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Protection from Unscrupulous Prospects

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In the field of SEO in particular, there are a great number of discussions on how+to+select+an+SEO company to avoid being the victim of a scam, or sub-standard company. We don't so often look at the flip-side, even though it is just as common, if not actually more so.


People posing as clients just to get ideas, then using those ideas with no intention of ever buying them, are so common that it is 100 percent certain to happen to any service business online.


So, whatever service you provide, be it Web design, development, SEO, or anything else, this thread is for you. A discussion of ways to limit your susceptibility to the rip-off artists that abound out there.


I hate to say it, but your first and best line of defence is to be cautious. No matter how desperately you may need the work, protect yourself first. These nasty types go from company to company just looking for the uncautious, the one's who really need the work and go the extra mile for potential customers. They are that kind of parasite, and prey most happily on the weakest and most needy.


It is the clients role to supply a brief. Do not create a brief for the client unless you are paid up front to do so, as consultancy.


The other method is to charge higher rates to be able to swallow the inevitable rip-offs of taking time to get creative and create a professional, well-crafted, effective plan for all prospects, including the percentage that will never pay for it (and actually never had the intention to). However, that doesn't stop these parasites, and in fact only encourages them. Your hard work will be used on a time-waster, a crook, when you could have used that time to supply that advice to an honest, hard working and more needful customer.


Beware of any potential client who wants to know how you will do something, rather than what you will do. This will be far less of an issue if the client has prepared a proper brief


Try never to give fine details until they have paid. If they really want to know, perhaps you could be honest and tell them "That would count as training, for which we charge. Would you like to discuss a price for such?", otherwise just smile and say "you don't honestly expect me to teach you all the techniques for free do you?"


Trust is for friends, businesses use contracts and agreements. Having a legal document that protects you both is not a bad thing. It should specify that you will not use what you learn about their strategy and business for others, and that they will not use your advice for any purpose but the consideration of your offer.


This helps the business client to feel safe to tell you details about their business and marketing strategy, and it prevents them using anything you say for anything but approving or refusing your proposal.


Getting a 'formula' NDA together is well worth the time, and will protect you again and again as you can reuse it for every proposal. Seriously. Get one. Check it is enforcable and legal. Use it.


I will hopefully add more later, but first, lets hear some ideas from others. Do you use any of the above techniques? How have you dealt with this issue?

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:applause: Fantastic post Ammon!


I would add just one specific idea: avoid looking too much at their site. That way, when they ask you a question, you can say, "in all honesty, I haven't looked at your specific site too much, beyond a quick check." If they ask a question you can't answer, you won't be in the awkward social position of having to either lie or not tell something.


A few other standbys:

- "That will all be uncovered when we do {INSERT WHAT YOU CALL WHAT YOU DO}" is a good phrase to use, as it lets people know you will tell them more when they sign up. It sets in people's minds that this isn't consultancy, it is a prospective sale.


- Talk about results rather than specific changes, and make those the selling points. Focus on what you want to achieve, not what you plan to do. That keeps the focus away from specifics which usually just wastes time.


- If you supply documents, supply just an outline, nothing too specific. It may be advantageous for a client to know what you plan to do, but the dots should be connected post a contract.


- Provide a means for clients to not waste your time. Providing a "budgetary estimate" as part of online contact forms works well here. If people want to spend very little, send them affiliate links to to books, forums, whatever, and save them and yourself too much hassle.


- Realise not all sales are worth it. Tell people you aren't interested in having them as a client. If they are troublesome pre-sale, they will probably be afterwards as well.


- Know when to let go. I have often been asked for clarification several times, and usually reply something along the lines of "if you aren't interested, feel free to find an alternate supplier." Similarly, I have been asked for more information and have gone out of my way to provide it, because I realise the potential client wants me to work with them, and just needs to convince their boss.


- Be totally honest. If you think they need major work, say "an SEO / SEM is really not what you need right now." Taking on a lost cause is a bad start, and being honest gives you a reputation that will, longer term, be worth far more.

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Good points, always get stuff in writing, and cover not only your back - but theirs.



Trust is for friends, businesses use contracts and agreements


If its a friend that wants some business work doing, or wants to do some business work for you, use a contract or agreement :rolleyes:

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Great topic, and great post, Ammon.


Nondisclosure agreements and contracts are worth using, but what is really important is that upfront conversation of the issues that they cover, and the agreement beforehand on how each party will treat the other. That's the important thing to get into in the beginning of a business relationship.


