I recently experienced every startup business owner’s nightmare. One of my clients (a fast talker) was extremely upset because I had to resort to threats of involving my business attorney. It is absolutely outlined and spelled out in all of my contracts. He went off on me, tried to avoid payment, but I did not back down. He refused and did not pay the late fees that are also outlined in my contract as well, then had the audacity to tell me, “I’ve been in business for 35 years and never seen such aggressive payment policies.” I reminded him how I bent all my rules for him from the start in order to accommodate his needs, drastically lowered my pay, and okayed him to pay upon invoice vs. upfront for projects. After he found that I was not going to back down and accept the loss, the funds miraculously appeared in my account. However, he did not pay the late fees he had incurred. He is someone I will always run into as we are associated with the same Chamber. Not only did he insult me countless times, he also left some very rude messages. I stayed calm the entire time and continually reminded him of the contract we had gone over together and signed, and how with any business, his included, no one will render services without payment. My attorney advised me to take the loss for the fees because he eventually paid and to let it go, especially considering how low the amount was from start. Needless to say, after a long disturbing message from client, he says, “We will no longer do business. Don’t call us anymore.” I laughed thinking, he can’t be serious? Surely, he couldn’t have thought there would be any more services after that. Ultimately, I thought about it; he knew I had just begun. What he didn’t know is that I have many years of experience behind me. Just because a business is up and coming, that doesn’t mean you’re illiterate as to how business should flow. I am now considering that he may taint my good name with lies to cover what he has done. What are your thoughts? —Chaunte’
I’m guessing while you are justifiably upset, you may also be feeling a bit beat up and second-guessing yourself, wondering if you were out-of-line in any way.
I don’t know the backstory here and not sure exactly what happened, but if you did work he engaged you to do, you are certainly entitled to be paid.
That said, I call these first clients (the ones we take on when we’re new in business) “practice” clients.
We learn a lot from these initial clients, particularly what we don’t want in our businesses, who we want to avoid working with in the future (a/k/a unideal clients), and what red flags to look for and be conscious of moving forward.
We also have to cut ourselves a little slack when we’re new and forgive our missteps and possible clumsiness.
The good news is that we can learn from these experiences, gain clarity about how to do things differently next time, tweak and adjust our processes and infrastructure accordingly, and improve our finesse.
Since you asked for my thoughts, I’ll share a few in no particular order in the hope that you find some useful ideas…
- The first thing I keyed in on was your characterization of this client as being “a fast talker.” This seems like the first red flag you recognized, yet you took him on anyway. It would be worthwhile to do a bit of soul-searching and ask yourself why? If it was clear to you that this client was a bit of a “Slick Willy,” what made you ignore that red flag and not trust your first instincts? Will you ignore your intuition the next time a slick talker approaches you? Is this the kind of client you really want to be working with? If not, what will you do differently next time? What can you put in place that will help you take on more ideal clients and weed out ones who aren’t a fit?
- The other related thing that stood out was your mention of how you bent over backwards for this client, gave him discounts and breaks you normally wouldn’t, and stepped over your own policies and self-interests. Why? Because no good ever comes from this. All it does is teach clients how to treat us poorly and take us for granted. So it would be good to ponder and examine what might be going on here as well. What I see happening quite often when we are new in business and don’t yet have a firm frame of reference of our value is that we tend to overcompensate. We don’t think what we offer is enough; we think we need to “prove” ourselves. In fact, this is the worst thing we can indulge in when we’re new because the worst kind of clients smell that neediness and desperation like blood in water. A lot of this clears up as we gain experience in our business and working with clients. But often a person can go out of business before they can gain the insights, professional self-esteem, and confidence to overcome these debilitating tendencies. This is why I always tell people that they can’t afford to work with crappy clients, not for any amount of money — they are business killers and can destroy a person’s morale and confidence in the blink of an eye.
- This does not sound like a joyful experience whatsoever. If you have clients you have to threaten with attorneys and legal action, there is something very wrong. Sure, you might be in the right, but do you really want a life and business working with people who are not honorable, that you can’t trust, who disrespect you with nonpayment and cause you anxiety about whether you are going to be stiffed? I’m guessing not. So, one important step to avoid this in your business moving forward is to start two lists: one for all the traits and characteristics of your ideal client and one for all the traits and characteristics of your UN-ideal client. Continue to add to these lists with every new client experience throughout the life of your business. It will be a constant work in progress; the point is that it is one of the very best exercises in getting clear about who you do and don’t want as clients so that you heed red flags and trust your gut in the future. As you consult with new clients, keep those lists handy. They’ll remind you whenever you’re tempted to step over your own standards about who you do and don’t want to work with (and more importantly, why).
