Stopping Abusive Clients: The Complete Process

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This is the 11th and final installment of my series, Putting a Stop to Abusive Clients. I hope I’ve made it clear that the solution is not to continually complain and blame clients if they treat you badly, but to take responsibility and make the appropriate changes to your business practices.

An important “best practice” for your business is to have a system for selling your services and managing the sales process. When I first started out, I didn’t realize I needed a process, one with a beginning, middle, and end. Not having one meant I typically started off badly, fumbled around in the middle, and didn’t really know when (or if) it really ended. By not knowing how to close (end) the process by asking for the sale, I allowed it to fade into “maybeland,” which is the worst place to be when your income depends on whether you sell or not.

Having a clearly-defined process allows you to build in checks and balances, to define and manage client expectations. Not having one means clients can walk all over you—either unintentional or deliberately—and you wind up feeling abused. So here in a nutshell is the process I followed for many years … once I figured out I needed one, that is.

Preliminary Consultation

When I make contact with a potential client, the first step is to determine how viable of a prospect he or she really is. Rather than immediately scheduling a meeting, I’m going to have a preliminary phone call to determine two things:

  1. Are they truly serious about the project?
  2. Can they afford to pay for a top-end site like I’m going to provide, or are they just looking for the cheapest option available?

If you’ve read my 27.5 Must-Ask Questions for Consultative Selling, then you already know some questions to ask. I want to learn a little bit about the company and his business goals and objectives. At some point in the conversation, I’m going to ask some variation of this question:

“My prices start at $X,XXX. Were you prepared to spend that?” Unless I get a positive response, I’m not hurrying out to meet with him any time soon.

It’s tempting to skip this crucial first step, or to avoid asking the hard questions and just set up a meeting. But if you want to stop wasting time with prospects who aren’t serious, I highly recommend you don’t.


If the initial conversation warrants a meeting, I’m going to do some research in order to be able to ask some intelligent questions. I want to walk in knowing as much as I can about the company, its owners, and their business model. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for ignorant questions like, “What exactly is it you do here?”

Needs Analysis

The heart of consultative selling is asking questions and actually listening to the answer (as opposed to thinking about what you’re going to say next). My 27.5 Must-Ask Questions for Consultative Selling are very direct and to-the-point, and it takes a bit of courage to bring yourself to ask them … especially the first time.

It helps if you don’t get down to business right away. Think of it like this: the questions you ask should go from general to specific. At some point you’re going to ask some quasi-confidential questions, like how much would he like to increase revenue. But a more appropriate question to begin with might be, “How did you get started in this industry?”

Before you jump into the deep end, you need to break the ice. I’ve heard it said that prospects who want to get straight down to business really want to get straight down to “How much is this going to cost me?”


At some point, you’ll need to turn the information-gathering conversation into a diagnosis. Once you feel you sufficiently understand the prospect’s business goal, needs, and objectives, you can begin to offer suggestions and solutions.

The trick is to avoid giving away too much free information. You do that by discussing the WHY, agreeing upon the WHAT, and ignoring the HOW. Forget about the technical stuff you love talking about. To get the prospect’s commitment to do business with you, you only need to establish and agree upon two things you:

1. What he’s trying to accomplish, his “big picture” objective
2. That you’re the one to help him accomplish it


There comes a point when it’s time to close the deal and ask for the engagement. There are many ways to do this, but I always liked to ask a simple question: “Are you ready to move forward?” (You do this after you’ve discussed all there is to discus and recapped the entire conversation, asking if there’s anything that needs to be added.)

If your prospect says, “yes,” he’d like to move forward, you need to establish the next step. For a lot years, that meant spending several hours preparing a detailed proposal—that is, until I learned how to stop writing proposals to win business.

If you establish and agree upon items #1 and #2 above, then you ought to be able to obtain the prospect’s verbal agreement, conditional on price, without ever writing a proposal. Once you do, it’s a simple thing to prepare a cost estimate without turning it into a comprehensive project plan. Whether I did that on the spot or went back to the office depended on the size and complexity of the project. Once I had a price, I got back in touch to get his agreement.


Now it’s time to finalize the agreement. If the prospect has agreed to the price, you return to his place of business with your final, written document in hand (based on everything discussed during the Needs Analysis and Recommendation steps), then sit down with him and go over every clause in detail. To prevent future problems like waiting to get paid when your client delays, making endless design changes, or avoiding the slippery slope of scope creep, you must stop getting walked on and set some boundaries. That’s exactly what you’re doing here, by managing expectation up-front, in a face-to-face conversation, instead of after the fact.

The Final Word

There are many ways to skin this cat; this just happens to be the way I skin it. You may develop a process that’s similar or completely different. Steal mine, borrow from it, or make up your own. But come up with one that works for you, then refine it until you get it right. It will do wonders for your business and will put an end to abusive clients, misunderstandings, and mismanaged expectations and once and for all.

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It’s not too late to get my free guide, 27.5 Must-Ask Questions for Consultative Selling. Just follow me on Twitter and I’ll send you a link.

This is part 11 of the series Putting a Stop to Abusive Client Behavior:

  1. Stop Client Abuse of Web Designers Now!
  2. Stop the Abuse! 7 Steps to a Well-Trained Client
  3. Stop Wasting Time with Prospects Who Aren’t Serious
  4. Stop Giving Away So Much Free Information!
  5. Stop Writing Proposals to Win Business
  6. Stop Doing the Same Things and Expecting Different Results
  7. Stop Waiting to Get Paid! How to Collect Even when Your Client Delays
  8. Stop Getting Walked on and Set Some Boundaries Already
  9. Stop the Slippery Slope of Scope Creep
  10. Stop Making Endless Design Changes
John TabitaJohn Tabita
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Former owner and partner of web firm Jenesis Technologies, John is currently Director of Digital Strategy at Haines Local Search, a company providing local search marketing solutions to SMBs, including print and Internet Yellow Pages, web design, and local SEO. When not working or spending time with his family, John offers great sales and marketing advice on his blog, Small Business Marketing Sucks. When not working or spending time with his family, John offers great sales and marketing advice on his blog, Small Business Marketing Sucks.

Businessclientsfreelancefreelancingsalessellingselling your servicessmall business
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