Dream Client vs. Client from Hell

Pay attention and you’ll see that prospects give clues as to whether they will be easy to work with, or difficult or impossible to satisfy. While I understand the entrepreneurial inclination to convert all prospects into clients, it can be invaluable to focus on the signals a prospect is sending you. Keep in mind that while they’re interviewing you, you also should be interviewing the prospect to determine if you should work with him.

The major difference between a dream client and a client from hell is summarized in one word: trust. The former has an abundance of trust and the latter has little or none. I am not referring to initial healthy skepticism, which I expect from all prospects. Anyone selling something knows that trust is something you earn and it is closely related to credibility. During the sales process, you sell your company’s services and establish your personal credibility. This builds a relationship in which the prospect learns he can trust you to deliver on all your promises and to look out for his interests like they are your own. This is a delicate and fragile process. However, if you are getting signals that all your best efforts to build trust are not working, you may have a client from hell. Beware! You may want to let go before you enter into a contract.

Recently, I had the pleasure of building for a dream client; Jerry is his real name. And I had the misfortune of building for a client from hell; Satan, not his real name! It was a lot easier to build for Jerry than it was for Satan.

When I first met Jerry, he told me he had commissioned many residential design/build projects; he did not tell me any horror stories about previous builders. He told me that he knows what he likes and he has no problem staying committed to his decisions. He said although the budget matters, he knows he has expensive tastes and that his selections will drive the cost of the job higher. He said he knows my company has an excellent reputation and track record, and that my cost-plus management fee business model is fair. He agreed that our 30 percent mark-up for a professional remodel is reasonable. I asked him how I could go about cloning him for all my future projects.

Satan, on the other hand, contacted me many times over an extended time frame. First Mrs. Satan called. She toured our model home and asked 1,001 questions. Then she said she would get back to me. Unfortunately, about nine months later, she did. Then I met her husband, Mr. Satan. He also asked me 1,001 questions, most of which were strangely reminiscent of the ones his wife asked me. I remember thinking that I had answered all these questions before, and it felt as if they had intentionally asked them separately to see if I was answering consistently. Then, they asked to interview the architect I would use if they hired my company. After they met him, they asked if I would be OK with them hiring him to design their house before they decided to hire me. Six months later, they spent another three months negotiating with me. They paid their attorney to completely rewrite my construction agreement; I signed it and built them a 5,000 sq.-ft. $1 million home.

Their ongoing lack of trust lead to antagonistic discussions during scheduling, budget and completion phases. It was not an experience worth the fee we earned.

The prospects with whom you struggle to establish a relationship of trust are often the same ones who turn out to be untrustworthy themselves. Beware of making a deal with someone who does not trust you. It’s a sure sign of bad things to come.