This morning, a digital marketer at a company I won’t name pinged me on FB messenger for “just a minute” to help him with something. It was the 3rd time I’ve dropped what I was doing to help him.
I finally replied, “You know I do this for a living, right?”, and he was taken aback and slightly shameful that he got caught. He had no intention of hiring us– getting as far as he could until asked to pay.
He’s not a bad person, and you (an expert in your field) are not bad for valuing your time.
It’s just that things get tricky before money changes hands.
The client wants to know you’re capable of helping, easy to work with, and affordable. There’s often multiple hoops to jump through with decision makers– other stakeholders have to say yes for a deal to happen.
Maybe the potential client is interested in hiring you, but their expectations of what’s possible, given their content, resources, competition, timeframe, and budget are unreasonable.
Infusionsoft expert Paul Sokol said this about setting the right expectations with clients:
“The behavior and way prospects or clients interact with you is 100% based on how YOU have trained them to engage with you and your business. When you create clear boundaries about the relationship (what channels you use, when you respond to emails, when you take calls, billing policies, etc.) it’s much easier to stick to your guns when people try to push the envelope.”
Perhaps they believe all is fair in love and war– that as long as you don’t have a written and signed contract, teasing you for free consultation will fly.
Qualifying clients is the antidote to this problem.
Stop wasting time talking to unqualified prospects who only dangle the carrot in front of you to lead you along.
Our Director of Operations, Logan Young, is an expert at qualifying leads and when asked about his method for inbounding and on-boarding, he shared this analogy:
“If you’ve ever played poker with a novice player, you know they’re not hard to spot. Rather than waiting for the right hands to bet on, they match every ‘raise’ that comes their way – viewing it as a chance to win more chips.
After a few hands, their night is over.
On-boarding clients operates under this principle. If you have no filter – no spine to say “no” to the unqualified – you’ll attract all the wrong clients.
Don’t de-value your company by setting the entry bar too low. We all have to ‘fold’ sometimes…we all have to say ‘no’.”
Here’s a few of my past mistakes, so you can see what happens when you ignore these rules:
“Anne” was a big time marketing executive, priding herself on hiring the best and having New York-sized budgets with top ad agencies. She invited her team to our workshop and loved it so much that we spent an hour after the session to give private consultation at no charge.
Anne said that she wanted to work with us and understood what it cost to hire top talent. We gave her an on-site meeting at our expense to flesh it out, including 10 hours of prep work to determine an SEO strategy and how to rebuild their site. We got them going on Google Grants – $10,000 a month of free AdWords – something one of their marketing people argued wasn’t possible, but actually was.
We fielded a few dozen requests from her team over a couple months, including a 2 am international call, where she said to just bill her, whatever the cost.
To be nice, since they had a good cause, we billed only $500 for all the work we had done until that point, after which she replied that she was a non-profit and couldn’t afford it.
Though we had a verbal agreement, her view was that she never signed a contract, so we couldn’t bill for any of what we’d done. I told her to consider the work a donation to her organization.
Lesson: be clear and upfront about your pricing and get a token commitment to show they are serious. We charge $750 for a consultation,. Usually these clients are bleeding somewhere, so we diagnose and recommend strategies that not only solve these issues, but increase ROI, which more than pays for the initial investment. If they can’t or won’t do that, you have a red flag. It means they don’t value your time or don’t have the budget to pay for you.
The consultation will include team members running through the Client’s Strategy Assessment, getting access to their accounts, performing quick analysis, talking on the phone with them for an hour, and even key points and a summary afterwards. Take a look at this article to see what makes consultations high in value.
“John” is a self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur and semi-famous in the self-help space. He’s got multiple books out on how to be successful and wealthy.
We fielded several calls from him and his CTO, after confirming he had the budget and was willing to pay our base $20,000 fee. In fact, the fee wasn’t an issue since he had spent millions as an entrepreneur and investor.
We brought our top optimizers to help, sharing our expertise and internal optimization documents. Later, the CTO claimed we didn’t do anything he didn’t already know. A few other digital marketing experts I respect had similar experiences with him- where he asked lots of questions, just wanting to get free consulting under the guise that he was just testing their knowledge.
John didn’t want himself or his CTO to get outed, since it runs counter to the image he is trying to portray.
Lesson: people will dangle money in front of you that might not be real. Qualify leads with inbound marketing and make clear your packages in advance.
The common mistake here is assuming people who say they want to do business will actually pay. Multiple meetings can be a sign of interest, but not a willingness to pay an invoice unless you respect your time up front.
I’m not saying avoid follow-up on inbound requests or force everyone to shell out $20,000 before you even respond to them.
