When talking to a potential customer, I can usually tell in a minute or less if they are going to be problematic. Call it intuition. Call it sixth sense. Or simply chalk it up to years of experience.

It usually starts with a gut feeling that tells you, “Don’t take on this new client, it is going to be more trouble than its worth.” It is then up to you to decide whether to listen to that still small voice or go against it and sell out for the money.

Every time I have done the latter, I have lived to regret it. Fortunately the longer I do this, I learn from past mistakes and pay more attention to the voice inside my head.

I had one such conversation today where I knew in about 30 seconds that I did not want to do business with this individual. This was prior to me knowing what industry they were it, the competition they faced, their budget, and even the quality or lack thereof of their web site. As the conversion continued on for about 15 minutes, my initial gut feeling was confirmed.

The instinct I have developed has been fine tuned mostly by trial and error. However, there are some telltale signs to look for when deciding if you want to take on a project or not. While most likely not a complete list, here are a few signs that I look for.

Wants a Free Education

I am all for providing as much information as I possibly can in order to make the potential client feel secure in my knowledge, skills and experience. However there comes a point in the conversation when you can tell that the person is not really looking to hire you but rather see how much information they can obtain for free.

How do you pick up on this? One sign is when they’d rather discuss the how-tos of search marketing instead providing specific information regarding their project. They also avoid discussing their budget because they don’t really have one. They want you to educate them for free.

I deal with this by requesting their URL, asking what they wish to accomplish and get some kind of idea of their budget. I am then all to happy to answer questions of methodology, techniques, etc.

If they are unwilling to provide that information, I simply inform them that each site is unique, presenting its own set of challenges and unless I am able to evaluate what those challenges might be, there is not much I can do to help them. The free educational talk is over.

Wastes Your Most Precious Commodity – Time

I am a very time conscientious person. You can always make more money but you cannot regain lost time.

When I receive a sales call for example, I keep track of the time that I am actually on the phone. I have had sales conversations go on for over an hour and looking back on those, the vast majority of them were completely unproductive.

I don’t have a problem taking time with a new potential client to help them understand search marketing as well as learn exactly what they are wishing to accomplish. It is when they are obviously unprepared to speak with you and even want to ramble on and on and on, bugs me to no end.

I have learned the hard way that if a potential clients wastes lots of your time during the sales process, they will waste much more time as a paying customer. Yes they are paying but oftentimes it is not worth the effort as they will rob you of much more time than they are actually paying for.

After making many mistakes in this area, I now have learned that when they are unprepared, don’t really know what they want or just want to ramble, to bring them back to what was supposed to be the original purpose of their call. If that fails, I simply tell them I have to go to a meeting and promptly end the call.

Has a Business Plan Doomed To Failure

These are hard ones to turn down. You want to give the person a fighting chance but you just know in your heart of hearts that there is only a slim chance that their business will succeed. They may be trying to sell a product or service no one wants. It could even be the result of a web site that is just all wrong. Whatever the case may be, I have learned not to take on these kinds of projects unless the potential client will take a few initial steps to test out their business plan.

One example I recall was a client in our early days who sold a device called the Trig’r Fish’r. This device was placed near the end of a fishing line much like a float and when a fish began to take the bait, the device would jerk the line back hopefully hooking the fish in the process.

We did an great job marketing the site, gaining excellent search visibility and drawing plenty of traffic, but in the end nobody bought the product. The client was sure the site was broken. We checked and everything was fine.

I began to suspect that no one wanted a device that was going to help them cheat in the process of catching a fish. C’mon, snapping that pole back when you feel a nibble is a large part of the fun in fishing. I would compare it to a golf putter that was sure to put the ball in the hole everytime. Where’s the challenge? Where’s the excitement?

I encouraged the client to place the product in a local bait and tackle to see if anyone would buy it, but he had already given up. He should have tested the product prior to manufacturing a million of them and spending a significant amount of money on web site development and marketing.

It is easy enough to take the money for these types of projects and even fulfill your end by marketing the site well. However, if client does not realize any sales or client acquisitions, then the relationship usually ends on a sour note.

Wants a Special Deal or Discount

Then there are the potential clients that want you to discount your services because they somehow feel they are entitled. One such customer had been burned 2 or 3 times by other search marketing companies. While I can feel bad for them, that is really not my fault. Why should I have to devalue my services because someone else dealt them a raw deal? I shouldn’t.

In another scenario I made the mistake of initially offering a discount on web development because they were one of our first customers. From that day on, they wanted a discount on everything. After several years I stopped patronizing them and they left.

These kinds of people will never fully value or appreciate your services which is why they don’t want to pay full price for them. I’m not referring to agency relationships or even volume deals. I am referring to the person who has one site and wants some kind of a discount. I would rather pass on such a deal, even if the client would look good in your portfolio. It simply sets up a pattern for them to expect a discount again and again and again.

Their Goals Are Unrealistic

They want a number one position on Google for a very competitive keyword. They have a dinky little web site of little value, no intentions to make it better and even worse, no budget to work with. This is just one example out of many but it all boils down to the fact that they want you to wave some kind of magic wand and poof – they are the number one spot.

Sometimes these types can be brought to understand how unrealistic their goals are. Most often they can’t. They have the attitude that if you can promise them the world, they’ll find someone who can. My advice is to let them go so they can find such a person. It is not going to me.


These are just some of the telltale signs I look for. I’m sure there are others. The bottom line is to make sure you feel comfortable with the person, with their business model, their budget of course and their expectations. While these will not always guarantee a successful relationship, they will help to avoid potentially bad ones.

David Wallace

David Wallace

David Wallace, co-founder and CEO of SearchRank, is a recognized expert in the industry of search and social media marketing. Since 1997, David has been involved in developing successful search engine and social media marketing campaigns for large and small businesses.

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