Anyone who has been in business for any length of time has had to deal with the client from hell. The prototypical client from hell is domineering (“I’m paying you lots of money for this job, so whatever I say goes”); changes his mind frequently but then denies ever changing his mind and accuses you of being the one changing expectations on the fly; finds justifications not to pay what he’s being billed for (“I never authorized that”); and in short is just plain mean, manipulative, and dishonest.

But then there’s the client from heaven—she’s a joy to work with, is appreciative of your expertise and your efforts, understands that she needs to pay for changing her mind and is happy to do so, and pays promptly.

How Do You Go About Finding Those Heavenly Clients?

Part of finding good clients is simply being discriminating. Be sure you are clear about your own client selection criteria before you have a conversation with your next potential client. Client selection criteria are simply qualities and characteristics that clients must have for you to agree to work with them.

With these selection criteria in mind, when you first sit down with a client to discuss business, try to gauge her attitude. Does she have an attitude of collaboration? Is she respectful, and does she appear to welcome open communication? Or does she talk about the money a lot, and how exacting she is, and how the work had better be in accordance with her high standards (or she’s going to be very upset and give you a hard time)? You’ve got to stand your ground; if a potential client doesn’t meet your criteria, you must exercise the good business judgment and personal willpower to say, “Thanks, but I’m not the right professional for you.”

Good clients aren’t necessarily pushovers—but they ARE thoughtful, open to suggestions, willing to work cooperatively with you and the contractor, and considerate of your time. Bad clients are generally just the reverse of this—and you can often spot them if you’re willing to be objective and not be blinded by the promise of a lucrative project or a feather in your cap.

One of the most important things that is commonly overlooked is trusting your gut sense. You know when you get that feeling—your energy drops momentarily, and then you rationalize the feeling away.

As you get started working with your new client, make a conscious effort (and remind yourself) to manage expectations explicitly from the beginning by providing agreements in writing. And make sure any verbal changes are also confirmed in writing. Of course, no written agreement can cover every possibility, but it’s a lot better than going by memory. Be sure that the client is clear on exactly what the scope of work is and that changes to the game plan are likely to incur extra time and cost. You need to be sure that you’re being reimbursed for any extra expenses because those can add up—and this is your livelihood, after all.

Focus on the Benefits

In managing the client’s expectations, though, focus on the benefit to the client. Be sure the client knows what to abide by and how he’ll benefit by abiding by it.

But I’m Stuck with This Client!

What if, despite your best efforts to discriminate, you just didn’t see that your client was going to be a bad client? He might have acted one way before you committed to the project and then revealed his true nature only after the project was under way. Or maybe the person you initially dealt with would be a good client if left to his own devices, but then it turns out that it’s really the spouse or business partner from hell who is in charge.

Maybe you can’t turn hell into heaven, but there are some things you can do and should do to prevent matters from getting out of hand.

If you’ve found that your client is less than ideal and the project is under way, the very first thing to remind yourself about is that no matter how poorly the client is acting, writing, or speaking to you, it’s not personal. (If he’s being nasty to you, there’s a high probability that that’s how he treats others in his life when things don’t go the way he thinks they should.)

Next, don’t “go dark,” no matter how tempting it may be to do so. In other words, meet with both the client and the contractor. Hear both sides of the story. Keep doing what you can to move the project forward in as professional a manner as possible. DO NOT attempt to ignore conflict and hope it will go away.

Make it a point to communicate your understanding about complaints, changes, and clarifications verbally AND in writing: While real-time verbal communication, especially face-to-face, is the best way to connect with a client, it’s vital to back up your verbal understandings in writing. (Although it seems like more work, this extra attention to detail and focus on the client will be well worth the savings in aggravation, lost revenue, and potential legal hassles.)

Of course, if you could optimize your client selection, you’d have less of a chance of running into a difficult situation in the first place, so we have…

More Tips for Finding Great Clients

After you’ve been in business for a while, you can make use of two marvelous ways to find ideal clients: client lists and referrals.

Client Lists

After you’ve done business with a good client, by all means, add the client to your “good client” list. But go a little further. Make sure you have listed the attributes that made that particular client a great client. You’ll find, over time, that your good clients have certain characteristics that make for a good relationship with you. Adjust your marketing strategy to attract more of the same type of client and not the types of client that you’d find hard to work with. And of course, your best clients can also be a great source of referrals. In fact, it’s a good practice to include a section in your original written agreement with each client that says you’ll be asking for a testimonial and referrals after the project is completed and your client is thrilled with the results.

Referrals

When you’ve finished working with that client who’s simply a joy to work with, be sure to ask for referrals. But don’t just ask whether the client knows anyone in the market for your services. Rather, acknowledge him for being such a good client, and ask him to recommend someone with similar characteristics. For example, you could say something like, “Joe, do you know anybody else who would benefit from what I have to offer and who is just as thoughtful as you, who is just as collaborative, who is just as much a joy to work with as you were on the project we just completed together?”

A question like this does two things: It acknowledges Joe, and it specifies that you’re not looking for just any client, but a client who is similar to Joe.