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How Our Showstopper Filter Saves Us From Bad Web Development Projects

How Our Showstopper Filter Saves Us From Bad Web Development Projects

How do you know whom you should accept as a client? Half of the answer to this question is knowing whom you won't accept, no matter what. This article is all about that half of the answer. The tool that helps me decide who does not become my client is a written list I simply call a 'showstopper filter'. I let you take a look the one I created for myself. My example will help you make decisions for your own business.

So, how do you know whom you should accept as a client?

"What do you mean: whom I should accept? Aren't my clients the ones in charge? Aren't they choosing me? 

Glad you asked! It's a matter of attitude.

I prefer the "I'm choosing them" over the "they're choosing me" attitude. It's much healthier for the financial well-being of my web consultancy. It also reminds me of how much value I'm providing as a professional sales geek and a consultant.

Not everybody who owns a wallet is a good fit for your agency.  Some types of clients are notoriously bad for your creative services and you should know how to recognize those people.

What's a 'showstopper filter' and how do I create it?

Let's go back to the question from the beginning of this post:

How do you know whom you should accept as a client?

Start answering this question by first weeding out the prospects you won't accept as a client, no matter what.

(Remember: knowing who you don't want to work with is only half of the answer. The other half is knowing who exactly you do want to work with. I call this other half of the filter an ideal buyer persona. It's a topic of one of my future articles.)

Your showstopper filter catches leads which are bad for your company. Brainstorm a list of features of bad clients and put this list down on (digital) paper. It's important that you write this down because:

  • that way you can share the document with your sales team so they could to do their job well and 
  • you need to document your processes so that your business can survive without you being physically present in it 24/7.

It will be easier for you to create your showstopper filter if I let you take a look at mine. Here's my list.

I'm out of their league.

Huge vs. tiny tomato Creative Commons Image License

They cannot possibly afford to pay me or paying me would put them in a harm's way.

Mention your starting fee on your website. You don't have to get into specifics. Say something like 'Our projects start at x'. Don't bury this information. 

What about the clients who didn't visit your website? Discuss your ballpark fees in the first serious conversation you have with them. First find about their motivation. Then gather technical information about what they need. Name your fee near the end of the conversation. If they say they can't possibly ever afford you, they're a bad fit for you and with no amount of negotiation will you make this project profitable.

They're out of my league.

Cruiser vs. Sailboat Creative Commons Image License

Some good ten years ago, a bank (with a big building and money and safe vaults and everything) asked us if we would do a website AND an internet banking software for them. We easily disqualified ourselves from the website gig. Was it something we said? Yeah. We said that we could also bid for their internet banking software project.

(It amuses me today when I think about how foolish we once were. But we lost a lot of business by offering to chew more than we could swallow. You're reading this article so that you wouldn't have to repeat my mistakes.)

Inexperienced teams take on every challenge that's thrown at them. But some projects are unobtanium. I don't bid for a project which is one or two orders of magnitude more complex than anything we've ever done. Even more so if it involves serious risks and unknowns. One of the reasons why I rather don't bid is that I wouldn't know how to charge for it (I would probably undercharge). Another reason is that I would never allow one single project to sink us.

Don't worry that you're not growing if you're not always taking on bigger-than-life challenges. The best way to grow an agency is to grow it slowly and to grow with your existing clients, not necessarily with the new ones. You're not a Silicon Valley startup: nobody expects you to double your growth every month.

The client can't follow my business process.

Lonesome footsteps in the snow Creative Commons Image License

For some reason the client either refuses to follow or is unable to follow my established professional routine.

(You do have a clearly written business process, right? Meaning, you do know exactly what steps you need to follow to successfully deliver a project to everybody's satisfaction? I plan to write more about this.)

For example, a client wants to hire a software consultancy for a complex custom application. He doesn't have a written project documentation. His inputs are unclear. And yet he insists on getting a fixed price quote for an unknown project scope. You offer the client to create a project documentation for him, but the client wants to skip all of that and proceed directly with programming and design. You realize that you can't work like that and you try to educate the client on the benefits of proper software development process. You fail and decide to let the client go.

Good for you. It's almost impossible to educate clients about the reality of software development on the phone or in one meeting. They would be a bad client for you because their expectations would constantly clash with your business processes. A good client is already educated or at least informed about how developers build complex custom software. Good clients contact you because they want to start with your consulting services first. Your job is to find those clients and filter the others out.

If a client resists to follow your routines, ask additional questions. Sometimes they have a good reason for doing so or you'd accept their reasons once you knew what they were. 

For example, a client wants a website first and a logo second. 


Well, not always. The client is in a hurry and needs any kind of web presence for an event with a looming deadline. You ask questions and find out that a logo is not important now, but a website is. They would be willing to pay your urgent project fee, throw everything into the bin after the event and rehire you to start over with a proper logo and a proper website. 

That's not so shabby, right? You need to ask before you decide.

It's the 'truckload of bananas' type of project.

Banana Truck Creative Commons Image License

A 'truckload of bananas' is our internal joke slash reference to a type of project which is completely out of our specialization (read my post on the topic.)

Let's say that your marketing agency specializes in Google Adwords campaigns only. One day a big brand prospect calls and asks you for a proposal for email marketing. You don't do email marketing, you have zero experience with email marketing and you'd rather not get into email marketing ever. 

But her big shiny logo confuses you into thinking that you should take this gig, which you do. Somewhere down the road your inexperience makes you mess up the project. You lose any hope of working with that client again, even for the type of services at which you're normally crushing it.

You can always refer this client to a trusted partner for email marketing. The client will be happy because you are a valuable source of information. Your partner will be happy because you recommended them. You'll be the happiest because you didn't waste your time.

Your turn now: create your own showstopper filter and take it seriously

No.Matter.What. That's what I said earlier in this article. If the prospect is caught in your filter, you have to let him go. You have to. They also deserve a chance to find a better fit for their needs. If you're 99% sure you're not a good fit, please don't let the client hire you. It is your duty to do so.

I encourage you to keep your own showstopper filter list to a smallest number of items. It's important for your growth as a sales geek to be honest about what you're not willing to do. Don't put a criteria on your showstopper list if you have no intention of sticking with it. Having only one criteria is ok. Having twenty is overkill because your sales team will have a harder time remembering it.

Do you need help figuring out what questions to ask clients on the phone?

Ok now that you've brainstormed a couple of items for your showstopper filter, it's time to put it in practice. Write down a couple of questions that would help you figure out what kind of clients you're dealing with.

Discuss this article on Google+ if you need my help in figuring out what those questions should be.

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