Determining client types

September
1
2010

Web clients fall into one of two basic camps — bulls and sheep. Those who just want someone to execute a very specific vision, and those others who want or need guidance and advice about what their needs really are. If you can identify which type you’re dealing with early enough, a ton of headaches can be avoided in the long-term.

The running of the bulls

The first type is a dependable breed, in that they have a great deal of confidence about what they want. They almost always are the types that live, eat, and breathe their business. They also really have their finger on the pulse of their clientele. The only thing they usually lack is the technical expertise to make their web project and associated elements actually come to life, and that’s where you (the web professional) come in. I refer to these types of clients as “bulls”, though that’s not intended to be derogatory.

I know there are some web industry folk that would rather not work with this type, because they feel creatively stifled. To me, letting go of some creative license is worth the exchange for a greater degree of clarity. These projects can be finished more quickly since there aren’t as many design conceptions to go through, or ideas to “bounce off” the client. You need only execute their vision. The largest difficulty is usually managing expectations, but as long as you’re as clear about things as they are, this doesn’t have to be an issue.

I’ve never turned down an opportunity to work with a bull.

Shepherds have to tend their flocks

The second type is sometimes more difficult to recognize, because they fall into one of two sub-categories. Without trying to confuse the issue, try to follow me here while I explain…

Mary’s little lamb

As the nursery rhyme goes, “everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go”. These clients have come to know that they need a website. Unfortunately, that’s all they’ve decided so far, and now they’re seeking the help of an expert.

More tragic websites can be blamed on this type of client getting involved with a web company run by total scumbags than any single WYSIWYG technology. Clients like this can be badly hurt if they don’t find a web professional with integrity nice and early, but that’s a discussion for another day.

This first genus from this flock, I refer to as lambs. They may have recently experienced an unexpected boom in business, or have grown tired of customers asking about the website they don’t yet have. They almost always have no idea how to send an email attachment, let alone understand how the web works so they may have been avoiding tackling this issue for some time.

Either way, they really aren’t sure of what they need or want, and they’re looking to you to make something great come from nothing. By nothing, I mean the most vague of feedback and a whole ton of shrugging throughout design conceptions and proposed project parameters. None of this makes them bad people, you just have to be prepared to communicate in great detail, and stock up on patience. They may have resisted all this technology stuff, and now they’re feeling forced to break out of a comfort zone that they’ve enjoyed for a long time.

Treat them with kid gloves when it comes to web technology, and lots of healthy respect when it comes to their business. Get it through your head that they know their business better than you do. They are pros in their industry, as you are in yours.

I’ve had great success with this type of client, and often rather enjoy working with the ones that are really eager to learn and full of passion.

Sheep’s clothing, but what’s underneath?

Sheep are more seasoned that the little lamb and this web stuff isn’t all new to them. They’re dissecting every word you say and every thing you do. What’s worse is they may already be very jaded by having gotten into bed with some disreputable gang of douchebags the first time around, and now they’re looking for someone to fix the mess they’re in.

These are the most dangerous web clients to be had.

They might be “kind of tech savvy”, and believe they know best even when it has nothing to do with patch cords and speaker wire. The respect you lavished them with regarding their industry may have been misunderstood for some admission that you don’t know what you’re doing.

When you’re a web pro with integrity, you always want to help these poor saps. You quite naturally feel awful for the crap they’ve been through, and you’re sure it’s you they need. Unfortunately, earning their trust can sometimes be more exhausting than it’s worth to try.

If they have been put through the ringer by some other freelancer or agency, you’ll want to get some iron-clad contracts signed for sure. You might run into payment issues if they’re not 1000% satisfied (the extra “0” isn’t a typo), regardless of whether that level of satisfaction was assured or their expectations were reasonable.

I’ve been known to walk away from sheep, and I’ll do it again.

Shut up and listen

The best thing you can do for yourself, your client, and the project as a whole, is to use your ears and mouth in the two-to-one proportion they were given to you. You can find out all you need to you about a prospective client if you let them share enough, and ask the right questions at the right time.

Do you have a methodology of classifying your prospects?

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