I originally wrote this post a few years ago as How to Select the Most Rewarding Clients on my personal blog. As I mentioned then, it was a result of trying to increase opportunities and create a better work life balance.

We have been doing a similar exercise over the past few weeks as we pivot Back Azimuth from a software and consulting company to a solution company. In the original article I tell the story on how we developed the original “Client Acceptance” criteria for our best clients. That criteria is the main reason that Back Azimuth is not a large company. I did not want the drama and we turned down or have referred a lot of projects that would be great money but would be painful to complete.

Our criteria for the perfect client…. they are summed them up in exactly the following order.

  1. The project must be intellectually stimulating
  2. The project and client must be fun
  3. The project must be financially rewarding

Intellectually Stimulating Projects

The project(s) must excite the team intellectually. If you just need an audit or a garden variety SEO project we may not be the team for you but have partners that might be a perfect fit.    So what are intellectually stimulating projects?

Brain Teasers or Major Technical Challenges – this type of project is more complex technical or rank related problem. Often I am the 4th or 5th person they call and others have not been able to solve it.

Data Mining and Opportunity Analysis – as I recently told Larry, our new VP of Business Development, this is my kryptonite. The more complex or cool sounding the data project the more I am typically interested in the project.

Global Expansion – This is another one that I have a hard time turning down as it is my favorite scale project. It often allows travel and very interesting nuances and challenges.

Support the Function of our Software – As any software company, you look for projects where you can use your tools and result in a great case study.  This is why we have done so many site migrations and data mining projects.  This is also the primary reason for us to pivot into solutions.

On Demand Crisis Management – I have a few clients that have me on speed dial or as they call it “Bat Phone Ready” that call me when they need me. They pay a premium for this service and I always augment an in-house team or external agency.

Fun Projects and Clients

These are not clients that like to party but clients that respect our skills and use them to their fullest. They demand a lot from us and push us to exceed their expectations. And the biggest requirement, they don’t suck as people.

What is the criteria for a “not fun” project?

Clients that Don’t Listen – There is a big difference in disagreement, corporate policy and not listening. My approach is vastly different than many in our industry. If you hire me for that approach then you need to listen. I don’t care what the latest greatest celebrity SEO posted – if you love them so much hire them. If you hired me then listen to me.

Bait and Switch Projects – This is where you tell me you need help and scope a project but once engage change the scope. I had a client not long ago that wanted to do a strategic project but then later switching it to a fundamentals project. While normally a simple project paid at a strategic rate is not a problem, in this case they wanted me to do things that I did not think would work and resigned the project.

Clients that Micromanage – When we agree on tasks and deadlines let me do them. You should not need to tell me what to do each day and treat me like one of your minions.

Projects that Require More documentation than effort – If I have to spend 60% of my time developing ppts, having meetings to plan for meetings then that is not constructive. I understand the challenges and I am not complaining that it takes 21 meetings to change a JavaScript but when we need to spend 7 hours changing the wording, formatting and fonts in PPT for an executive meeting that is not an efficient use of my time.

Financially Rewarding Projects

Normally this is my second criterion but I do make some exceptions to “Non-Fun Clients” due to intellectual stimulation and financial reward – yes, I can be bought. The quickest way to the point here is – don’t be cheap. If it is intellectually stimulating and a complex problem most likely it takes a specific skill set that most don’t have and that the market allows you to charge a premium for. I work in a niche where there are few people with extensive experience. I know most of them and none are cheap.

I don’t get a lot of requests for non-complex projects. I don’t even have a site that talks about general consulting, only the data analysis, so that prevents a lot of people from trying to engage me. At conferences, I am always giving examples from large companies so they assume I am expensive and self select.

I always get a laugh when I hear some of the “celebrity Search Marketers” on stage brag that they are billing over $1,000 per hour for their time. I am sure they have a few people that pay this but it is typically blended into a project to hide the hourly rate. I put my time in the “reasonably expensive category” and the hourly varies based on a few factors:

Difficulty of the Challenge – this actually goes both ways. I obviously charge more based on how much experience is needed – for example when you come to me wanting to know how to get 10 billion URL’s indexed or develop a global Searcher Interest Model from 30 million keywords – not many people have that experience.

