As marketing agencies and consultants, we serve clients in a wide range of industries — and each client comes with varying team dynamics, project requirements, and challenges of its own.
But when you work with hundreds of businesses from different industries over the years, as we have at IMPACT, you get better at navigating issues with difficult clients as they surface.
And surface, they will. It’s inevitable; at some point in time, your marketing agency is going to experience a sticky situation with an angry client. As stressful as these situations are, with a little preparation, your team can better manage these challenging relationships while maintaining your agency’s integrity and doing what’s best for the health of your business.
In this article, we’re sharing strategies to help your agency work better with difficult clients that include:
Navigating relationship-harming culture clashes.
Working with financially or structurally unstable businesses.
Negotiating with clients that are unhappy with your work and/or its outcomes.
Managing clients that won’t commit to working with your agency.
Ready to learn how to work with difficult clients as they crop up, but also prevent difficult client challenges from happening in the first place?
Despite our best efforts to find good-fit clients, there comes a time when we don’t ask the right questions or the issue doesn’t present itself during the sales process. When we struggle with culture-fit issues, communication breaks down between parties, and this opens the door to a damaged client relationship.
As with most obstacles in business, the solution to smoothing out a culture clash with your client depends on the root cause of the problem:
Is it a personality issue between your client and the account manager? Coach and train your staff on how to work and communicate with clients more effectively. And if that doesn’t work, consider changing up your staff to see if there’s a better fit.
Maybe your two teams can’t seem to align on the creative direction or process. You might have to revisit your strategy and devise a new way forward.
The best way to avoid a culture clash between your agency and its clients is to do better in your sales process at asking questions that will uncover red flags earlier.
These exploratory questions might include:
What does the ideal agency-client relationship look like to you?
If you had a negative experience with an agency in the past, what caused the relationship to fail?
On a scale of 1-10, how comfortable is your team with receiving candid feedback?
These questions dictate how you’re going to build an honest, direct rapport and strong lines of communication with your client’s team.
Also, ask questions that uncover your clients’ team structure and values to be sure they align with yours. Does your client expect you to drop everything at a moment’s notice when there’s an issue? Be available nights and weekends?
Have a clear set of rules that you and your client can agree to, and be sure you’re on the same page from the start.
Working with financially or structurally unstable clients
Clients with financial or structural weaknesses can cause issues for your agency that can manifest in different ways. These clients are desperate, and desperation often exhibits itself in unhealthy and imbalanced relationships and expectations.
Maybe your client says how unhappy they are with your work and demands a refund. Perhaps they’re flat-out refusing to pay you for your services.
It might not seem like a big deal to have one of these clients working with your agency, but if you have several, they can inhibit your agency’s ability to remain profitable. Your agency does not want to be doing work for free.
IMPACT’s director of the Certified Coaching Program, Dia Vavruska, explains:
“If you take on a startup, the work you do could make or break their success and your ability to work with them. Or if you work with small businesses or clients in the tech industry where there is a large merger and acquisition rate, you have to anticipate consistent churn in your book of business. If your business is in a position to and willing to take that risk, then go for it! Otherwise, you should avoid these types of clients and the instability they can cause for your agency and team.”
As Dia cautions, you need to make these decisions carefully. Do you want to pursue clients that are financially stable and have a matured lifecycle? Or are you comfortable signing contracts with clients that might not be able to pay you if they don’t close a new deal that month?
To avoid the financial uncertainty for your business that these clients bring, decide early which clients you’re willing to work with and which you’re not. Also, do your research and learn as much as you can about the financial health and structure of each client before you enter a contract.
Realistically, it’s impossible to anticipate every client that will struggle with financial or structural instability. These things happen. But if they do slip by your sales qualification process, there are a few solutions:
Have a frank discussion about the underlying problem. Learn more about why they’re struggling to pay, but be sure to come from a place of caring. This builds trust and helps clients feel more comfortable opening up about what’s going on.
Offer the solution. Depending on the reason for your client not being able to pay, maybe you take a short hiatus until your client can get back on their feet or scale back on deliverables for a while. Try not to offer work for free, though, as it leads clients to ask for or expect further discounts.
End the relationship before it gets worse. Unfortunately, letting clients go is sometimes necessary for the health of your business. Again, you can do this from a place of caring and leave the door open for future collaboration. When possible, always do what you can to sever these relationships amiably.
Always aim to fix or end the relationship without having to take legal action, as it can be expensive and is rarely worth the hassle.
Negotiating with clients that are unhappy with your work and/or its outcomes
Most clients who are unhappy with your agency’s work or its outcomes either didn’t have a clear set of expectations from the start, or they expect one thing but get another.
This “bait and switch” breakdown in communication is often unintentional and happens during the sales process when expectations are set about deliverables and results. This can make your client feel like you’ve lured them under false pretenses.
As long as you’re proactive about the issue, most clients will understand and work with you to fix the issue — but others will use the setback to get something out of your agency. For example, they may press you for repeated extra work, free of charge.
To avoid this scenario, spell out exactly what your team will deliver and how. This way, you and your client can be aligned as early as possible.
For example, if the client isn’t happy with your agency’s deliverables, will you refund the client? Will you redo the work? On one hand, your client expects high-quality work. On the other hand, if you spend a lot of time redoing work, you’re basically working for free, which is far from ideal.
The problem here is it can lead to a massive loss of profitability and overworked staff.
Again, it all boils down to trust. As long as you keep delivering what both parties agree to, your clients will continue to trust in your ability to help them.
To learn more about how to avoid unsatisfied clients altogether, listen to the Agency Life podcast episode “How IMPACT Changed Inbound Marketing and Empowers Agencies.” In it, IMPACT Founder and CEO Bob Ruffolo shares how you can multiply your agency's profit by teaching your clients how to do all the work.
Managing clients that won’t commit to working with your agency
You’re working with your client to develop a marketing strategy and come up with a game plan — and they seem onboard. But when it comes time to implement said strategy, the client drags their feet or tries to go in a different direction entirely.
This can leave your agency scrambling to fill a revenue gap it wasn’t planning to or wasting time having to redo work or revise your strategy.
To avoid this scenario, get buy-in and commitment from key decision-makers early in the process. You want to align on the direction you’re taking and to agree there won’t be changes made to the plan unless it’s absolutely necessary.
“When you change direction several times, you will never accomplish what it is you’re going after. That’s why we have our planning sessions with clients; we agree on three to five priorities and nothing more.”
Set specific priorities so you don’t get distracted by other things. It’s okay to pivot, but it has to be for the reason of achieving the larger business goals. In other words, if the new direction doesn’t move the needle on the company priorities, then you shouldn’t do it.
So make sure your client is aligned with your direction, and carve out your bigger strategy into smaller, more manageable milestones. This will make it easier for your agency to pivot if you need to, midway, without upsetting the entire process — and your client.
Focus your energy where it matters most — growing your agency
IMPACT has helped thousands of B2B and B2C companies and agencies like yours take charge of their own inbound marketing strategy and make millions in revenue.
With our They Ask, You Answer Certified Coaching Program, we teach coaches and marketing agencies how to improve their results which includes:
A simple, effective framework to help you become a more effective agency that leads your clients toward incredible growth faster.
Direction for how to find your niche and set yourself apart from the overcrowded agency and marketing strategy landscape.
A clear path toward strengthening your team’s communication skills and value.
After completing the program, your agency will gain immediate access to dozens of courses on our IMPACT+ learning platform in addition to a community of like-minded professionals who are always there to support you.