The value of the documents themselves is that they can help guide that conversation, and they act as legally enforceable documents in case there's a breach of agreement.


Bringing those topics up in the beginning of a relationship is important - this is how we work, this is what we provide, this is what we expect, this is what we need to both understand.

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We find contractual documentation only useful if things are not going well, so to protect your business, the documentation can be handy. Some people get put off by long contracts, so you need to cover the basics in a succinct format.


The majority of our existing clients still behave in the manner they behaved in the first phone call/meeting.


If you are good in business, you can feel this straight away. We have rejected a lot of potential clients lately, and we are thrilled with the behaviour of our new and existing clients.


If we get drama in the first phone call or meeting, we hit the road. We tell 'em straight "Its not working out is it, we have been talking for 2 minutes, and you are already upset.".......


We need that 6 months honeymoon period where the relationship can actually develop and trust is established.


The most dangerous potential clients at the moment for us are junior e-tailers with no address. Designing e-commerce sites is an area where we exercise extreme caution and we look at the client really carefully.


If they have no business experience, or have not got an existing product in a shopfront, we leave 'em alone.


If things go bad with e-commerce, a lot of other bad things can happen :


(i) They will blame you. Guaranteed.

(ii) The site makes no money, so no return work.

(iii) They will go out of business and you will have nothing to show for your months of work.


As Ammon said, people hear stories about "How to Select" a web designer/seo but no one pays much attention to the selection process a web designer goes through to get a strong business and client list.


Skip a potential client, and you may be waiting a while for the next one. Pick up too many bad clients, and you may not have time if a good one comes along.


Its called "Opportunity Cost".


While you are dealing with bad or time consuming prospective leads, your business is missing an opportunity to work on a golden client who could propel your business to the next level.


Saying "No" to bad potential clients is the key to business success for web design companies.


Intellectual property sponges are starting to show up on our radar, so this issue is starting to become very important.


Our clients' competitors are the main culprits.

Edited by travis

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Great points Ammon. Been thinking along these lines myself since the "I will be interviewing a few SEOs...." thread took a turn in this direction.


For us, I think the main thing keeping the number of rip offs to a minimum (and the amount they get away with) is going into each opportunity with an idea of establishing a long term business relationship as opposed to landing a contract or getting a job. From this perspective the immediate gains which may or may not accrue take a back seat to the broader factors of 'is this someone I want to be associated with for the next 5 years - 10 years or longer?


In addition to taking a much closer look at the prospect and his current and future needs, it also changes my perspective in terms of my rewards over a longer period of time. In other words, I don't have to go for the biggest contract I think the customer can afford, I can look at what he needs in the foreseeable future, add my margins to a fair price for the service, build on that relationship, and be the one that gets called as more services are needed down the road.


The other end of it is I don't think twice about walking away from clients that my instinct tells me are going to be a problem. I'm not saying that we have so much business that we have become picky, only that we have decided, based on experience that it's better to have a little free time than to get saddled with a 'problem' client. No matter how much they're paying it's never enough.


I consider it one of my major accomplishments to have an ever growing group of people who call me first when it has anything to do with their marketing or their website. It's gotten to the point that I rarely think in terms of (what can I get out of this?) and will give an honest opinion on the question regardless of whether there is anything (other than ongoing good will) in it for the company.


I make it a point to meet (preferably in person or by conference call at least) twice with every prospect before setting a proposal. My theory is that anyone can have a bad day - or a good one. By meeting on two, or more separate occasions I eliminate, to a degree, the possibility that I didn't see what I thought I saw the first time.


As we have started to enjoy a certain amount of referral business we've adjusted part of our marketing budget into the procurement end (after initial contact has been made) end of the equation and are finding that by taking a little more time and getting to know each other a little better most, if not all, of the problems associated with misunderstandings are eliminated.


When it's all said and done, we are people looking to grow and enrich our business and our lives, looking for people looking to do the same things. We offer expertise in a fairly limited area (Internet marketing) from a position of extensive and varied experience in traditional and online marketing.


Two things that particularly caught my attention were Ammon's comment about the MNDA (Mutual Non-Disclosure Agreement) and Michael's mention of keeping any proposal documents brief.


I had honestly never heard of a MNDA until a little over a year ago. I had talked about the need for something to relieve that certain uneasiness which I had felt myself and sensed in others on several projects. Anyway, that was the best couple hundred dollars I ever spent, much more for the, as Bill observed

but what is really important is that upfront conversation of the issues that they cover, and the agreement beforehand on how each party will treat the other
than any legal need for them after the fact.


