Sometimes you get a piece of advice so deep, yet so obvious, that you have to stop for a minute to think about it. Thanks to Gillian Muessig, President of SEOmoz, for mentoring me on this– her five magic words a bit later…

Have you ever been approached by a prospective client that would like to do business with you, but clearly doesn’t have the money? These are “wanna-be” clients. They can’t afford to be clients but have champagne tastes on a beer budget. See if any of these sound familiar to you:

  • “We want to be business partners with you and share the risk” (translation: “We have no money”).
  • “If you deliver us the revenue, then we can pay you your fee” (translation: “We have no money”).
  • “I can get this a lot cheaper elsewhere” (translation: “We have no money”).
  • “Let’s do a trade-out of services” (translation: “We have no money”).
  • “We need to ask you some questions to qualify you” (translation: “We have no money and want to string you along for free advice in the meantime”).

If you ever hear any of this, here are the 5 magic words you say… Drum roll, please…


Repeat that to yourself three times to lock it into your head. Don’t fall into the trap of selling yourself short. You’ll regret taking on a cheap client– and not only are they the ones with the least money, but also the neediest and hardest to deal with. Our best clients pay us handsomely, treat us well, and are a joy to work with. The clients for whom we’ve made exceptions to this rule suck the life out of us and sometimes make us wonder why we’re in this business. Spare your staff the angst and remember these 5 magic words, or else you risk losing your best people, too (who can work anywhere).

Tell the prospect, firmly and politely, that you work with a select group of clients — that you work with the best in the industry and pay your people well because you have the best people. Mention that you don’t compete on being the cheapest game in town, nor are you the most expensive. If they keep pushing, hold the line — say that you’re not a discount agency and that you can refer them to other agencies that would gladly take their project.

The clients that do pass this bar are going to be businesses that are likely to be solid in their operations, have folks who appreciate value, and will rekindle the excitement that caused you to strike out on your own, to begin with. You’re being paid well enough to afford to do a good job, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your staff members look forward to working with these clients and the enthusiasm is infectious.

Bruce Clay pulled me aside at SMX Advanced last year and gave me similar advice. He said the key to getting the right clients is to “stand in the middle of the road, arms outstretched, screaming that you are the best.” Half the people will think you’re crazy and walk away. The other half will say “Gee, he really must be the best” and then hire you.

Bruce also advised asking the prospect this question, “If your child was sick, would you go for the cheapest heart surgeon or the best?” That should do it. If not, you don’t want to work with them. Their business is like their child– and when you have only one shot to do it right, they should choose the best every time, unless they have no money.

You don’t want or need to have every potential deal that’s out there. Be choosy. Would you rather have 40 clients that each pay you $1k a month in fees or 4 clients that each pay you $10k a month? If you have 4 clients, you can focus your efforts to deliver solid value, build a solid relationship, and have ongoing solid business deals — as opposed to spreading your efforts thin among the chorus of squeaky wheels that compete for your attention.

So let’s make it 6 magic words, courtesy of Gillian:


Maybe when prospective clients get a little larger, they’ll be right for you– or maybe if they’re serious about what it takes to succeed in online marketing. But remember that if you’re having a hard time with them when they haven’t even paid a dime, imagine how they’ll be when they’ve handed you a few dollars.

If you follow the Pareto Principle (the 80/20 rule), then remember that you need only a few clients to have a great business. Don’t be afraid to cut some clients loose. They may have been right for you a couple of years ago when you were a smaller firm or just getting started. But now you’re a different company and have moved on to a different client base. You can recommend others that can do a great job.

If you like this, please let me know or send a note to Gillian thanking her for the advice she has generously given here.