I was in the market for a new bike. Actually hadn’t owned a bike since the 8th grade and wanted, needed, to get more physical activity into my routine. Knew of a bike shop in my neighborhood and stopped in one evening. It was one of those small boutique places where the serious bike people go. You could buy those spandex outfits with the Italian logos all over them.

Knowing that good bikes can be expensive, I was prepared to spend hundreds for the right bike. When I walked in, there was no one in the front of the store, but there seemed to be several people in the back and you could hear them discussing bike stuff; they hadn’t noticed me yet. I was alone. I took the time to browse around looking at some really cool bikes—and the prices. All of a sudden I was looking at prices in the thousands. I touched a bike that was $4,000. And then another that was $6,300. I’m in the wrong place. I looked around and noticed that I was still alone. I very quietly backed out of the store, hoping that I wouldn’t be noticed before I reached the door—made it. I got out of the store before I embarrassed myself.

Some of us have been there; meeting with a shiny new perspective client talking about what could be and what amazing things we could do for their business. “Let’s knock out some concepts and sketches and discuss next week. Let’s also explore some new media alternatives.  There’s a lot of cool new technology out there to take advantage of.  Turn on the media machine too.  We’re talking break through concepts.  We don’t really know the costs until we get some idea of what needs to be done–what can to be done.” Nobody mentions numbers. “No need to at this point. Certainly the shiny new perspective client knows these things cost money”—says the hungry creative director.

Then next week comes with a handful of ideas and concepts—along with 25 hours of uncommitted and unmentioned billable hours. On top of that, all of the concepts involve executions that all are beyond the client’s unstated budget. Damn—this is awkward. It’s a little late to quietly back out of the room.

Everybody has a budget. Don’t let anybody leave that unaddressed, even if the client is reluctant to drop down a number. Is it more than a buck and less than a million? Yes! See—we’re already starting to close in on a range. We always have to get at least a range or a not-to-exceed number. Setting and managing budgets is a core responsibility of the account manager. Nothing will erase a client relationship faster than confusing them about their own money.