Finally, I go along with Michaels advise on keeping it brief. If I have to write anything more than a page or two I get paid for it up front. There is no way to write more than that (unless you're a lawyer;-) and not be giving away valuable information that you should be charging for, or at the very least, giving away free to someone that's already paying you for other services.


And having said that, I'm going to take my own advice and read what the rest of you have written.



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It is the clients role to supply a brief. Do not create a brief for the client unless you are paid up front to do so, as consultancy.
How much and what should appear in a brief?

Do you ever need to give clients a list of items to include?

I'd imagine that a brief would be useful for pre-qualifying clients for whatever level of service.


The most challenging part of where I'm at now is organizing people who want work, and valuing my time appropriately - otherwise I end up with 30 emails a week that have little sense of direction and require research they don't understand enough to absorb. It's in one ear and out the other, to be revisited again.


I need to organize myself enough to be a step ahead of those emails, while being secure enough about what I know to say what I want to do instead of explaining the living daylights out of how I will accomplish every detail. That I can do what I say should be enough - within my limits and backed up by past work, of course.


The big wheels between my ears are a turning. Thanks for another excellent, excellent thread.



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Objectives should be:
A good brief sets the framework of the project. It is the outline of what the prospective client wants and needs from a service supplier. It should have SMART objectives. It outlines what the client wants.

A really good brief may also outline the levels of responsibility, showing what the task they want companies to make proposals on will or will not include. It gives a company all the basics to know whether this is a service they can provide, on a scale they can cope with, and over what time period.

A bad objective would be:
To get more traffic

There is no definition of how much more traffic, or the desired quality of traffic, so it is unmeasurable. There is no time-lime, so the service provider cannot fail so long as they are still alive to succeed.

A good objective might be:
To increase customer acquisitions by 30% over 6 months, with sub-target incremental increases in customer acquisition of 5% per month.

That kind of objective is measurable, has timelines, and even gives milestones along the way to measure progress. Whether the objective is acheivable may depend on market saturation, but it certainly would seem to be. The only outstanding issue then is whether the target is realistic, which will come down to whether the company might drag its heels in providing copy, or whether they have devoted enough resources, etc. Notice there is still a small amount of ambiguity too in whether the 30% increase is on number of new customer aquisitions, or the value of new customer aquisitions. The two parties need to be using the same measure of success.

A great objective might be:
To increase customer acquisition values by 30% over 6 months, with sub-target incremental increases in customer acquisition of 5% per month. The increases can be made by volume of sales, or by value of sales, but it is a 30% increase in total (gross) value that will be measured.

That removes all ambiguity and lets a company pitching for this service understand how much scope and leeway they may have in acheiving the objectives. Therefore the remaining issues for discussion will again be related to checking that the objective is both Acheivable (can be done for/by this company) and Realistic (can be done in this situation, with these resources, and restrictions).

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Excellent topic. Qualifying prospects gets tough as they mount up, and if you don't manage your time effectively NOBODY is gonna end up happy.


Here's the questions I try to answer from the get go:


Briefly explain your business model:


What are your current issues with internet marketing?


What current metrics do you have for performance?


What are they now?


What would you like them to be?


What is the value of this increase?


Any other relevant information about your site or sites?


Generally good answers to these questions indicate a client willing to work on their site and not just wanting to "set it and forget it".



I don't think twice about walking away from clients that my instinct tells me are going to be a problem.

...No matter how much they're paying it's never enough.



This is an invaluable lesson to learn. There is a lot to be said for managing expectations on both sides of the fence. It's much easier to walk away from the onset than once your into a project hot and heavy.


I really like that SMART acronym...very good stuff. Thanks.


>bad prospects

I've had at least one prospect call and try to dupe me on several occassions...telling me different site names, different information about himself, etc. It got so bad after the second or third time that I realized I shouldn't even reference him to anyone (one friend still laughs about it with me)...This was an extreme example, but by not protecting myself from it, I wasted several hours on this goofball (although it helped to learn these valuable lessons)...THIS was the type of person I didn't want to work with REGARDLESS of what the pay was.

Edited by stuntdubl

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Yeah, the SMART objectives come from a DuPont management programme I once did. I think it was called 6Sigma. You can become a 6Sigma consultant. They have belts like karate.


So if someone says "I have a black belt in 6Sigma", watch out. They may be great for your business.


The whole idea is about managing people and processes for better performance, and more loss control. SMART objectives are, in their original form, used for ranking performance of an employee.


