Clients can be demanding, unreasonable, irrational and overbearing. (If any of my clients happen to be reading this, of course I don’t mean you.) They may expect the moon and the stars–but only want to pay for one star or a piece of the moon. They may want this chunk of heaven delivered yesterday–at no additional cost. This type of behavior can get on your nerves. It may make you wish you were in a business that doesn’t depend on clients.

Clients…can’t live with them, can’t pay the bills without them. Hostility aside, we need to find and keep happy clients. Why do we want happy clients? Because a happy client is a quiet client (most of the time); more importantly, a happy, quiet client comes back for more.

The Right Clients

Do you want every client? This depends on what kind of business you have. If you need hundreds of clients, each spending a small amount of money, then you want them all and you want them to come back time and again. But if you have an established business with a core group of clients who commission a few large, well-paying projects a year, you can be more selective.

If the idea of turning away any business is foreign to you, consider this. Some clients are not worth the trouble. You know the kind. They demand the lowest price possible, they change the scope of work in the middle of the job or miss their own deadlines and drag the project out forever. Or they continually try to whittle down the price of your service, even after the bid is established (or worse, after the work begins). All of these actions eat into your profits and drain your mental energy. Then some of these hellish clients inflict you with the ultimate insult–they pay way late or not at all.

If you’ve been in business a while and have run into these clients, you know that you probably had a feeling about them from the first. Something just seemed a little fishy. This is your gut talking. Listen to your gut. Your gut is your friend and will be right more often than not.

If your gut tells you bad things about a potential client, but the proposed project is lucrative or fun (meaning you want to do it and damn the consequences), then protect yourself. Put terms into your contract that force the new client to pay before or upon receipt of any goods or services.

Typical terms: one third of the total cost before shooting begins, one third before editing begins and the balance before handing over the master or any dubs upon completion of the editing process.

Does this sound cold? Does it sound like you don’t trust your clients? Don’t let them know that.

These terms should be standard operating procedure (SOP) for your company. If you work with them a couple of times and they pay without a fuss, you can change them to 30 days later. If they try to rip you off, they get nothing.

Good Client, Bad Client

Here’s an illuminating story about a bad news client. This person ran up $20,000 worth of production time with another company and stiffed them for it. The company took him to court; the client declared bankruptcy. The production company was out of luck.

This client used two production companies in town, one after the other, racking up large bills he never paid at each place. Obviously, at this point, the word was out: stay away from this guy. But a third production company agreed to work with him. The reasoning of the manager of the third production company? “Oh, he wouldn’t do that to me.” Right.

The point is this: if you hear bad news about a potential client through the grapevine, try to get the facts. What you hear may not be true; nonetheless you should exercise a little more caution when dealing with that client.

Here’s how I exercised such caution with the very same bad news client. Yes, I agreed to work with him, but not with the same openness and trust I enjoy with my regular clients. He had a commercial that needed editing right away, on a weekend, to be delivered on Monday. He was certain it would take no more than two hours to edit this commercial. I said fine, bring a check to cover two hours worth of editing. He did.

Two hours into the session it was obvious we were only halfway through the job. I looked at my watch and said, “I have another appointment across town. (I really did.) Bring me another check tomorrow for two more hours of editing and we’ll finish.” He brought the check, we finished the spot the next day and I never worked with him again. This fact does not break my heart.

Of course, not all clients are jerks. In fact only a very few are, but they cause so much trouble that you hear more about them than good clients. The vast majority of clients want good work at a fair price, which they will pay for in a reasonable amount of time.

Getting to Know You

You can find these good clients in many ways, some of which are better than others.

Say you have a business dependent upon volume, such as transferring home movies from film to videotape. An ad in the Yellow Pages should pull in the customers you need.

On the other hand, if most of your projects fall in the several thousand dollar price range, it is very unlikely you will have clients walking in off the street.

When such a large amount of money is on the line, clients want to know who you are; they want to know if you will give them a good product; they want a warm, fuzzy feeling. This is the opposite of when the client wakes up suddenly in the night, drenched in a cold sweat, wondering if they picked the right production company.

The more potential clients know about you, the warmer and fuzzier they will get. So let them get to know you. Provide them with the following:

  • a list of other projects you have accomplished;
  • a brief biography of your professional credentials;
  • formats available;
  • equipment that you use; and
  • anything that will help the client see that you are the expert you claim to be.

The absolute best potential client you can run into is one recommended to you by one of your existing clients. Imagine this scenario:

Potential Client to Existing Client: I’m thinking about doing a video. I understand you used First Rate Productions. Were you happy with the result?

Existing Client: Are you kidding? They do great work. I got everything I wanted and more. You couldn’t ask for a better company to do your job.

Of course you have to earn this kind of praise, but if your existing clients do make these comments, what are they saying? You do good work. You gave them what they wanted. They sing your praises even though they paid you to do the job. That last part is the important point.

A sales representative can provide potential clients with this same information, but you have to pay the rep to do it. The potential client knows this. Information gleaned from happy, existing clients is money in your pocket. Potential clients will be so warm and fuzzy, the next step will be spontaneous combustion.

This is the best of all possible worlds scenario. A potential client who needs a video meets one of your happy clients and the conversation turns to video. What are the chances? It happens, of course. I’ve had it happen to me, just not as often as I would like. But you can achieve much the same thing without relying on serendipity.

