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Dealing with a Distressed Client Relationship
Dealing with a Distressed Client Relationship
Jordan Stella avatar
Written by Jordan Stella
Updated over a week ago

Whether your agency provides web design, branding, social media, SEO, or some other form of digital marketing, a key aspect of your business operations is learning how to not only keep clients happy, but knowing how to turn around distressed relationships should they ever occur. This week’s Agency Framework “play” will discuss warning signs to look out for that point to a relationship going downhill, how to approach a distressed client relationship to start to turn it around, and strategies to ensure that a relationship never becomes stressed in the first place.

Know the Warning Signs of an Unhappy Client

No matter your specific area of focus, there are a number of red flags that you should look for to determine if a client is unsatisfied with your agency’s work. In any client services work, communication is key, so it’s important to not only keep a consistent dialogue with your clients (especially newer ones) but also to be attentive to what they say and how they say it.

Lack of Quality Communication

Every client is different, every relationship unique, but one thing holds true: happy clients are always willing and responsive. One of the first warning signs to look out for is a lack of quality. If you reach out to a client and they respond with short answers or a harsh tone, it’s clear that something is wrong. Similarly, if a client that is normally quite responsive suddenly begins to go radio-silent, it’s likely that some TLC is needed.

The quality of communication, or lack thereof, is the best gauge to determine the health of the relationship. Sadly, most don’t pay attention to the early warning signs of dissatisfaction.

– Sonia Dumas, Curio Haus

The frequency of communication and responsiveness of a client are tell-tale indicators of how strong a relationship is at any given time. Great client relationships are like friends, you want to talk to them just because you enjoy the time together. Sure, there’s work to do, but having something in common, sharing a joke or simply enjoying the time on the phone is the sign of any good relationship. So, when the communication slows down, becomes less frequent, colder or too matter-of-fact, something is wrong. We also watch how quickly a client responds to our communication. If it slows significantly, it likely means we are no longer number 1 on their speed dial.

Shift in Focus

Another crucial aspect to be aware of is your client’s focus. Your onboarding process should set appropriate expectations and define the key performance indicators that will help gauge the success of the campaign. If a client begins emphasizing different metrics or starts to question the progress of the campaign, that’s a huge red flag.

1. If the customer drops off in communication (rescheduling meetings, not responding to emails, not showing up for calls), or 2. If the customer moves their focus away from the agreed upon key performance indicators of the campaign and begins focusing on other performance metrics we don’t give attention to.

– Michael Transon, Victorious

Unprofessional Behavior

In the most extreme cases, you will be able to clearly sense a client’s dissatisfaction through their unprofessional behavior. Clients that consistently ask for revisions on work, that are no longer receptive to your professional recommendations, or that show an overall lack of respect in their tone are certainly unhappy.

Being in business for nearly 11 years and working with many vertices and personalities has given us a keen instinct in predicting when client relationship start going downhill. Obviously, every client relationship is going to have its ups and downs and we would never end a client relationship just because of some temporary difficulties.

Some signs that we look for are: 1. The client is taking up way more of our time than the overall project relationship is worth. 2. The client begins to dictate every aspect of the project basically taking away our ability to be creative and offer our professional recommendations. 3. Lack of respect and overall communication delays.

– Andrew Ruditser, MAXBURST, Inc.

Turning Around a Distressed Relationship

Once you’ve identified a client relationship that is in trouble, it’s up to you and your team to turn it around. Clients won’t reach out to you to mend the relationship; it’s your responsibility. The first step is simply to start a dialogue and reengage the client.

Respond Promptly and Productively

The longer you wait to respond to your client’s frustrations, the harder it will be to turn around the relationship. Be sure to respond promptly to any issues or potential red flags that you notice and do so in a manner that fosters a productive conversation. Make sure you listen to your client, but don’t bend over backwards trying to meet unrealistic expectations or demands. It’s your responsibility to keep the discussion on track, so put yourself in the driver’s seat. Be firm, yet understanding.

We follow a simple strategy:

Respond to all concerns and complaints within 1 business day. Don’t run away from the problem.

When speaking with the distressed client, let them vent and express their concerns first and in many cases, that can diffuse the problem.

We all have client issues and have an objective to make the project end on good terms. Many “problem” clients can end up being your best clients based on how you have dealt with their issues and concerns.

If a client is being unreasonable, it is not always the best policy to cave to their unreasonable requests. It can set a bad precedent for your team. The policy that the “client is always right” is not the best policy. A policy that a reasonable client will always get the benefit of the doubt is a better policy.

– Mikel Bruce, TinyFrog Technologies

Start a Dialogue

Opening a dialogue with a dissatisfied client is never easy. It can be a painful process, especially if the relationship has deteriorated to a critical level. Reach out to the client, face to face if possible, and start a conversation. Clients respond positively to personal attention and approaching a tough conversation with an open mind will create an environment of respect and set the tone for the rest of the relationship.

Have the tough conversation! When clients are frustrated, it is likely that we did not do our jobs well enough to define expectations (from both the customer and us [the agency]). When this happens, we always force those tough conversations and work through it. Whatever you do, do not show frustration or avoid the client. Though not always possible, try to do this face-to-face and immediately after the problem arises. The result is the client will respect you more, and the relationship will get stronger. Even if the situation is irreparable, you will have demonstrated upfront quality business practices that anyone can admire.

