Welcome to My Nightmare (Clients)

vampire smile with fangsWe have spent time here talking about dream clients and how they differ from prospects. Dream clients are better than prospects; you must spend your time working on your dream clients.

When you don’t work on dream clients, you sometimes find yourself in the unenviable position of having won a prospect. You may enter into the relationship with every intention of turning your prospect into a dream client, and sometimes you succeed. But more often than not you fail to convert them into a dream client and you end up with something far worse; you end up with a nightmare.

Adversarial Nightmares

The worse attribute that nightmare clients possess is the strong desire to treat their partners as adversaries. Nightmare clients believe that every problem that they have is the vendor’s fault, and that if you were a better vendor they would achieve a better result. Instead of acting as partners in their own improvement, they accuse, blame, and find fault with your effort.

And so every negotiation turns into a win-lose negotiation, whether it is access to information, support and sponsorship of the change necessary with the stakeholders, or a discussion over finances. And you are expected to lose; anything less means that your adversarial, nightmare client didn’t win. And they won’t stand for that.

Pretending to Take the Red Pill Nightmares

Nightmare clients only pretend to take the red pill. They talk about the change that they need. They crucify their present provider in the worst terms imaginable. They make a strong and convincing case that they are willing to do whatever is necessary to participate in their own change effort and to work to make those changes possible.

In reality, after you have won the deal and begin to implement and execute, you find that there isn’t any willingness to change and that you have to achieve the outcome you promised without their participation or cooperation. You have to help them achieve a better outcome while they continue to operate as they always have.

Your nightmare client does a slight of hand and takes the blue pill; they have no desire to change what they do, only their vendor.

Lack of Leadership Nightmares

It is difficult, or more accurately, it is damn near impossible, to implement an effective change effort with your client without the leadership and sponsorship of your client’s leadership team. Without it, you lack the support and the political cover to implement real change.

Producing better outcomes requires leadership from you and your client. Without their involvement, the politics of change are the hardball politics that cause disruption, turf wars, half hearted and dishonest efforts, and the ability to wait you out.

Real change for your client requires leadership on their side to ensure that you have access to the information that you need, and the access to and cooperation of the stakeholders who can ultimately help you succeed (or fail). Without the support of leadership, your effort will fail and you will be blamed, whether or not you are fault. As an added bonus, your adversarial nightmare client will share your failures far and wide.

Nightmare clients can suck the life out of your sales efforts, they demoralize you and your team, and for all you effort, they still abuse you and treat you as an adversary. Better to part sooner rather than later, with your reputation in tact, your time returned, and with your team knowing you won’t expect them to suffer through a nightmare that ends badly for them.


To succeed in sales, you need to do your best work for your dream clients, the clients for who you can produce breath-taking, mind-blowing results. When you settle for prospects, you often end up with nightmare clients instead of dream clients.


  1. What causes you to accept prospects instead of dream clients?

  2. How do handle adversarial clients?

  3. How much time and energy does it require to serve a miserable, adversarial client? What could you do for a dream client with that same time that would delight them and win you their trust and their loyalty?

  4. What do you do to ensure your dream client has the will to undertake the change effort that is required for them to achieve the outcome that they need and that you can help deliver?

  5. How do you spot a nightmare client?

  6. Tell me about your nightmare.

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  • http://www.SEO-writer.ca David Leonhardt

    Yep. There are way too many who pretend to take the red pill. The bottom line is that if you hire a consultant to do work for you, why ignore their advice? Makes no sense.

    Right now, I am lucky. Mostly pretty good clients.

    • http://www.santhonyiannarino.com S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks for the comments, David! (fast, too, I just hit the publish button).

      Makes no sense at all, and yet, we deal with it more than we would like. The blue pill seems like the easy choice until their is no other choice but the red pill, and by that time, the change is a lot harder!


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  • http://lookingtobusiness.com Daniel M. Wood

    Hello Anthony,

    You know I am a big fan of your writing, but today I have to disagree at least a bit.
    Since I started working in sales 8 years ago I have met very few clients I can call dream clients. I could probably count them on one hand.
    Most of my clients end up somewhere in the spectrum between nightmare, decent and dream clients.

    What is important is that you keep working on fostering the relationship and moving them towards being better and better clients.

    The most important thing is that when you meet a customer that is, as you define it, a nightmare customer you got to get out of there ASAP, they only waste your time and energy.

