How I Select Clients & Projects: Focusing On "Greatness"

A hard part of running a service-based business is deciding which clients to work with and which types of projects to work on. There are only so many hours available to work for clients on their projects. Plus, there is a limit to the services I can provide at the high quality levels I expect and my clients (rightly) expect. This is a big challenge and one I’m never sure I’ve met (even after a decade of trying).

When I started QW Consulting in the early 2000s, my approach was to take on everything even remotely related to websites and computers. That led to lots of work, but I was unable to deliver high quality work across the board. I worked with lots of clients on lots of different kinds of projects. While I learned a little about many different subjects, I was unable to learn enough about a subject to deliver truly expert services.

By working in many different areas made it difficult to stay updated on the latest news and technology in each of those areas. I could know the basics, but would never have time to explore all the details. Without staying updated, or without knowing the nuances, it became difficult to deliver the great, high-quality work I expect to deliver to my clients.

After the last twelve years of running QW Consulting I have come to accept a basic rule: being great at one thing is hard enough; being great at everything is impossible. Related to this, I want to be great at the services I provide to my clients.

To avoid this problem, I constantly limit the focus of my business to increase the projects related to the type of work I'm really great at (or could be great at). This means I turn away projects and clients who are in need of services not related to the work I can really be great at. This, in turn, opens my time to focus on clients who do need the services I can deliver at an exceptional, high-quality level.

Here is an example. When I started, I offered website-related services as well as general computer support. After a few years of this, sometime around 2004, I moved away from general computer support to focus only on web programming and web marketing.

I’ve continued this trend. In the last year I've done considerably less new site development (creating new websites or redeveloping existing websites) to allow myself the time to focus on more marketing-related projects (which, for me largely means writing/updating/reviewing code to support broader online marketing efforts).

However, shifting focus is only part of the way to avoid this problem. I also have started more carefully evaluating new clients and new projects. I need to know that a new client matches up with the services that I can be great at. If I can't be great at the work I do for my client, why bother taking on that project?

Ultimately, deciding whether or not I work with a client comes down to three main questions:

  1. Does this client's project fit (at least 80% of the way) with the type of work I focus on (and the type of work I am great at)?
  2. Can I do a considerably better job for this client than most everybody else (there will always be somebody better, but am I better than 80-90% of the options out there)?
  3. Is the project something that will challenge me to try new technology, explore new concepts, or apply what I know in a new industry? (The more I can learn the better service I can provide to my client.)

Obviously, there are other questions to answer about a new client. Budget, schedule, legal, and ethical considerations all factor in. Obviously, I want to know that the client is not willing to try shadier tactics geared at gaming the system for short-term wins. I also want to know that the client can pay their bills and I prefer clients who can deliver items to me on time.

Beyond all of that, I want to know that the client fits with the work that I do great at. If the client doesn't fit, then I firmly believe it is not fair to the client (or me) to let that client hire me. As a result, I have turned away new work—even work that could have resulted in more money or prestige. Ultimately, if I want to be great at what I do, my focus has to stay on achieving greatness.

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