threatened to ... for payment due on services rendered. In the end, George paid, but only after weeks of legal maneuverings.


Starter Client Lesson No. 1: Get it in writing, even from a nice person you know through a trusted referral, because one day, as quickly as he blew into your life, he might blow out.


Time Is Money

Another "starter client" was more accurately an almost-started client.

Kate and I met with Pat and Chris, partners from a successful professional-services firm, four times -- first to introduce ourselves and present our credentials -- then three more times to discuss updated iterations of our proposal, revamped to reflect the ever-changing nature of the assignment. After several months of negotiating, we were officially awarded the business and selected a date to formally kick off the relationship.

In each meeting I silently noted the dynamics between the partners and determined that Pat seemed more supportive of our cause. So when the partnership abruptly dissolved mere days before the kick-off meeting, we weren't surprised that Pat called to request help in launching a new business -- and Chris didn't. Upon hearing of the split and Pat's request, Kate and I gladly jumped off the first business-development treadmill... only to find ourselves on another.

Well, Pat might have supported our marketing initiatives, but left alone, he wasn't a decision-maker or equipped to respond to the dissolution of the partnership by swiftly creating a new entity. (Unfortunately, that didn't stop him from requesting a proposal to launch the new business -- and then a revised version -- which we dutifully, and foolishly, provided.)

In the final analysis, Pat didn't hire us ... or anyone else for that matter. So after many, many months of meetings, proposals, phone calls, e-mails and reference checks, we ended up empty-handed. All in all, a total waste of time.


Starter Client Lesson No. 2: If a potential client can't "pull the trigger" and hire you after several in-depth conversations and at least two revised proposals, chances are you won't be hired. And, after doing a client love-dance for months and having nothing but tread marks on your back to show for it, you don't want to be the party thinking, "What was that?"


Are You My Mother?

As if I don't have enough problems with my own extended family, I somehow thought it would be a good idea to get involved in someone else's family melodrama.

This starter client was composed of a husband-and-wife team, chief executive officer and president, respectively, who recently brought their 20-something daughter into their multimillion-dollar management company to help "bring it to the next level." They were pleasant people who made me feel comfortable immediately. (In fact, I felt I already knew them since we shared so many mutual acquaintances.)

We were excited at the prospect of working with them, since their growing business is exciting and would have benefited significantly from a concerted marketing effort. Unfortunately, our client contact was the daughter, a bright and impressive young woman with zero authority to make decisions. Often she had to fight just to be heard -- a position that didn't bode well for us, her marketing counsel.

At the beginning of one get-together, her father, an affable gentleman in his 60s, explained it was "his daughter's meeting" and he was there "to just listen." He then -- surprise, surprise -- proceeded to monopolize the conversation for the next several hours. The mom, a diminutive, quiet woman, still saw her daughter as a teenager and treated her as such. During one exchange, when the daughter was discussing business strategy, Mom interrupted with the important and pressing question "Where did you get that watch? I don't know that watch. Who gave you that watch?"

The most jaw-dropping affront was the meeting in which we were discussing sales approaches and I matter-of-factly asked the daughter, "How do you generally close sales?" Before she could answer, Mom callously blurted out "she doesn't ... I do." Ouch.

Suffice it to say, outside consultants must have credibility with a client for their suggestions to be heard. Since the daughter -- our contact -- was usually dismissed by her parents, it was difficult, if not impossible, to get Mom and Dad to understand our process, timeframe, contribution, and value of our recommendations, which were contrary to their established practices. Bottom line -- we were commended for our performance then let go with no explanation why.


Starter Client Lesson No. 3: Beware of certain family businesses ... especially if your contact isn't the ultimate decision-maker. Eventually, you'll end up at the proverbial kids' table at Thanksgiving or, worse yet, not get invited back next year.


Breaking Up Was Easy to Do

In hindsight, I realize that all my starter clients were bootstrappers and weren't accustomed to using, or paying for, professional marketing counsel. In fact, when working with these clients, I spent one-third of my time telling them what I'm going to do (and why), one-third of my time doing it and one-third of my time telling them the significance of what I did. With more experienced clients, much less hand-holding is required, allowing more time to be devoted to the assignment and generally higher satisfaction levels.

My starter clients taught me the importance of establishing and continuously communicating what's expected of us during every assignment, and then making sure these expectations are upheld. They also showed me why it's important to be discerning before deciding to get into bed with a company.

So now, prior to formally engaging with a prospect, I look for red flags, like a principal who resists signing a business document, a laborious courtship or being assigned to a contact with no clout. If my internal client-nightmare warning system goes off, I gracefully bow out of the assignment or perhaps refer the client to another consultant instead of submitting a proposal.

But the best lesson I learned from these three companies is that I have a choice, too. And unlike the early "I'll take what I can get" days of my consultancy, just because someone wants to marry me doesn't mean I have to say yes. After all, chances are good that there's a better offer waiting right around the corner.

Mr. Levinson is an independent marketing consultant in Boston.

Copyright © 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Last updated: Oct 1, 2003




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