– Shane Roberson, Integrity Web Studios LLC

Approach the Situation with an Open Mind and Open Ears

Once you’ve opened the dialogue, it’s crucial to approach the client with an open mind and open ears. Never blame the client for a problem. Listen to their concerns, put yourself in their shoes, and try to understand their point of view. Position yourself as a collaborator. Your goal should be to establish a relationship in which you’re working with the client, not for them.

The number one cause of client distress is lack of goal: the phone is not ringing with sales inquiries, conversions are not happening as they thought, sales are down.

Whatever the reason, approaching it with candor and openness is essential, because collaborating and communicating about the issues and potential causes without getting into a blame game with your client is crucial to getting to the solution. Without a satisfactory solution, you’re fired!

-Karl Hindle, Wellspring Search

I always try to check my ego at the door and listen carefully. It is important to acknowledge the client’s feelings. Often, the client is feeling busy and stressed, and that gets reflected in his or her behavior. When we make a mistake, we acknowledge and then make it good.

– Anna Colibri, Colibri Digital Marketing

Strategies for Preventing Distressed Client Relationships from Forming

Knowing how to turn around an unhappy client relationship is an essential skill for an agency to have, but knowing how to keep a relationship from deteriorating in the first place is even better. By taking a proactive approach to client management, you’ll minimize your amount of dissatisfied clients and set your agency up for success. Happy clients are more willing to refer business your way, to leave you reviews online, and to continue working with your agency in the future. Unhappy clients can tarnish your reputation and cause your revenue to drastically shrink.

Foster Open Communication at Every Stage

Communication is key. It’s cliché, but it’s also true. Especially in a client-facing business, it’s absolutely critical to foster an environment of open communication at every stage of the process. From the onset of the campaign, you should let your clients know that you are here to work with them to resolve any possible issue, no matter what. As the campaign progresses, keep in frequent contact with your client. This allows you to continually set and maintain appropriate expectations and to understand any issues that may be forming.

Our agency has mandatory weekly meetings with clients to discuss the project. Each week we discuss completions, issues, priorities and timelines. If there is an issue, this is where we get first notice of it.

– Shane Roberson, Integrity Web Studios LLC

We send out monthly surveys (“heartbeats”) to ask how they are feeling. If we see a drop in their rating it’s usually a sign that things might be getting off track. Re-engaging and giving them the ability to be open with us is always helpful. Also: setting real expectations. Usually things start going sour when either party has expected results/scope/timing that was different than reality. We use checks and balances within our organization to make sure that these items are accurately addressed early and often.

– Jesse McCabe, Solid Digital

Stay Professional

It may seem obvious, but this next point is easily forgotten: stay professional at all times. No matter how friendly a client relationship may become, it’s vital to preserve an aura of professionalism.

The most obvious way to maintain a good relationship is through good communication. When communication breaks down, which can happen for many different reasons, then usually this leads to problems of some kind. It is also important to always maintain a professional approach to the client relationship, even if you are working with a friend or family. Professionalism is important when you have to make those tough decisions, business is business. So, we take an approach which is honest, open, professional, and trustworthy to try to avoid distress in the first place.

– Jess Dominguez, BlueOcean SEO Agency

Set the Right Expectations

We can’t stress this enough: expectations are everything. You should start to set appropriate expectations even before the client officially signs a contract. During the pitch call, be open and honest about the successes you’ve had in the past with similar clients and the type of success that this client can expect. Beyond simply expectations of success, hold true to deadlines and respond in a reasonable timeframe to all client communication.

Communication is the backbone of client services. Without clear communication, well-defined expectations, and routine check-ins, it’s hard to succeed as a digital agency. Being proactive about scheduling times to communicate and bring the client up to speed with where a project is at is paramount. These regular meetings also give the client a chance to communicate with us. I firmly believe each client touch point becomes an opportunity to build trust.

– John Locke, Lockedown Design

Communication. They receive ETA’s for every phase, they know when and what to expect, and so on. The better you communicate, the easier process it is for both us and the client.

– Daniel Griggs, ATX Web Designs

Keep a Client-First Mentality

A client-first mentality will always lead to success. Don’t forget: your relationship with your clients can make or break your agency. Be sure to focus on the short-term and long-term effects of your actions from the client’s perspective.

We place our partners first and foremost. With every decision, we ask ourselves how does this benefits our partners and how will this affect the relationship long-term. It’s a conscious effort and strategy we execute upon daily, and our digital agency takes great pride in delivering a partner first approach.

– Alex Mathias, Isadora Agency

Don’t Be Afraid to End the Relationship

Unfortunately, some relationships are simply destined to fail. As we’ve mentioned in previous Agency Framework posts, choosing your clients wisely is essential. Sometimes the red flags won’t show until a relationship has already begun, and in those cases, you shouldn’t be afraid to be honest and end the relationship. There are no shortage of digital agencies out there, so most clients will respect your decision if you realize that your agency simply cannot live up to their expectations. They will find another agency that is a better fit for them and you’ll both be better off in the long run.

This is not going to be a popular answer but I think that most s****y clients are the result of taking work that isn’t a good fit from people who are not a good fit. When taking on a client, never forget the overhead of the relationship – if you get the feeling that the client is going to be a pain, if you don’t have to have them, be safe and refer them out to someone else.

– Michael Aldea, Flynaut

Client services isn’t always easy. It can be extremely rewarding, but also incredibly frustrating. The most successful account managers understand that every new challenge is an opportunity to learn and better themselves. Don’t shy away from tricky client situations. Embrace them and grow!

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