There's an inherent problem with the way in which running a web design business works, and I really need to do something about it for my own business. The short version is that we treat prospective clients too nicely during the pitch and sale process, which lines us up for nothing but problems further down the line. "Clients," as one of my own very-good-clients put it this week, "are like demanding girlfriends". You need to set the ground rules early, or you might as well just lie back and prepare to be whipped (and not in a good way).

The Problem

The problem that exists is especially true for people who employ dedicated sales staff, but is also equally prominent for someone like myself: who does all the pitches and the initial sales with a client as well as running the business and doing a lot of the work. The problem, particularly if you're good at sales (which I am), is that one of the core principles of making a sale is that you tell the prospect what they want to hear.

[Client:] "I need this site in 8 weeks tops, and I want it to integrate with my bespoke company intranet."

[You:] "8 weeks will be a very tight timeline but I think that we can meet it, and integration with your intranet should be no problem, but it will depend a lot on how much support we can get from that 3rd party developer."

What just happened? I'll tell you what; the client just set out the exact timeframe and the technical specification of the project, and you agreed to it. You may also find them slightly rude, and they may call you about the proposal well past 7pm. On the one hand you're thinking about my post on which clients to avoid, but on the other you're thinking that this is a large project with good money and would make a nice addition to the portfolio.

The thing is, if you agree to take on a project that has started out this way, you need to understand that the client is controlling the relationship, not you. As the service provider, this is not a situation that you want to be in.

The Result

Because you've wined and dined the client into bed with you to get their business, you've set a precident of "we'll do anything for you". The result of this is that the client will continue to assume that's how you're going to be treating them throughout the project. Delays on their end will be "unavoidable" whereas delays on your end will be "unacceptable".

The worst part is that your sales person is highly unlikely to be your back-end developer, so in your sales spiel you may inadvertantly promise the client functionality that isn't nearly as simple as you seem to think.

All of these things will lead to a break-down in communication. You don't want to be called at 7pm or be berated for delays in work when you're working as hard as you can - so the relationship becomes far less friendly than it was at the start, and is far more likely to lead to a payment dispute at the end.

The way in which you sold your services does not reflect the way in which you run your business. This is your own fault just as much as the client's.

The Moral

Stop selling yourself. Stop making all promises to clients that you aren't 110% sure of. Only conduct your initial meetings, phonecalls, and proposal document work during business hours. Tell the client up front that with all projects there is a risk of delay, particularly if they don't respond to your requests for information in a timely fashion (etc). If saying this to them means that they don't want to work with you, then look up to the heavens and say "thank you" because that was probably a relationship that was only ever going to end badly.

Take control of the relationship - be the professional.

What About You?

Do you have any stories of doing something like this yourself? The inspiration for this post was that something like that has happened to me fairly recently, and I've learned a great deal from it.