September 18, 2019

Customer Screening Magic

This is a guest post by Jon Tobin, founder of Counsel for Creators LLP, a leading law firm designed to help creative companies, and a frequent writer and speaker on the business of creativity and legal technology.

Screening customers the right way leads to a better business.

When I started my company, I worked with pretty much anyone willing to pay. It was survival mode, and I had a family to support. Saying no to a paying client was nearly impossible.

But my business did not take off until I learned to be selective about clients. I found myself spending less time chasing down money, responding to rude emails, and trying to accommodate unreasonable demands. By saving time, I could focus on providing value and building my business.

The Idea of Client Screening

Not every client fits your business. As much as we may wish to be all things to all people, we can’t do that. If we attempt to serve every potential customer or client, we end up mediocre.

Enter client screening.

Client screening revolves around a simple concept: don’t work with someone who does not fit your business.

What it means for someone to fit your business varies from business to business. Each company must define what an excellent fitting customer looks like and does not look like. Here I will present some ideas and guidelines that helped me to screen potential clients.

Why Bother with Client Screening?

When a business tries to serve customers that do not fit, they end up delivering a subpar product, and the business earns less money. When a company focuses on helping the perfect customer, they thrive because the firm provides precisely what that customer needs. This means more satisfied customers, less stress, and more money.

Also, identifying the right customer plays an essential role in building brand value. Each brand stands for a set of values — these values may include “luxury” or “safety” or “experience” or “easy-to-use.” By owning those values and delivering to customers accordingly, business owners build brand value.

That means that businesses need to seek out — and only work with — customers with whom they share values.

Screening Potential Customers

Screening potential customers constitutes the first step in ensuring a good fit for your business.

If a potential customer “qualifies,” you should spend more time developing them into a happy, paying customer. If a potential customer fails to qualify, you should spend less time developing them into a happy, paying customer.

Your method for qualifying potential customers can be whatever you want it to be. But the focus should be asking the right questions about the potential customer early on and using the answers to determine fit with your business.

Aspects of potential customers that our business looks at include:

  • Demeanor: In my business, we’re lawyers, so demeanor matters as we work closely with our customers on essential projects. If someone approaches us and appears combative or rude, we pretty much take a pass on them. We learned that people like this would not treat our team with respect, nor will they value the work that we do for them. During the first phone call or email, we can tell whether someone’s demeanor meshes or clashes with our own. If the person seems to have a personality that does not suit our practice, we politely turn them down.
  • Practical Needs: As our business grew, our business offered less. Over time, we focused on the types of matters that we do best. We stopped doing the things that we do OK. Once we took that step, we got better at efficiently serving our customers’ needs. Instead of trying to fulfill every type of legal need, we focused on a tight set of legal needs that we can do exceedingly well. Anything that falls outside of that set, we either refuse or refer to others.
  • Working Style: Process drives our business. We have a method for scheduling phone calls, a method for collecting information from customers, a method for providing updates, and a method for delivering our services. For us to do good work profitably, we (mostly) adhere to these processes. We aim to set clear expectations early on about how we work and what our customers can expect from us. That means that we might gently pass on potential customers who object to working according to our processes. Taking on clients whose working style does not match our own often means frustration for all involved; that’s why we don’t do it.
  • Ability To Pay: We run a business, so we need to ensure that we get paid for the work that we do. If a potential customer appears unwilling or unable to invest in getting the job done correctly, we may refer them to an alternative that more closely matches their budget.

The screening process can happen at a variety of stages. Sometimes, it occurs on the first phone call, and other times it takes us a conversation or two to determine if there’s a good fit.

Our process typically begins when a potential customer calls our receptionist service, Smith.ai. We provided instructions for the friendly people there to do the initial screening.

At this initial contact, the receptionist asks the potential customer what type of legal need they have. If the legal need seems to be something that fits our practice area, they offer to schedule a complimentary consultation with someone on our team. If not, they make a note, and then we can decide how to handle this person.

Additionally, the initial contact also gives us a sense of the person’s demeanor. If the person behaves rudely or argues with the people at Smith.ai, we get a good understanding of how they would act as a client.

What To Do With Clients Who Don’t Fit

If a client does not fit your business, that may not be the end of the road. There appear to be three choices of what to do with potential customers who don’t fit with your business.

  • Refuse Completely: Thankfully, this happens rarely. If we refuse to work with someone altogether, it typically arises from personality issues. That means that we would not be able to refer or defer them (see below).
  • Refer Them: We like referring people to the right person for the job. For attorneys, that means we refer potential customers to attorneys with the right expertise. For instance, if someone approaches us with a litigation matter (we don’t do litigation), we refer them to our colleague who does a stellar job with this type of work.
  • Defer Them: Sometimes, potential clients do not fit our business right now, but might in the future. In this situation, we keep communication channels open and see what we can do to deliver some value to develop this person into someone who might need our offering later. We might send them links to blog posts, tell them about relevant events, or keep them on our mailing list.

Ultimately, this shows that you can still deliver value even if a potential customer does not currently fit your business.

Interestingly, referrals sometimes provide a secondary income stream. If we screen clients properly and send them to the right attorney, that attorney generally pays us a referral fee as a percentage of the matter.

For clients who we defer, we offer a variety of free resources for them to learn more about various legal issues that affect creative businesses. These resources include our blog, an ebook, and a checklist for innovative companies that want to get a birds-eye view of their legal issues. These resources have often helped people to become good clients for us later. And even if they opt to use another attorney, they get to enter that relationship from a place of knowledge.

The Final Word

Your business lives or dies on your ability to deliver to your customers. A big part of that means selecting the right customers. Ideally, you only want to work with customers that you can serve well, and decline to work with those whom you cannot serve well.

How aggressively your company screens depends a great deal on what stage your business is at. Early on, it can be difficult to screen, but you can start on day one by slowly narrowing down the types of customers that you take on. Much of the process arises from your experience. It’s an organic process that relies on learning from feedback.

Happy screening!

About Jon Tobin

Jon Tobin, founder of Counsel for Creators LLP

Jon Tobin founded Counsel for Creators LLP, a leading law firm designed to help creative companies. He frequently writes and speaks about topics relating to the business of creativity and legal technology. He graduated from the UCLA School of Law. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn and make friends.

Share this on Twitter | Facebook

Recent Posts

Categories