The employee at the start of the year agrees to a series of objectives. Because they are agreed, then when those objectives are monitored and ranked later in the year, the employee cant complain once they have been rated.


SMART objectives are complimented in the whole scheme by a Performance Development Review and a mid-year update to see if anything has changed.


For contracts with clients, I think you need SMAT objectives. This is because clients are anything but realistic in their wishes.

Edited by travis

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Spot on, Travis. Top marks. Yes, the SMART objectives comes from the field of Performance Management (for managing performance). It is usually used for managing the performance of individuals and teams, but obviously translates right across for managing performance in other areas.


The basic rule of managing anything is simply: You cannot manage what you cannot measure. If there is no way to measure degrees of success or failure, then there can be no way to manage success and failure effectively.


Management is a vital part of any campaign. Indeed, this whole thread is about management. Management of time. Management of relationships. Management of reputation. Management of resources.


As mentioned earlier, there is a genuine cost to spending resources on a non-performing activity that could more profitably have been spent on something that would have given a benefit - the opportunity cost. In addition, there is a straight cost as well, in employee time, telephone charges, etc.


Once again, we are on the edge of the principle of Customer Lifetime Value. Which customers are worth the most to you in the long term? Is it the big one-off projects? Is it the ones with ongoing contracts? Is it the ones that drive you lots of referrals?


It is essential for any company, of any size, to spend some serious time on looking at the value of its customers. Learn which customers are the most profitable, and then work out how you might promote some of the lower value customers into that type. Don't be afraid to (professionally and politely) ditch the low value customers.


This is the 80:20 rule again. The chances are that 80% of your time is spent on customers that only add up to 20% of your profits, while 80% of your profits come from clients that run so smoothly they use only 20% of your time. If you can find a way to spend 100% of your time on just the best clients (i.e. work more with more of this kind of customer), your total profits will be 4 times higher.

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Well, I am generally not in the position of having a nicely worded brief from my client up front.


I do web analytics, which is often added into a web design/redesign project or an SEO project as the evaluation end. The reality is that many projects are underway or already scoped before I get called in. So I build in a strategic piece as part of every project I do, so that early on in the project we develop a set of clear and measurable objectives. I prefer to do this as a separate exercise upfront, but often don't have that luxury. Some of my favorite clients had a pretty foggy idea of what they wanted from me when we first started working together.


What I do look for is a client who has a really clear sense of their business goals - if they know what their purpose in life is, it makes it very easy for me to define how web analytics can help achieve those goals. What sends me running very quickly is a client who can't define when THEY are successful.


As far as NDAs and contracts are concerned, I generally don't use either. Several reasons - first, my average contract is small enough (<$10K) that the legal costs to fight a problem exceed the possible returns. Second, many of my larger clients have legal departments that take weeks to process any contract I submit (and I'm not much interested in signing their standard contract). Most of them are quite happy to pay in advance rather than have to get a contract processed, so that is the option I often use. What I do use is a clear MOU (memorandum of understanding) to document a verbal discussion with a client, but it's not meant to be a legally binding document, just a relationship building one.

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This has been a very helpful thread. I've been poking around online for more to add to the discussion. Here are some guidelines for briefs on the AIGA site.


In introducing a new product or line of products to the consumer marketplace, it is necessary to be very specific about what is expected from the design team responsible for developing the marketing campaign. The following types of information are typically covered within the brief.
From Integrated marketing campaign for a new product


A design brief is a written explanation given by the client to the designer at the outset of a project. As the client, you are spelling out your objectives and expectations and defining a scope of work when you issue one. You're also committing to a concrete expression that can be revisited as a project moves forward. It's an honest way to keep everyone honest. If the brief raises questions, all the better. Questions early are better than questions late.
From The design brief


Also see How to write a design brief


It will be a little different for the web. A company's need to identify their own needs and goals will cross over into any media. Perhaps one first step would be to present a prospective client with a general worksheet.



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I think that for people offering this relatively new intellectual service, one could learn a great deal from the many other intellectual services that have been offered for much longer: architects, engineers, attorneys, etc....


An architect, unless vying for a high profile municipal projecy, will never put pencil to paper without first having a signed document and some money from a client. Their knowledge and creativity is their product - if they give that away with a few conversations and a quick sketch, they'll go hungry.


So learning how to qualify your leads, then not letting them into the kingdom of knowledge without a pass are both critical to success in this field too, I would imagine.


Talk budget early in the process. Talk retainer early in the process.


