I’ll never forget a summer afternoon in 2001 when a very individual walked into my office.
He had just moved to my city from a different part of the country, and he brought some impressive ideas with him. He wanted to interview the real estate company I was working for in order to have us represent him as he developed property and built major buildings in his new city. His ideas were grandiose, and he assured us he had access to unlimited capital. He told captivating stories and dropped big names.
As he spoke, an alarm went off in my head. This guy sounded too good to be true. My boss was equally skeptical. Our initial thought was to just laugh about the meeting and not waste our time with the guy. But there was something that kept pulling us back. Something about the guy seemed genuine, so we decided to do a little background research on him.
For the most part, his stories actually checked out. We learned he had been involved in some significant real estate deals if not as big as what he was proposing to us. We found evidence that he may have actually done work with a couple of the big names he mentioned. A banking reference he gave us was legitimate. We learned that a couple other local companies had signed on to work with him including a business consultant and an architecture firm.
While it still seemed too good to be true, we decided to move forward with this guy at least for a while.
Though we were suspicious he could accomplish his plans, a couple questions in the back of our minds kept haunting us: What if he is legitimate and we pass up the opportunity? What if we walk away and one of our competitors ends up doing this once-in-a-career project with him?
As we proceeded, this man ended up demanding an extraordinary amount of my time, which eventually made me feel suspicious again. But after a while, we came to a moment of truth, a chance for him to prove himself. The client decided to make an offer on a 14-story building. We wrote up the contract, and he produced a cashier’s check for the earnest deposit. Finally, this strange man with the fanciful ideas put up some real cash and signed a purchase agreement!
During the due diligence period following that contract, the client took even more of our time, but instead of focusing on the matter at hand – closing this deal – he was focused on other, bigger properties he wanted. His head was in the clouds. I became more and more frustrated, because the guy wouldn’t focus on first-things-first. How could we conquer the local real estate market if he couldn’t even focus long enough to close the first deal?!!?
As I pushed him, his personality changed. He got confrontational and combative. It was kind of disturbing. Some of his other advisers (architect, lender, attorney, etc.) were noticing the same thing.
At the last minute, he came up with some excuse and killed the deal just as the due diligence period was about to expire. Many people had worked long and hard for absolutely nothing.
What did the mysterious client do next? He asked us all to start working on another property he claimed to want.
That’s when I finally had enough. Our company cut ties with him. Some of the other companies that had been working him followed suit.
That was 22 years ago. The would-be, career-defining client never ended up purchasing or developing a single property in my city. He moved away many years ago and invested in (I’m not making this up) a chain of stripper bars. I haven’t heard from him at all in that time. Just out of curiosity, I have Googled him a few times over the years and very little shows up.
I can remember him once telling me that he preferred “to fly under the radar.” I’ve heard that from other prospective clients and vendors over the years. Without exception, every person who has said those words to me has turned out to be illegitimate in some way. If you ever want me to run away from you and never ask to do business with you ever again, simply tell me you like “to fly under the radar”
Other than avoiding people who fly under the radar, what did I learn from this time-sucking client?
Another thing to look for when qualifying prospects!
I had always thought qualification was about discovering their motives and determining their ability to perform financially. In reality, qualification is more than that. Some people are dreamers. Some people are wannabes. Perhaps for some psychological reason I don’t understand, some people want to play fantasy business instead of accomplishing real things.
If you are willing to allow them, people will happily usurp your time even for things that don’t necessarily make sense for you. I try to remind myself that the qualification process is all about elimination. We need to eliminate posers, pretenders and usurpers before they can steal your most precious resource: time.
I’m glad the strange man came into my professional life all those years ago. The time I wasted with him back then turned out to be quite valuable. I’m much more efficient today and my eyes are more keenly aware because of what I learned back then.