Everyone in business can look back and see events and relationships, both good and bad, that changed the course of their company. It could be the time when you land that first big client, which I will call “The Whale.” That is a huge tipping point for our business. However, there is another tipping point in business that I think is super important but rarely talked about and can prevent you from landing “The Whale.” That is the problem client who only serves to drain us of our time, money and morale. 

When we start our enterprises, we are a one- or two-person show, trying to get everything right. We put large expectations on ourselves. We may have borrowed money from friends and family, and we have a family to support which adds even more pressure. This must work. We promise that we will work incredible hours to make sure it does!  This is Plan A. Plan B is to make sure Plan A works out. So, the marketing, sales, quotes, purchasing, invoicing, accounting, and the physical execution of the project comes down to just you or you and your small staff.  You are in the startup phase, and you are working your tails off to get things up and running as efficiently as possible.   

In those early days, you go after every opportunity. Even if the project doesn’t exactly fit your expertise, you try to make it work anyway. You have to! You have mouths to feed—not to mention your own pride and fear of failing all wrapped into one.

When a prospective customer asks if you can do a project, and it is not exactly your specialty, but you can figure it out. Your answer is always yes. It must be. It is not as if customers are lining up at the door in the beginning. For example, if you specialize in sealing or polishing concrete and the client asks you to work on stone or vice versa. It can’t be that different right? You will figure it out. Every call or inquiry is a potential sale, and you chase it down with everything you have.  

A customer wants the best!

My favorite is the potential customer who tells you that he or she wants the best until the quote comes in. Then, they ask you to quote second best and third best, each time looking for a cheaper option. So much for wanting “the best and money is no object!”  You take time to explain to the customer the result to expect from each option. They question everything. Then you quote the third option and further explain what to anticipate—that he or she can’t expect the performance of option No. 1 and choose cheaper option No. 3. You can’t make apple pie without apples regardless of how good a chef you are!  

After all that, the customer asks for a discount. You explain your costs and that you must make a living, etc. Whether you give in to a further discount is a function of how large the job is, how likely you are in competition for this business and how much work you have going at that time. Then, you get that sick feeling in your gut that this is not going to end well, and our gut feeling has an extremely high chance of being right.

Do you recognize this customer? 

This customer watches every move you make, comments on absolutely everything you do, comments on the products you use and how much they cost and tells you inconsequential stories while you are trying to work. It will drive you crazy and nothing you do will be good enough! Regardless of the outcome, you know this person is not going to be completely happy. You could have recreated Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel for this client, and it just won’t be good enough. This type of person is out there.

It is a great moment in your business when you can identify these individuals as soon as possible. This ability is crucial for many reasons. If you do take this project, it will likely end up costing you time and money. If you take on several of these projects, it can end up costing you your business, and if not the business itself, it will drain the morale from you and your employees.

After he or she has complained about every little thing—even the details you warned about, you will likely have to go back once or twice for something trivial so you can get your final payment. Even though you explained that going with a cheaper option will not give the desired look, that is ancient history in the client’s mind.   

How do you deal with this customer?

When a client asks for a third cut on price—before you go too deep in the relationship, consider politely telling them that you are no longer interested in their business. Once you are already working on a project for a customer and they do what is noted above, again, politely ask if they will let you work by yourself with your crew, and if they will please save their questions and comments until after you are finished, at least for the day. Remind the client that they hired you for your expertise and not the other way around.  

What does this do to our emotional energy?

No one likes unhappy customers. We want everyone to love our work, but you can’t make a masterpiece with the cheap materials as you fully explained at the start. I know when a project is less than 100% that I don’t sleep well and often wake up thinking of it and often mad and in a bad mood for the rest of the day. (You can confirm that with my wife!) Then, how about that opportunity cost, spending days on that job that made you zero profit (or a loss), affected your sleep, made you cranky while you could have been using that time to find “The Whale.”  Or in that time, you could have done something else for your business such as creating new contacts that may lead to “The Whale.”

What is a “good customer?” 

Compare this scenario to how much we love the reaction of some of our wonderful customers who let us advise them, get out of our way to produce the perfect project, and are appreciative of the work that we created. These customers are not a rarity. They can be earned when we invest time in developing a relationship by listening to them and advising them with our expertise. That is such a wonderful feeling that is good for our souls and good for business. 

The difficult customers are challenging in so many ways that we don’t fully take into consideration. The amount they cost us personally and professionally is not calculable. Additionally, opportunity cost is impossible to calculate. Identify the potential in all your customers, but also the challenges, and make choices to keep your business in a positive mode. Great things are ahead and hopefully you catch your whale sooner!