All foreplay, no sex

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you ever had a client who talked a lot about doing business with you — but never actually did it?

Like that.

In a time of rising costs and taxes, I understand why some people are reluctant to commit to laying out cash. I’m hardly a wild spender, but I keep writing checks — albeit small ones — to my assistant, even for ideas we’ve had that just didn’t work out as we’d hoped. If I only spent money on sure things (oooh, sign me up!), I’d be a lot richer.

We all want ROI — return on investment. But how many of us know exactly, beforehand, which business decision is a totally sure thing and which is not?

When someone decides they might want to work with me, there are hundreds of articles on-line they can read to see my product. (But how heavily were they edited?) Do some due diligence and ask around; we all have reputations, for good and ill. Some writers’ copy arrives clean and ready to edit, while others offer what I call Swiss cheese journalism — all holes, little substance. I recently met a writer who felt compelled to tell me how Very Successful he is. Then I had lunch this week with someone who previously worked closely with him and told me a very different tale.

When you work for yourself, cashflow is key, which includes deciding when someone’s just kicking your tires and is never actually going to hire you or pay you for your time and skills.

English: The lattice work on Saks & Co's store...
English: The lattice work on Saks & Co’s store on Fifth Avenue in New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last year, I did an event for my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” at Saks, an upscale store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. A woman stopped by my table and bought a copy and I couldn’t believe my luck — she works in HR at another huge retailer. It was, I hoped, a golden opportunity for future consulting, or a speaking engagement or book sales.

And then began a months-long courtship that went exactly….nowhere. She’d read my book, seen my video, had plenty of time to assess my potential value to her company. She would email me to arrange a phone call, with no agenda or plan. Our one in-person meeting, when I was in her city far away from me, got cancelled after she took a horrible fall. The call arranged for 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, (she simply assigned me the time, horribly inconvenient for me), she completely blew off.

I finally emailed her a terse note suggesting that if or when she wished to do business with me, I’d be happy to hear from her.


Another Canadian recently decided they might want me to keynote a major conference, with barely a month’s notice — paying my own way to Toronto from New York for no fee. Really?

Then they simply stopped returning my assistant’s calls and emails. This sort of hand-wringing, passive-aggressive, risk-averse bullshit is crazy. Rude. Cowardly.

The ongoing challenge of working for yourself is determining which potential clients really are, eventually, going to open their wallets and get on with it — and those just dicking you around because:

1) they’re indecisive; 2) they’re cheap; 3) they don’t have the authority to hire or pay you; 4) they’re terrified of any risk; 5) they don’t have the funds 6) and/or don’t want you to know it; 7) it makes them feel powerful to know they can.

I hate wasting time. I hate wasting energy. I really try not to do it to others. It’s disrespectful. It’s a time-suck. And all the time you waste on foreplay, so to speak, you could be enjoying the real deal with someone who actually really does want to do business with you.

Have you run into this?

How do you suss these losers out (more) quickly so they don’t waste your time?

16 thoughts on “All foreplay, no sex

  1. Caitlin, you are in a different field from me but I could tell you stories. I used to open my studio to the public and had my time wasted so many times I couldn’t count. Sometimes they chatted me up so they could then ask to use the bathroom. Sometimes they just wanted to tell me how wonderful and rich they were. Sometimes they wanted to bargain the price with me so they could boast what they paid for something to their friends back home. Some told me they were waiting for their mother to die so they could claim their inheritance. Some asked me if they could photo a work so they could hire an artist somewhere else to do the same, only smaller. Some actually stole from me when I was distracted. So my bullshitometer is pretty highly tuned. Hard to deal with it but I would usually just get a glazed look on my face and stare at them – they would eventually leave.

  2. I’m still knocking my head against the wall of that conference, I’d never seen anything just fade away like that professionally! I didn’t know that people did that in the work world, I didn’t know it was an option – if nothing else (as I know personally) it’s possible to have your secretary send the uncomfortable email if it really intimidates you so badly. But honestly, man up and have a conversation like an adult!