- Yes, it’s good to have proper contracts with legal language that spells out what the actions and late fees will be if a client doesn’t pay. At the same time, this should always be a very last resort for the very worst-case scenarios. The best course is to avoid working with crappy clients in the first place. The better, more productive, focus is not to underscore every legal point and hammer clients over the head with them, but to improve the ways in which you get clients and how they are educated all along the way. This is why we have a website and steer clients there first so it can pre-educate them and set the proper context. It’s why we have a specific consultation process to further instill proper mindsets and education, as well as determine fit, before we take on clients. It’s why we need to get clear about the business we intend to be in (e.g., do you want to be in the project business where everything is a transaction, or in the business of ongoing administrative support where there is a more personal relationship and where you can charge an upfront retainer?). It’s why we are discerning about the clients we take on and go through specific, intentional steps in on-boarding new clients (e.g., having a Client Guide and conducting a new client orientation with new administrative support clients). It’s why we get clear about our own standards, values and goals and what is important to us in our businesses — so that we can establish the policies, procedures and protocols that support them.
- I agree with your attorney. Even though you may be entitled to them, forget about the late fees. It sounds like you got the principle amount. This client is not worth allowing him to suck any more of your precious attention. To continue to let it take up space in your mind is giving energy to the wrong thing, to your detriment. For your own sake, forget about this client and move on.
- Deadbeat clients can happen to the best of us, particularly when we’re new. At the same time, it should be mentioned that clients often don’t pay because they aren’t happy with something. Did he give any reasons for why he wasn’t paying? Did you ask him? A lot of times some honest dialogue and meaningful probing can unearth what the real problem is. Barring a client just being a jerk and thinking he can take advantage (which it sounds like this client was), it’s very useful to us to forget about being in the right and make a sincere attempt to see things from the other person’s perspective when an issue crops up (which can happen even in the best client relationships). The insight and feedback we can gain is like gold to our businesses — as long as we make good use of it. So don’t shy away from direct, honest, respectful dialogue with clients. Don’t be afraid to ask — and hear — what could I do differently? What would make this better for you? You can use it to figure out where your blindspots might be and improve your systems and processes (for them and for you).
- One way to avoid deadbeat or otherwise un-ideal clients is to have a website. I noticed you don’t have one yet. While I get that people often want to take on clients before they have a website in place to start making money right away (and there is no shortage of morons out there telling people they don’t need a website to start their business), I would argue that this is a mistake. It is not to your benefit in any way for you to be doing business without a website. In so many ways, your website IS the business. Your website isn’t just a way to market what you have to offer. Its other value to you is that it provides a tool with which you can properly educate clients and set and manage their expectations and mindsets before you ever start working together. This is what will get you more consults with more (and better) clients. To take on clients without the benefit of a website where you can send them to get informed about how things work in your business, what business you are actually in, who you are looking to work with (and who you’re not), etc., is like charging into battle without a gun. Your website can help you prequalify and attract more of your ideal clients, educate them in the way you need them to be so they enter the relationship with the right expectations and mindsets and understandings (and respect!), and weed out those who are not a good fit for you so your time is not wasted.
- It’s important to note that this was a project client, not a retained client where you were providing an ongoing relationship of administrative support. These are two completely different business models. It’s worth getting clear and intentional about which kind of business you want to have because the kind of clients you get, the way you work together, how you get them, how you make your money, and the processes you go through with each are very, very different from each other.
- Another way to get more intentional about the business you consciously choose to be in and the kind of clients you want to work with is to choose a target market. A target market is simply a field/industry/profession that you cater your administrative support to (like attorneys or financial advisors or coaches or speakers, etc., etc.). The benefit is that when you know specifically who you’re focusing on, you can get clear (more quickly and easily) about how to craft your solutions, how to market them, and where to find and get clients more quickly and easily. When you have a target market, you don’t have to take on projects with any ol’ client for not enough money. It helps you get more of your ideal clients and provide more ideal solutions designed specifically for them (which allows you to command higher fees).
- We always get a do-over. Each and every day is a new chance to learn, improve, do differently, and grow.
What about you? Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? How did you resolve it and what did you change moving forward?