Choosing Your Clients

Just as important as being selected for projects by discerning clients, it's equally important that we choose our customers.
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We are all keenly aware that to close new business, we must present ourselves in the best possible light so that the clients will choose us. But I would like to make the argument that it is equally important that we thoroughly interview and select our customers as well.

The only way that we can be successful is if we can deliver what we promise, for the price we promised and within our expected costs for equipment and labor. Even more important is that our clients end up with what they expect, at least. And it is not our opinion that matters; it is the client's preference that really counts.

Just this week I was asked to go to look at a project that a systems integration firm had botched. I have not heard the integrator's side of the story, and as such, I don't have all the facts. However, the client's account of the events that transpired-and our inspection of the systems themselves-is enough for me to be clear that they dropped the ball. The first thing that came to mind while reviewing the installation was that this project may have been a little beyond the capabilities of the integrator. What is indisputable is that the clients are not only dissatisfied, they are hopping mad!

I have written before about managing client expectations. This process starts with the first meeting or even phone call with a prospective customer. But how can we determine if there is a good match, before signing contracts? Some of the questions we ask ourselves when getting know potential clients include:

1) Do they want the kind of systems and services we offer? How can we please our clients and make reasonable margins if we sell systems or components that are outside our expertise and abilities. It is up to us to make sure that we are good matches for all of our projects.

2) Are they willing to pay for our level of products and services? We have had many people who really get the difference that a proper design phase, CAD drawings, coordination and expert project management make, but that doesn't mean that they are all willing to pay the increased costs that this level of service requires.

3) Do they expect heavy discounting or other price concessions, and is price a primary factor in their decision? Do they plan to compare our prices to discount stores and/or online web site resellers? We sell equipment for reasonable prices, but we can't begin to compete with deep discounters.

4) Are we dealing directly with the client, or are we dealing with a third party? It is difficult to perfectly meet our clients' expectations if we don't have the opportunity to interact directly with him or her to really understand them and their approach to our scope of work.

5) Is it easy to communicate with them? Do we like them and do they like us? This is paramount. If the relationship isn't strong at the start of the project, it will be even more difficult to accomplish a successful and profitable project. If the relationship starts off strong, it is easier to work through the bumps and minor problems that always seem to happen during the design and installation phases.

6) Will they allow us to do our job, or will they micromanage us or question everything we do? We can't do a good job with the client, or anyone else, for that matter, watching every step or second-guessing everything we do.

7) Do they listen to us and trust our recommendations, and will they continue to do so? We do have clients who know exactly what they want and how they want it to be installed, and we enjoy working with those clients. It is difficult, however, when they don't understand our scope of work or the processes involved, yet insist on directing the details, especially when we know they are preventing us from giving them what we know the really want and need.

8) What has their experience been in the past with systems purchased and the integrators that provided them? We always ask why they are looking for a new integrator, as it can tell us a lot about how it will be to work with that client.

9) Do they know how to operate the components and system they now own and/or have owned in the past, and were they comfortable doing so? This helps us to know how happy they might be with our systems and how best to offer control system options will best serve them.

10) Do they have reasonable expectations in terms of system performance, aesthetics, price and time frames? Sometimes the client asks too much, sometimes they need systems or components that we don't provide, and sometimes we just can't meet their scheduling requirements. Taking these jobs will generally end in disaster.

We have turned down a number of projects over the years. In some cases, what they were asking for is something that we couldn't or didn't want to deliver. In other cases, we sensed that no matter what we did, that particular client would never be happy. Anytime we question whether we will be able to meet the client's expectations to 100 percent of their satisfaction, we are cautious.
Short-term sales thinking can sometimes result in long-term nightmares. I try to keep in mind that a happy client will usually tell a few people, while an unhappy client will likely tell many.

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