  3. First off, when I read the title, I was a little baffled because my first thought was, “lesbian sex?” But, then I had to wonder, “Wow, talk about a little off-topic…” So, of course, I had to read the post.

    And yeah, I know the lyrics to that tune, too. “Oh I wanna commission a pair of earrings from you!” Nothing. “Oh, can you paint me such and such?” Nothing. “Oh, I wanna schedule a reading with you on such and such.” Nothing. “Oh can we make that appointment for this day instead?” Nothing.

    My favorite? 6 years ago. Thought I landed my very first gallery show for my paintings and photography. I thought it was a dream come true! I thought I had found the start of my yellow brick road to Oz! I got canvases and supplies (that I couldn’t afford) and I told my family who were absolutely THRILLED for me and were making plans to travel thousands of miles to see it, and my friends…I really thought I was gonna make it!

    Unfortunately, I also thought they actually *meant* “We’ll get the contract signed.” Six times. 6 appointments, 6 disappointments, 5 different excuses, 1 without an excuse.

    Yeah, the arts: Everyone loves the idea, no one wants to pay for it. Thank you Picasso with your “starving artist” crap.

    1. So sorry to hear this.

      There is an old-fashioned notion I still subscribe to — if you say you’re going to do something, DO it. Or do not make a commitment. Seems simple enough to me.

  4. southwestdesertlover

    Great post and oh, could I tell you many similar stories. As a consultant for over 20 years, there have been people who seem to enjoy learning all kinds of things (sort of a brain-picking). Then there were a few who signed contracts that included a monthly retainer fee and these individuals did not have the legal, signing authority. (however, in one case with Lucent Technologies, I called the then-Chairman of the Board and worked with his assistant to get paid. Took over a year and got $15K out of the original $60K contract…) Now that I think about it, there were many telecommunications’ companies that did the exploratory dance to get information from me or else signed a contract, got way more than they contracted for (I always over-deliver), and were either very-late paying or didn’t pay (MCI). Loved your take, as always!

    1. Thanks!

      It’s a depressing, if instructive, post to see how many people in so many fields of endeavor have similarly been led along/ripped off/misled or just plain lied to. One of the things I find exhausting (and necessary) about working for myself is that you have to be so vigilant about getting paid and making sure your anticipated income is actually going to arrive (on time.)

  5. Steve

    As a general contractor that works on people’s homes let me say I feel your pain. I can’t tell you how many times that I have spent literally hours of time putting together bids for people for large jobs, sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars and after submitting my bid not even so much as a phone call back. Or the worst, preparing a bid and plan for a deck or addition and going by their house at a later time and seeing them putting up my plan themselves or worse yet seeing some other contractor building their deck according to MY plan

    people are just so rude anymore and are so self absorbed about their needs and wants that, sorry to say, they just don’t care about you or your intellectual property or time. I feel your pain!

    1. Ouch! I treat our contractor REALLY well! šŸ™‚

      So the larger challenge for all of is is setting (tight[er?]) limits on how much time or energy we’ll give a prospective client. I would not have let this woman string me along but for the HUGE opp. she potentially represented.

      I recently met with a local businessman who told me in October 2012 he wanted me to come help with his marketing. It’s mid-April and we still have done nothing. I don’t doubt his sincerity (it’s his company, with partners), but the day it actually happens is likely many months away.

      It’s the old ABC rule: Always Be Closing. My retail job was extremely helpful in this respect. I am much tougher and quicker now to ask for the business — and move on if it’s not happening — than before I did that work.

      1. Steve

        I think I would thank him for the opportunity to serve his company, remind him of how much you could do for him if given the chance and move on. The prospect of losing your services will prompt him to make a decision if he is serious and it will free up your concscience to do what you do best somewhere that appreciates your talents. If he can’t see that as a businessman, you don’t want to work for that guy anyways. Move on. good luck, the right opportunity is out there and I have confidence you will find something better and by cutting the cord it gives you closure to do just that. Look forward not back

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