I wish I’d made that phrase up, but I didn’t.

I heard it from an ad exec named Tom Farley. He used it to describe a particular type of prospect who would suck the life out of you with a never-ending string of promises and demands. “We really want to work with you,” they’ll tell you. “We consider you part of the team. And as soon as things pick up a little around here, you’re going to get a ton of business from us.”

Meanwhile, they’d just like a few things from you:

  • “We’re preparing our budgets and I need some ballpark numbers…”
  • “I need some advice on …”
  • “I have some questions about …”
  • “Can you come to a meeting?”
  • “Can you work up a proposal that I can show my boss?”
  • “Can you give us more details about the proposal you gave us last week?”
  • “Can you give us more details about the details you gave us last week?”

You get the idea. It’s all give and no get. And it never, ever results in an actual sale.

The problem is, real prospects will also ask you for estimates, advice and plans. And that’s why Penniless Clients are so good at masquerading as the real deal.

There is a simple way to find out sooner rather than later if a prospect is a Penniless Client. It comes down to a single question that you can – and should – ask in your very first encounter with a prospect. The Magic Question, as we call it around here, is this:

What will you do?

As in, “If I send you a proposal, what will you do when you receive it?”

Or, “If we meet, what will you do after the meeting?”

Here are some variations:

  • “If you present this to your boss, what will he do?”
  • “If our advice is sound, how will you act on it?”

Real prospects won’t be put off by a Magic Question. Why would they? They’re not just talking to you to while away the day. They need to get something done and they’ll know exactly what they plan to do next. Penniless Clients will often fumble the question — because they don’t have a plan, or don’t have funds right now, or don’t have a commitment from their boss. Which means all that will happen is that you’ll waste your time.


  • Tomborg says:

    Your points are well taken. Too often it is wishful salesperson who time after time, will go along with Penniless Prospect from Hell and be endlessly disappointed.

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