By Georgina Laidlaw

Is That New Client Right For You?

By Georgina Laidlaw

If you have your own business, you probably spend no little time worrying about getting and keeping clients. Clients mean money, and money means food on the table, right?

The dangerous part of this equation is that it leads us to think that any client’s a good client. They’re not. What’s a good client for me might be a terrible client for you.

Let’s talk about some of the aspects of your latest prospect that might make them a bad client for your business.


A contact of mine recently attended a preliminary meeting with a new client on the understanding that the client wanted to train its staff using my contact’s service. In fact the client wanted to use the service train the public to use its product—online gambling. My contact had a problem with the ethics of this job, and decided not to continue the pitch.

Ethics can relate to all aspects of the job: how contractors and colleagues are dealt with, which third party services are used, and how the project is marketed. Don’t bother trying to compromise your ethics for the sake of the dollar—you’ll only end up hating yourself, or the client. Or both.

Company Style

The client organization’s style of working should also be considered. The way your client contacts operate, as well as the structures and systems within which they must operate, can be valid deal-breakers.

Each client organization has its own style, which comprises things like:

  • its way of working
  • its culture
  • review and approval processes
  • expectations of employees and contractors

While I know I can do work with clients whose style grates on me, I try not to. Some client reporting requirements are hellish. That just is. You may not enjoy working for startups. That just is, too. It’s rarely, if ever, worth arguing with these realities—better to spend your time looking for a client you’ll enjoy than taking on a client you won’t, and trying to justify that decision with, say, a higher fee or longer timeline.

Client Style

If the organizational style is worth thinking about, so is the approach of the actual people you’ll be working with on the project. You may or may not be able to get a good idea of all team members before you pitch, but you should get a feel for the key contact—and whether you’ll be able to work well together.

It’s not a bad idea to use your past experience to work out the kinds of people you like working with. My basic criteria look something like this:

  • They have a sense of humor.
  • They’re good at what they do.
  • They’re fair and reasonable.
  • They make me feel inspired to help them as much as I can.

That’s it. I’ve listed those criteria in order of importance to me, but all of them need to be met for the project to be worth doing, in my opinion.


I don’t know about you, but I want to be able to talk proudly about every job I do. That’s important for promoting my business, and since my network is small, reputation is important.

I haven’t ever turned down a potential job on the basis of reputation, but I have taken on jobs knowing that they won’t be worth talking about with my contacts. That’s not good.

If you don’t think you’ll be able to talk proudly about the project once it’s done, consider whether it’s right for you. Your reticence probably hints at some underlying mismatch between yourself and the client—perhaps on one of the points I’ve mentioned above.

These are the things I assess when I’m talking with prospective clients—but what about you? How do you work out if a prospect’s a good fit for you and your business?

Image by stock.xchng user kymmie_xox.

  • Mo

    The points you made are all very valid and pertinent to freelancers as opposed to big web design firms. Sometimes it is not possible to work out the client i am dealing with, i.e. their methods of working, culture, or indeed their ethics. What strategies would you suggest to extricating myself from the job but keeping my reputation intact?

    Many thanks for covering an important topic


  • Georgina Laidlaw

    Hey Mo,
    Good questions. The thing with working for a firm is that you have little choice — you must automatically take on the clients the firm takes on, regardless of how you feel about them.

    But if you’re in a position to choose clients, then research –through your contacts, social networks, industry press, the prospect’s website, and any meetings you have with them — will help you get a feel for things like culture and ethics. Meetings and personal research among others who have worked with that prospect can give you some indication of the way they operate and whether that’s likely to suit you.

    Does this help?

  • Mo

    Hiya Georgina, thank you for the pointers, I don’t work for a firm, I am freelance so I have a choice :-) But yes I should do more research than I have done in the past to get to know potential clients.

    Many thanks, and keep the good articles going :-)


    • It was a good question, Mo. No matter how good your research, what if you do find yourself with a client you should have avoided?

      It’s happened to me a few times and it’s ranged from warm and civilized to horrible and messy.

      Even then, I don’t think my reputation suffered as I adopted what I think is the only appropriate position in those circumstances: be honest, be clear and act as early as possible. That’s not always easy and it’s too often painful, but the alternatives are worse.

  • xhtmlcoder

    It’s important you get to know your potential client to get a ‘feel’ if they are suitable at the start during the research phase like was mentioned. Sometimes it takes a while of working with them to discover how well matched you are. Personally I wouldn’t take on a client I didn’t feel suited with.

    I remember once taking somebody on that could go though coders like there was no tomorrow… Albeit I knew from the outset they had already gone through half-a-dozen within the year.

    Obviously their e-business was suffering badly; so one potently “demanding and desperate” client – though I saw it as a challenge. Thus I set-out ‘my terms’ telling them I’d do a ‘high standard’ of work on short contract retrofit. I could offer a “reliable service” – none of the previous guys did. Cutting to the chase I didn’t have an issue with them and gained a lot of respect from them because of how I operated with ethics, honesty and firmness and was offered other opportunities.

    Regarding the awkward client you need to know how to negotiate and adapt if things are not going to plan or act decisively and tell them straight to avoid any unnecessary problems. But don’t carry on working with a “lost cause” client even if you offer to help them find somebody more matched.

  • Mo

    I find that startups that tend to be the difficult ones, in the sense that they don’t have any history, unless you know someone who knows them personally. I try to be very realistic with them about their own high flyer ideas. they have expectations that as soon as their website is up and running the clients or customers will be flooding through the ‘contact Us’ page! This is a potential flash point which has to be managed from the outset.

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