“My tip is to not provide a potential client with too many details in your proposal. If you give them all the information they need, then they won’t require your services. I unfortunately found this out the hard way when I first started accepting clients. Demonstrate your knowledge, but don’t give away all of your secrets to win the account.”
- Don’t let any random person be able to book time on your calendar or offer free consultations to people who don’t fill out at least an intake form. Do you see the top neurosurgeons out canvassing people at the mall, like the Asian places with teriyaki chicken samples on toothpicks?
- Assemble a few packages that describe what you do in detail. Then you don’t have to re-explain the same things over and over. Having a package doesn’t mean “cookie-cutter” any more than a Tesla or an appendix removal operation isn’t governed by expert procedures. Even a one pager will do.
- Crank up your content marketing efforts so that all your leads are inbound. In other words, you talk to only folks who come to you. If you have to call them, then the burden is on you to prove expertise. Whereas when they come to you, which is 100% of our business, you know your referral machine is working.
- Create a screening process to surface the good clients and filter out the bad ones. Nobody will check a box called “bad client”, so you have to set clear criteria by what they want, what they need to pay, what you will do, what they will do, and so forth. Don’t forget to filter for the “jerk” factor- easiest way to do that is ask them to rate their previous or current agencies. If rated poorly, that’s how they’ll likely rate you. You need only 6-7 questions in your intake form- they’re not joining eHarmony.
- Have an admin run the process. They can schedule, qualify, collect payments, and share basic documents. Protect your valuable time. Have a virtual assistant do this for a few hundred dollars a month. Worth it, right? Look at how dentists use assistants, such that in your 90 minute visit, you saw the doctor for only 5 minutes of it.
In your eagerness for more clients, don’t hastily jump into every meeting request or ignore the warning signs of a freeloader or bad client. We’ve all chased that big brand that gave us their business card and got us excited.
When I bought most of the web software and services for American Airlines, I was like Anne and John– guilty of teasing vendors, since I knew the American Airlines name carried weight. The number of fancy dinners and golf outings are more than I can count.
As a public figure at Yahoo!, I learned to respect other people’s time. I wouldn’t accept a meeting unless I was genuinely interested in their product.
And likewise, instead of just ignoring messages from vendors, I replied to every single one. No sense in ghosting them– rejecting the offer via a stream of ignored communication. I would respect them by telling them up front.
But what if you’re not a pro? How do you apply these principles to your business to drive inbound leads and have potential clients respect your time?
Easy. Partner with someone who does have the experience so you don’t ever have to cold call. You can help field leads and execute projects like a good apprentice should.
You don’t even have to work at that company. They can be your mentor— someone who believes in you enough to put their reputation on the line, in exchange for your hard work and eagerness to follow directions.
So rather than look at the lead generation game as a matter of trying to close everything that comes through, which is the scarcity model, flip your mindset. Think of this as you wanting to focus on your best clients, which means saying no to as many bad or maybe deals as you can.
It’s not that you want to turn every potential maybe into a yes. Rather, make every yes much bigger and be okay with not needing to explore every single lead.
And that is how you protect the value of your time. Spend it with those who already respect it and pay you well. Those who treat you poorly are usually the ones who pay the least and expect the most. You know it’s true, so don’t let fear of missing out (FOMO) cause you to make the mistakes I’ve made.
You want to DISQUALIFY as many people as possible, as counter-intuitive as that sounds– by clearly publishing what you do and what you don’t do. And if your marketing materials represent that you’re the cheapest game in town, do you wonder why you probably not only get horrible leads, but not many either?
“Once you realize people are willing to pay for your time, you’ll wonder why you ever gave away free consulting. Some people won’t be able to afford your rates, but that’s fine. Focus on the people that can. Those are the people that ultimately, will be better to work with in the long run, and the people you’ll be able to get the best results with.”
Remember that it’s an honor to talk to the doctor– pretend you’re wearing a white lab coat. You’re a professional, just like the high-end doctors that have spent years in their craft.
You’re not a used car salesman trying to make a quota at the end of the month– start acting professional!
About the Author
You can find him quoted in major publications and on television such as CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, NPR, and LA Times. Clients have included Nike, Red Bull, the Golden State Warriors, Ashley Furniture, Quiznos-- down to local service businesses like real estate agents and dentists. He's spoken at over 750 conferences in 20 countries, having flown over 6 million miles in the last 30 years to train up young adults and business owners. He speaks for free as long as the organization believes in the job-creation mission and covers business class travel.
You can find him hiking tall mountains, eating chicken wings, and taking Kaqun oxygen baths-- likely in a city near you.