I am pleased to say that having taken the big step to start my own business almost 5 years ago, things have gone well. I help people without the will, skill or time to do their books.
However, I am not the same person as I was then and indeed my goals have changed since those scary early days.
When many of us start our new business, we may be full of idealistic thoughts of a better work life balance, no pressures and financial riches. Those aims are quickly dashed by reality of hard work to get things set up, pressures of a totally different kind (often self-made) and the need to put bread and butter on the table. So, we take whatever work comes our way and often turn a blind eye to the bits of the job/client we don’t like in the pursuit of the buck.
Now that I am established and more worldly wise I thought it would be a good exercise to review exactly what a good client looks like to me. Whilst some of my criteria are personal to my business many are universal.
Firstly, I needed to revisit why I started my business in the first place. Yes, I hated my old job due to my belief that the industry had lost its moral compass but I loved helping businesses start and grow. Working with customers to help them move forward with their own aspirations gave me my buzz. I was always well organised and able to perform under pressure but disliked someone else forcing their arbitrary targets and goals on me. I wanted to be able to spend more time at home, be there for my family, do less travelling and I wanted to keep my family financially secure.
So, there were both financial and nonfinancial goals and so a good customer would help me achieve both these areas not just one. I could do lots of pro bono work for Charites, start-ups and friends but that wouldn’t pay the bills. I could chase every pound I could out of clients but that would leave me spiritually bankrupt and only work in the short term.
I ranked my clients objectively in terms of various criteria on a traffic light system to check what I really thought and to make sure I wasn’t lying to myself just because I liked the client or the work stroked some part of my ego that wasn’t fitting with my personal goals.
Financial aspects are the easy ones to focus on.
Do they quibble over price? Most of my clients don’t even question price. I believe that if I am providing value for their money this will continue. Some have fixed prices other are on hourly rates but with all, my intention is to always add value.
Do they pay on time? Or do they have to be chased for payment? Some of my clients on fixed packages pay by standing order on or before the invoice is due. Others pay just as soon by return, as are my terms. Others wait until I see them the next time and pay me then (these are often the cash & cheque brigade and I am content enough with that). The odd one or too pay me when they remember and sometimes late but I accept this as I know that they are just generally less organised people (often the very reason they use my services in the first place) I have only ever had one bad debt back in my early days of trading so have learned that it’s not so much non-payment that should worry but a change in payment habits that should concern.
What percentage of my total income does their income equate to? Frequency. I want to work for myself. Taking on clients that want too much of my time may simplify my invoicing but limits my ability to help others. It would feel just too much like a job if I had to work somewhere for a day a week. I choose to limit all my clients to the maximum of half a day per week. I have 2 that fit this criterion that I took on in the early days when any work was more important than the right work. I will not take any others on this basis although I may replace like with like if the opportunity arises. By keeping this celling I ensure that no one client takes up more than 10% of my time so I keep a good customer base spread. I have taken measures or declined additional work from both these clients to stick to my policy.
Time Hungry and unrealistic expectations. You know the ones that email you at stupid o clock or ring you at the weekend. They are late for meetings and then want to keep you afterwards with extras. The ones that just expect you to jump when they say. I have turned down work just because I have felt I would be working for a client rather than with a client. It’s a mindset. We are all busy people but considering those you work with is just courtesy. Whilst billing for my time helps it’s not always the answer and may affect my ability to help someone else. If they are on a fixed fee, then there’s a bit of the fair usage mentality that needs to be applied.
Looking at the non-financial elements is a trickier.
I didn’t want to spend huge amounts of time in a car. This makes my preference for local work logical. Frequency of a client and therefore the need to make a trip also has a bearing. Travelling a distance for a small amount of work on a regular basis is foolish but a longer journey for a less frequent client may make sense. Charging for travelling helps but it’s not an answer. Some clients I can work from home on whilst others need me on site. A balance of both types helps.
Type of work.
Is it an easy job or one of those that always makes my tiny mind ache? I have clients that just expect me to pick up the financial pieces of what they have done and make everything compliant. I don’t mind complicated jobs indeed they fuel the skill part of why people use me. But sometimes I just wish a client would learn and possibly do as I tell them. A short cut for them can often be an unnecessary long path for me.
Quality of work
Is everything available for me to work on at the right time, the right place and sometimes in the right order. Being able to get in and get on with my job rather than faff about with finding the information needed. Some do some don’t.
Will they take my recommendation re the way to do their books or will I have to run with someone else’s set up? I have used many different types of systems from hand written double entry ledgers to excel to Sage, Quickbooks, Xero, and others. Different systems work better in different situations I suppose a bit like a builder choosing the correct tool for the job. I have my preferences so this impacts on both my ability to deliver and the pleasure I get from doing it.
Taking these factors into play gave me a view of what a good client for me would look like. I describe as follows.
A business I can help keep in financial order by working with the owner who values me for who I am and what I do for them.
Expressions of value can be as simple as being on time, being helpful and considerate, paying the bill, asking for your opinion and even a simple thank