How to avoid time-wasting clients

Flickr user ahisgett

(MoneyWatch) These are scary times for small businesses. When you combine the sluggish economy with uncertain tax rates and stir in rising health care costs and scarcity of capital, you get an evil brew that would terrify even the toughest small business owner.

And if you were in any way affected by superstorm Sandy, I bet you're beginning to wonder if you're actually living in a horror movie. Well, you're not. This is the real world. And I don't know about you, but these past years it's been darn near impossible to scare up some new business.

That said, the only thing worse than the phone not ringing is when potential clients waste your precious time. I've run a management consulting business for nine years and I've gotten to the point where I can tell in the first five minutes of a phone call or the first few paragraphs of an email if someone's going to engage me in endless back-and-forth that results in zero business.

If you don't want to waste the most important thing you've got going for you -- your time -- here are five warning signs to look out for when you hear from a new potential client.

They're vague and secretive. I don't know about you, but I get this all the time. They want your help, but they can't tell you anything definitive about the company or its products for any number of reasons, none of which are valid. Maybe they're paranoid or maybe someone really is out to get them, but I wouldn't stick around to find out.

They bombard you with information. This time-waster is so insidious it's like a Trojan Horse. They send you a reasonably concise and coherent email and, once you respond, it's as if a data center floodgate burst open. Next thing you know, you've got half a dozen emails with documents, pitches and links to articles that would take a month to get through.

They babble endlessly but can't seem to answer a straight question. One potential client I spoke with a few weeks ago literally wouldn't stop talking. I asked him a simple question, and he danced around for 10 minutes without ever actually answering it. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure there's medication you can take for that.

They've got the greatest thing since the Internet. Either that or they make it sound like they're the greatest entrepreneurs on earth. And yet you can't verify that anything they've done has ever actually produced results for them or anyone else. They tend to be name-droppers, too. If you didn't know what grandiose people sound like, now you do.

They need funding but are in disguise. These past few years I've been getting more and more emails from companies that sound like they need consulting help but, in the end, what they really need is money to drop out of the sky and land in their bank accounts. They always have these terrible stories of woe. I feel for them, which is probably why I fall for it -- every time.

If you've got a small business, what's the most common sign that warns you you're about to waste your time?

Image courtesy of Flickr user ahisgett