I like the design brief idea, so long as it doesn't become off-putting. Spend time talking to them to find out specifically what they want (ala the topics discussed in your brief), and give them the homework assignment of writing a brief. But mention budget, and mention that to begin assessing their site and whether you can even help them, they'll need to cut you a check.

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But mention budget, and mention that to begin assessing their site and whether you can even help them, they'll need to cut you a check.







I understand the reason for this caution. But in previous lives as a client, I've heard this from a lot of vendors before, and that gives me very little protection. I'm not advocating that vendors give away work products for free. But I think we need to come up with palatable ways not to just ask the client for a blank check too.


As a client, if I am investing time up front to determine whether I can work with a vendor, I expect the same from the vendor. I understand this process needs limits, but in my view, asking for a check to determine whether you can "even help them" might be swinging too far in the direction of protect the vendor.

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I would agree with that.


We never ask for money to assess peoples' situation.


It all comes down to knowing the difference between a potential client who wants some basic information to make an informed choice, and an intellectual property leach who has no intention of employing your services.


We went for a quote a couple of months ago, and it was one of those quotes where we rocked up and thought "On no, I should not have even driven here. I am not being paid to do this."


It was a business manager who wanted everything for free.


Anyway, last week, they wrote back, and said we were part of the final 3 to be selected, and that a new quote would need to be written to provide exact details with regards to work provided, server configuration, search engine optimisation techniques, software platforms, and any other helpful tip's "you can think of".


I just told them the first contract covers everything that will happen, but obviously the finer details and explanations into the work would not be provided.


Its a bit like a plumber. They just fix the hot water system and thats it.


Quoting is a time consuming process, and I now understand why some designer's ask for payment for it to occur.


But as a business in the open marketplace, there is an obligation to the consumer to be to explain your offering at some level.


I would hazard a guess that 25% of our quotes are from people who are just sniffing around.

Edited by travis

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Anyway, last week, they wrote back, and said we were part of the final 3 to be selected, and that a new quote would need to be written to provide exact details with regards to work provided, server configuration, search engine optimisation techniques, software platforms, and any other helpful tip's "you can think of".



I think that, if a prospective client needs to know exactly what I am going to do before they hire me, they are dreaming.


But I think we need to come up with palatable ways not to just ask the client for a blank check too.

I entirely agree. So here are some questions, and areas, both sides should be comfortable delving into:


- Referrals and testimonials are a good topic for both sides. Just make surethe sites in question are good ones. Joe Biggs small shoe site isn't a great referral, unless the work has been integral to business success.

- Big picture methodology - what is your mix of skills? What do you believe about XYZ? How do you plan to spend the money?

- How the performance will be tracked, and what KPIs really matter. If a client wants to be number one for sex with no actual sales goals, both sides have a problem.

- Expected involvement. An SEO might expect access to the code, or might charge more to make actual changes. Setting exactly what a vendor will do and won't do, and what a client will allow them to do and not do, is vital.


Really, both sides need a win-win solution, and there are certainly areas both can discuss that lead to a good level of confidence, and a great level of trust. Stepping oputside this comfortable will lead to problems, and I think that needs to be established!

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...and that gives me very little protection...


And handling things the other way leaves the vendor with little protection.


I agree that the process needs to be palatable for both parties - otherwise the SEO will never land any work.


For the contract terms we have with our (non-SEO) clients, in the beginning I used to feel like I needed to be fair-minded, give some terms favorable to us, give some favorable to the client. After spending some time in court trying to collect from deadbeat clients, I realized that being fair in the contract is not my job.


My job is to do everything in my power to protect my business, and to protect the income of my staff and me. I do that by making the process smooth and comfortable for us, making it fit how we want to do business. For the client, they receive excellent service and quality work. Our reputation in that regard is likely what drew them to us in the first place. We are more likely the known quantity in this equation, and the client is the unknown.


The client will either follow along with our normal mode of doing business or they won't. Simple as that.


I do encourage spending time up front to talk about the generalities of what they do and what they want to accomplish, and invite them to ask as many questions as they want (not that we'd answer all of them). That's part of the two-way screening process, during which either party may decide it's a bad fit and opt to move on.


Now maybe there's a glut of SEO's out there at the moment, making it harder for SEO's to turn away clients that appear to be a bad fit - but any company dealing in intellectual services should always strive to be in a position where they are able to pick and choose their clients. I have the feeling Frank Lloyd Wright didn't put up with too many clients who wanted to pick his brains for a long while before they committed to hiring his firm.


My $.02, whatever that's worth....

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