Marketing Tricks

When you finish jobs for very happy clients, ask them to write you letters about their projects. Tell them you’ll use them for marketing purposes. Most clients will agree to do this for you (although it might take them a while–it won’t be high on their list of priorities).

Keep at least two or three of these letters (from different happy clients) on file. Send copies to your potential clients with the follow-up letters you mail out after your initial meetings.

These letters of recommendation tell your potential clients that your existing clients are not only happy with your work, but that they are happy enough to take the time to write a letter saying how happy they are. Everyone’s busy these days. Few people have the time to write letters (e-mail doesn’t count). If your existing clients make this effort, it sends nice signals about you and your company.

One last technique I hesitate to mention. (Use it sparingly–only for projects that can bring you big bucks, great fame or both.) This is where you give potential clients the phone numbers of happy existing clients and say, “Give Joe and Jack a call and ask about my company.” Probably, Joe and Jack will be happy to sing your praises to help you land the biggest job of your career. But Joe and Jack won’t be so pleased if they get these calls every couple of days, for every project you try to nail. Should this prove the case, their recommendations will grow less warm and less fuzzy as time goes on.

Which leads us to our next point. You never want to make existing clients angry. Because all too easily they become nonexistent clients. Easy come, easy go, you say? Listen up: you live or die by repeat business. Also, it take a lot more effort to bring in new clients than to keep existing clients happy.

Your clients don’t want to leave you, and it’s not because they love you so much. It’s because finding a new supplier is work. They have to do research on the new suppliers, create new relationships with service personnel and so forth. Unless you screw up big time, they would rather stay with you.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t leave if you give them enough cause. Your clients have plenty of problems in their lives. Maybe their boss rails on them every day; maybe they can’t find a decent daycare center for their kids. If, for any reason, you add to their problems you will be gone–replaced by someone who won’t give them problems.

The Golden Rule

Treat your good clients like kings and queens. They deserve it.

It’s simply the golden rule at work. Treat your customers like you want to be treated. Here’s how:

Make your deadlines. If you say you finish the video in time for the client’s board of directors meeting on the 15th of the month, then move heaven and earth to do so. Stay up all night editing if that’s what it takes. Do this work when you should be in bed with a cold. Clients don’t want excuses, they want results.

Give one-on-one service. Deliver the video yourself to the client, rather than dropping it in the mail. What if it gets lost and isn’t there for the board of directors meeting? Oh, sorry, these things happen. Not–make it a rule to see that these things don’t happen to you. Besides, when you make your own deliveries you buy yourself another positive, stress-free occasion to interact with clients.

Answer questions. Don’t make your clients feel stupid when they ask questions. “What kind of film are you using in your camcorder?” “Can I have computer animation like the networks for $100?” “Will I save money if I shoot the video with my home camera and just let you edit it?” Answer in layman’s terms; no technobabble please.

Handle complaints. As humans we don’t want to hear complaints. They can hurt our pride (you don’t like the color I chose for your background–well, then, you have no taste!) and make us defensive. But as business people we should want to listen to complaints, because then we can fix whatever caused our clients such unhappiness. Remember: sometimes dissatisfied clients just quietly go away and never come back.

One of our clients, who’s in the retail business, put it this way, “No one can expect you to never make a mistake. That would be a ridiculous thing to suggest. But they can expect you to make good on your promises. That’s what we do.”

When clients come to you with complaints, don’t make excuses. Follow these steps:

1. Hear them out without interruption. They may just want to clear the air. It’s possible that all you have to do is agree with them and promise not to do it again.

2. Keep your cool. You may think the complaint is unfair and your client is a weasel for bringing it up. But if you lose your temper, then you can kiss that client good-bye.

3. Ask clients for more details about their problems. It may not even be something you did. (The labels on these dubs are ugly! Yeah, you agree, those are the labels the dub house uses, but I know where to get better-looking labels).

4. Don’t appear apathetic. Clients need to know that you care about their problems. Things are tough all over is not the proper response.

5. Do something about the problem–right now. Is it your fault? Is it a serious error? Will it damage your relationship? Find an answer you can both accept. Do the project over, refund the client’s money, sing Yankee Doodle Dandy, whatever it takes to make it right.

6. Thank the client for telling you about the problem. The cause of the client’s complaint may have driven off other less communicative clients in the past. By fixing it, you are less likely to lose more clients in the future.

Back for More

Stay in touch with your clients. Call clients who haven’t brought you projects in a while. Make sure that they were happy with your last project; see if there’s anything coming up down the road. Keep a notebook or card catalog where you can make notes on the conversation. Say the client answers, Yeah, I might have something coming up in October. Make a note to yourself to call that client at the end of August.

Many busy clients are difficult to reach on the phone; so try a direct mail campaign. Such a “campaign” may be postcards reminding clients (and potential clients) that you exist. Remember, your competitors are calling on your clients, too. You need to give your existing customers a good reason to stay with you.

Keep your customers happy and you’re in business. Make them sad or angry and you’re not. It’s that simple. Just remember they want the same thing you do–the moon and the stars, yesterday.

Is that so much to ask?

Videomaker contributing editor William Ronat is the co-owner of a video production company.

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