The Concise Digital Marketing Agency Playbook for Working with Difficult Clients

Jen Saunders
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Imagine that you are out on your first blind date. The other person looks great, gives an amazing first impression, and you both seem to have the same goals and worldly views. You decide to see each other again, then a third time. A month later you are seeing each other exclusively, and things seem great. But then the other person starts flaking,repeatedly. Communication is terrible. They don’t show up for date night and don’t even call or text to give you any notice. Then the other person makes it clear that they expect you to conform to their needs, even if it means violating your ethics. Would you stay in this relationship?

When it comes to digital marketing agencies and their clients, you are always dealing with a relationship that must be built on mutual goals, an understanding of one another, and mutual respect. You should think about this relationship all the time. Unfortunately, all too many businesses treat their marketing agency like a vendor and not like a partner. These clients can be extremely challenging to work with, as they are notorious for looking great right out of the gate in the onboarding process, but then go underground once the “newness” has worn away.

This article offers a concise playbook containing strategic plays for dealing with common aches caused by difficult clients. It’s tips were collected from multiple experts; from the best digital marketing agency in Los Angeles to the best business growth firm in New York City.

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Let Your First Play Set the Right Expectations

When Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears took Super Bowl XLI’s opening kick for a touchdown, they immediately set a tone that though they were the underdog, they would not be easy to defeat. And although the Colts won, that powerful first play from Chicago’s return specialist sat on the minds of Indianapolis throughout the game motivating them to play harder for the win.

When you onboard a new client, you have an opportunity to set a tone along with the right expectations. Be hyper-organized; always let the client know the steps to your onboarding process along with next steps, and steps to come. Your communication also needs to set expectations for the rest of your partnership. Communicate quickly when responding to their queries, but not if you are having to pause important tasks. You don’t want to give the impression that you will bow to their every question with the snap of a finger, yet you want to respond quickly enough to demonstrate value at a time of the engagement where there isn’t much to show on paper. If the question is a simple one to answer then by all means respond within a few minutes. However, if a bit of research is required, then get to the task with an answer by end of day. Finally, the integrity of your agency and its employees must always come first. When difficult situations with clients arise they likely over disagreements, blame or a lack of respect. When letting the client know their behavior is unacceptable you also need to find out what is really going on. Once you are able to determine the real problem, you need to determine if it can be resolved while restoring a healthy, positive view of your agency and its employees, or if it is better for everyone to part ways.

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When Your Client Ghosts You

Nobody likes to be ignored, But in a business relationship between an agency and their client, this is all too common. Anytime you send a client an update, a request for certain information, or you email them to set up a meeting, you are opening yourself up to being ignored. Here is a page from the playbook featuring various scenarios with the best defensive plays:

They Don’t Respond to Emails Sharing Good News – When we send client’s notice that a goal was achieved, we all seek that high-five and thankful response. But the reality is that people get busy, including your clients. Zero response is not a bad thing, unless their silence remains after a third positive update has been shared. You want to make sure they are aware of this success. After all, these are the touch-points that show the client real value. After a third win is shared with no response, give the client a call and perform a temperature check.

They Don’t Give You Information You Need – All too often clients drag their feet in giving their agencies important information like access to Google Analytics, their sales records, or their buyer personas. In many cases digital marketers aren’t even able to proceed in offering their services until they get certain information from the client, and when work stops, perceived value from the client’s side plummets, even if they are at fault for the delay. Explain WHY you need this information, as the client may not think it’s important. If they still ghost you, ask to be put in touch with another team member who can get these things to you. Try a few more times and if there are still crickets you will need to send an executive member / owner an email explaining the problem. However, this is something that should be avoided unless absolutely necessary because chances are they don’t even know their company is working with you and they will immediately ask where the ROI is, along with a number of other stupid questions that could get you canned.

They Continuously Miss Meetings – If a client has made it a habit to miss meetings without giving any notice, there is likely a bigger problem. This is a clear sign that these meetings are not received with a high enough value. You need to revisit the client’s goals, understand exactly where he is at in terms of meeting those goals, and refocus your meeting structure. Avoid getting side tracked on other subjects. When setting up the meeting be sure to email the client with an agenda, the talking points, and ask if there are any other matters he would like to see added to the agenda. A hyper-focused approach to meetings offering the right information the client truly wants if something you need to drive on. After all, often clients think they know what they need, but in reality this is not the case and you don’t want to blow a meeting on a washout.

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Your Client Ignores Your Invoices

When a client doesn’t pay, there are a number of possible reasons. They could be really busy and simply forget, there might be financial problems, or they don’t see the value in their investment and aren’t brave enough to tell you. Before you get a hot head pump the brakes, take a few minutes, and ask yourself this: was there any part of the project that could have been improved? Is there anything they could justly be upset about? Even if the client is completely at fault, put yourself in their shoes (even if you are irritated) and give them a call to talk things out. But a phone call will be your “quarterback sneak” play left as the last recourse.

Start with a set approach using three gentle reminders. If you have an automated invoice reminder system, space each of your three reminders roughly seven days apart from one another. Only after the third email goes ignored should you hash things out on a phone call.

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Your Clients Just Don’t See Value in What You Do

Whether you are hearing grumbling from the C-Suite, or your direct point of contact is flat out saying they don’t understand what they are paying for or they are unable to see any progress, you need to stop and do a hard re-approach.

The main reason for poorly perceived value is lack of communication. After all, if you reduce their cost per lead by 50 percent but neither your client or the C-Suite and knows about it, did it really happen? And even if you tell them this in a monthly marketing report, did they truly understand it? The customer experience is a lot more than customer service. In order to give a client that sterling customer experience you need to start with their goals and in dumbed down language show how the right metrics are funneling them towards hitting that high revenue target. But before you can do this you need ot make sure your team truly understands the client’s goals, as well as each other’s internal goals and how they all point to achieving the same purpose. When you and your team have flawless communication and understand the client on the same plain, your client will better be able to understand you and get a better perception of their investment’s value.

If this sounds like your agency and your clients often struggle to see value, it’s time to get your leadership and managerial teams together to align all employees, revisit their goals, the client goals, and have a meeting with your client with the objective to help them see the value in your growth marketing services.

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