Now and again, a prospect shows up that your instincts or experience tells you to pass on. That’s not always an easy call, especially when the initial chemistry feels right. There are circumstances, though, when it’s 99% certain that it’s the right call.

For years, I’ve had one simple litmus test for a prospect: Have they worked with a professional design firm before?

In an earlier post, I spoke of chemistry, trust and ability as being essential to successful, long-term relationships. This litmus test directly relates to the ability part of that formula. If the prospect hasn’t purchased professional design services before, I find a way to gently pass on the opportunity. I’ll say more about this in a moment.

There are exceptions to this, and I have made them from time to time. Even in those cases, though, the rationale of the rule has proven true.

Why do I decline to work with a prospect with no previous experience? It’s because it’s hard to get any level of success with a client who hasn’t done this before, mainly because they’re unable to deliver their side of the deal. This includes understanding how much time they need to commit, giving us clear goals and objectives, and providing the informed input necessary to a successful solution.

Further, their lack of knowledge, including how to conduct themselves in the process, causes them to constantly question things at the most basic level. It’s difficult to work with someone when you essentially have to do their work as well as yours.

Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Really, though, it’s not, because they are hiring us to do the work, not to teach them how to do their part of it.

It’s tempting to break the rule when you really like the person. The chemistry’s there, they have a really killer product, they seem to have some traction, and they really, really need the help and want to work with you. Even then, it usually isn’t going to work out because, without necessarily meaning to or even being aware of it, they’ll rob you of your time.

So how do you help them go gently into that good night? Every case is different, of course, but there are some tried and true ways to leave on a positive note, which is always the best option.

If we’re in a review with other firms or designers, and I know who they are, I have on occasion advised the client that they should go with one of the other firms. (Incidentally, even with a viable prospect, there have been times when I’ve done this because I’ve felt strongly enough that another firm was a better choice for them.)

Depending on the nature of the prospect and the work, I might recommend that they contact one of the temporary placement firms or the local art schools with the opportunity. That gives a young designer the chance at paying work, and gives the client some experience of the design process. If it’s a large enough project, I may even mention a few other design firms they may want to call.

The bottom line here is that successful projects need willing and able participants on both side of the relationship. If there’s doubt or hesitation on either side, experience proves that it’s better to part early and amiably.