    The point I want to make is that I have met to many salesmen who procrastinate on meeting customers because they aren’t their “dream customers”, sometimes you have to realize that we are all just people and people aren’t perfect.
    Decent is enough.

    Keep up the great work here Anthony, speak to you later.


    • http://www.santhonyiannarino.com S. Anthony Iannarino

      Dan, as always, thanks for your comments. You are always free to disagree here; I encourage it! But just a few questions:

      1. Why have you met so few dream clients (clients who you can do the kind of work for that will dramatically change their business results)? Is it because they are way harder to penetrate and win?
      2. Dream clients aren’t easy to serve. In fact, they will challenge you to raise your game and deliver like never before. But they aren’t adversarial, and they do participate in the effort. Does that change your analysis of some of your clients?
      3. If not, what is a decent client? Is it a client for whom you can’t do work that is worth paying more for than your competitor charges? Why are they with you? What can you do to make them dream clients?

      We will have to agree to disagree on two points. First, I believe it is difficult to change adversarial clients into something else. Typically, the culture is broken, and you end up in a bad situation that was easy to foresee. Mostly, we stay because of money and the resistance to having to replace them.

      Two, let’s take the judgment about people off the table. Lots of companies are full of lots of decent people, even the adversarial nightmare clients. Do you want decent opportunities? Do you want an opportunity to do the mediocre work that no one will notice or talk about? Are you looking for the opportunities to provide the undifferentiated commodity that your decent prospect needs and to which you can add no real value? By focusing downstream, you make yourself a commodity.

      What if you were to decide that all of your decent clients should be treated and served in a way that would cause them publicly rave about you and carry your banner? What if you treated them like they were dream clients, instead of just decent clients? What would the result be for you and for them?


  • http://lookingtobusiness.com Daniel M. Wood

    Hello Anthony,

    In general I do agree with you.
    A dream client doesn’t mean an easy client. Usually it means a client that takes a lot of work, but have needs you can fulfill and are therefor a very profitable client and a loyal client (provided you do care for them).

    The reason I have seen so few “dream” clients is probably two fold.
    The first reason is that I see the spectrum as very broad, like I said everything between nightmare and dream is in my (little) world a decent – good client and can be worked with. A dream client is perfect, so I might be going to far with my definition, you might think many of my clients are in fact dream clients.

    The second reason is that my industry is very over blown, there are a lot of companies in it, selling similar products at qualities that at first glance look the same. (in reality though they differ a lot, but the customer doesn’t know this until it is to late).

    In this industry the customers aren’t very loyal to one vendor, they change vendors and as people move from company to company, we often loose the business of the company when our contact leaves. (It would take to long to explain why, I’ll just give you the short version saying that all the presentations sound about the same, the product is the same and people in Scandinavia are awful at using the internet and therefor don’t really understand what we are selling anyway.)

    At the moment we are working on rebuilding or product and service model to create more loyal and stable customers, a lot of work is going into educating our customer base and showing them the value of our product and the difference to our competitors.

    This is a year long project (the first of its kind in this industry) and hopefully it will help :)


  • John O’Connor

    In my spare time I’m a semi-professional musician. Some time ago I read about a concept called “The Gig Triangle”, which I later realized can be directly correlated to my business. Briefly, it goes like this. There are three aspects to a gig; the music, the hang, and the money. A great gig has you playing the music you like, with people you enjoy being around, and pays really well. A good gig has two of three being positive, and this represents most acceptable playing situations. So playing music you like with people you enjoy for substandard pay is OK, as is playing music you like for good pay, but with people you don’t like, or playing music you don’t like with people you enjoy for good pay. Anything else is to be avoided.

    I think of clients in similar terms. Dream clients bring me business that’s synergistic with company goals, are a pleasure to work with, and have projects that produce high profit. As with gigging, this doesn’t happen too often. Good clients have two out of the three. Anything less ends up being a Nightmare Client. Also just like music, there is only so much one can do to improve one of these aspects. Personality clashes and company culture differences can be almost impossible to rectify, but sometimes you can dramatically change a project’s scope of work (usually making it smaller) to make the business much more attractive, or you can add a PITA premium to your bill rate to at least make things more bearable. If you can’t get two of the three in balance then it’s time to move on. I always think of a Nightmare Client as a temporary situation.