Why We Vote on Potential Clients

UpBuild is shamelessly idealistic. I’ve found myself saying this in sales pitches and at networking events more and more often, and I’m starting to get really comfortable with it. This stands in marked contrast to how I was “raised” in the digital agency world — you say yes to every project you can (because you usually don’t have any buffer in the bank account), you do whatever the client asks, and if you end up hating your job some days (months), you just hunker down and deal with it.

When I started this whole thing, I decided that it would be 100% on my terms and that I’d try to apply every lesson I’d learned during my career to make UpBuild something great. The one unfortunately common issue that I want to avoid is poor client fit, so let’s talk about tackling that.

Poor Client Fit

Poor client fit seems to be a root of a lot of the problems I’ve seen involving team motivation, work satisfaction, and (of course) engagement ROI. Very few clients are inherently poor fits, but many clients can be a poor fit for your company or for your team. A client might be a poor fit if:

  • you can’t get on the same page with engagement goals,
  • expectations are unrealistic,
  • the needs of the client (think engagement size or area of specialty) don’t match what you can confidently handle,
  • or, your company is overqualified for their project,
  • the team isn’t excited about the client (or, worse, team members genuinely feel bad about being involved with a certain type of business).

If any of the above is true, you’re going to have an unhappy client and an unhappy team at some point. You’re also not going to get good results. If you’re not aligned with your client from the start, you’re going to be working toward different goals or the client may be expecting you to achieve something you know can’t be accomplished. You might be investing hundreds of team hours into developing strategy, assets, and other recommendations that are never going to be implemented because a client lacks resources or doesn’t truly understand the value of what you’re providing.

Or (and you can probably tell by this point that is my biggest gripe) you make your team work on a project they don’t feel good about and leave them demoralized, frustrated, and doing work that their hearts are not in. At that point, what’s the point of even working on that account?

Because they write you checks? Nope, that’s not enough. Trading cash for what could be a happy and effective team does nobody any good.

We Vote on Every Lead

And so it came to pass that UpBuild began voting on every lead. This started near the end of Month 2, as soon as we had a large enough team to have anonymous voting (when it was just me and Tyler, sending an anonymous survey wasn’t particularly beneficial).

In most cases, we try to vote before we ever send out a proposal. Once I’ve had a few conversations with a potential lead, I’ll brief the team on the client and send out an anonymous Google Form for their feedback. All of us then rate the potential client on a scale of 1 to 5 based on how the client fits with the core values of our culture. If the client gets 3 or less on average, we don’t take the project. We’ve turned down two perfectly good clients at this point.*

  • Note: There was nothing inherently wrong about these clients. Just because they’re a poor fit for UpBuild doesn’t mean they’re not a good fit for someone else.

Call Me Crazy

Haha BusinessI can just imagine every boss I’ve ever had thinking I’d lost my mind if I even suggested this idea. Either that or I’d just be laughed out of the conference room. That’s okay. If there’s one big thing I’ve learned by founding my own company, it’s that most of what I’d took as a fact of “agency life” wasn’t actually written in stone. Not even close.

While any client can give you money that’s perfectly green, they can’t all give you a great partnership and a happy team. To me, having more cash on hand isn’t a valid reason to start a battle you can’t win and/or don’t care about.

My goal with UpBuild isn’t to get a lot of clients and earn a ton of money; it’s to build an amazing team of technical marketers and then connect them with great fit clients who need our help. Of course, making money along the way is important since it’s what allows us to make our living by geeking out on optimization and data collection, but it’s not the end-all, be-all. By putting the team first (in many ways), our “product” becomes immeasurably better.

Moving Forward

Ultimately, I have a pretty simple choice in running this company.

I can either:

  1. sign on every client who lands in my inbox and risk having my team get burnt out after we accumulate enough poor fit clients, or
  2. be honest and realistic about who each client is and figure out upfront if they’re going to be a great fit, avoiding the risk of getting sub-optimal results and having unmet expectations while also allowing the team to work only on clients who they can do great work for.

I’m going to choose the latter.

Written by
Mike founded UpBuild in 2015 and served as its CEO for seven years, before passing the torch to Ruth Burr Reedy. Mike remains with the company today as Head of Business Operations.

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