The other is how cool or excited I get about a project – those where I am finding the needle in the haystack – find out why 40% of my URL’s are not indexed or why they are under-performing in a few markets while dominating the rest excites me. Also, if the problem is one I had before or at a scale I have not worked with, I am often willing to reduce my rate to try to solve it.

Friends and Family Discount – If I have worked with you and you are cool and bring me challenging things I am willing to cut a deal. I have one person who has changed jobs 5 times in 15 years and every time brings me a new cool project at his new company so he gets a great deal.

Duration of the Project – We work best with shorter duration projects that pay well. However if there is a strategic six month global project that is interesting to me and allows me to focus on something specific and for that guaranteed income I am willing to adjust pricing.

People that have worked with me know I am fair with my pricing and tell me I should charge much more than I do. Althought none of them ever want to pay more. They know I don’t waste people’s time nor sell them things they don’t need. Most of the time I want short-term engagements and don’t want to stay on to manage or maintain the project which makes me more fair and impartial to the outcome.

As noted earlier, like most people, I can be bought. However, I rarely take on a project that is not intellectually stimulating but I do sometimes take them where the client is sort of a challenge. I can sense how the relationship will go from the first conversation and especially once I review materials of what they are doing and/or have done. If any of my alarms are tripped I add in one of the following “multipliers:”

Pain and Suffering Multiplier – this is when I know the project is going to be painful to work on and a major time suck. I always add in extra hours or increased hourly rate to compensate for the unnecessary challenges.

Asshole Multiplier – This is often due to having to work with certain agencies. If I leave the initial call and am frustrated with trying to explain my process or how I would approach the problem, I typically apply this multiplier. This is also added when my contacts are hard to work with, like micro managers or just real assholes, but I want to work on the project anyways.

We Considered You but… Multiplier – this is completely punitive. I have a few prospects that don’t like my approach, my personality, my rate, or that I often put demands on them in order for me to be successful. In many cases due to these attributes they go to another consultant. I have a fair number come back later wanting me to take on the project. In some of these cases I add in a multiplier because we have to clean up an even bigger mess after they have worked with someone else.

I don’t’ actually put it on the proposal, although I did once for a project that I really wanted to work on as a challenge – but the client team and most importantly the agency were a collection of assholes, idiots and micro managers. I actually added a line item with a block of hours labeled “Difficult Client Management Fee” to take into account the incremental work, stress, and possible therapy that might be required. I had to add the time onto the main scope as the client did not think procurement would approve, though they understood why I added it, which was cool in the end.

Repeat Clients at New Company

Our best clients are those we have worked with before that have moved on to other positions or have been promoted. When they take on the new job as a VP or some as CMO’s they call me to come in and review the existing programs. They want to know what they are inheriting. They call me since I can be impartial and will not be pitching to take over the management of the project.

For most of these projects, they had met the criteria before so they tend to meet it a second time and are just cool people to work with. Unfortunately, when you start in any business you cannot be as selective, but you can control who you pitch, the tone of the project and the duration. Not every project will be a mind bender, make you rich or be a cool bunch of people to work for, but if you can get at least 2 out of three the majority of the time you will have a winner.

Strays and Sad Stories

This is one of the toughest clients to deal with as they are often desperately trying to save a failing business or recover from bad advice. They have often had half a dozen people that said they could help them but in many cases made things worse. The good news is since they are in need of help they are often the most willing to make the changes, and if you are slightly successful, they give you the keys to the kingdom to do great things for them and they become very loyal source of referrals.

Getting to the Perfect Project

While you will never find the prefect project, these criterion work for me the majority of the time. I suggest you review what is important to you and try to stick to it. Find companies in verticals you want to work in or people you want to work with and seek them out. Another option is rather than trying to “marry the client” and lock people in with long term contracts, just date them, going for longer term engagements and make sure the relationship is a good fit. If it is the projects will increase. All of my clients that I have had 4 to 6 year relationships with came from small projects that lead to much richer engagements.