Can't think of anything to say to the agency professional sitting next to you at dinner? Just ask him about his worst client ever. They'll be no shutting anybody up after that. Because facepalm-worthy client moments happen all the time in the agency world. But we usually have to hold our tongues or risk losing the client. After all, their money keeps the lights on, so they earn the right to be a little goofy sometimes.
Problem clients fall into a number of buckets, and it helps to manage each group in a different way. Ignoring the traits that make a particular client difficult is not likely to solve any of your headaches. But identifying a client's particular area (or areas) of stickiness early can help you better adapt so that those pain points don't eventually lead you to softly muttering angry swears during meetings with said client.
Let's take a look at some of the most common types of problem clients and some tips for managing them.
The silent client
Client feedback is vital to a successful partnership. But some clients are less than forthcoming with their thoughts on certain ideas and campaign outcomes. They leave their agency partners in a state of constant uncertainty as they stumble to execute on ideas that received somewhat vague green lights. Are the clients happy? Do we need to change course? What -- do -- they -- want?
When uncertainty regarding a client's desires and level of satisfaction begins to nag at you -- or, worse, slow down a campaign -- you need to be direct. There's nothing wrong with picking up the phone or sending an email to your client-side contact that asks for candid, honest feedback. Better yet, build these sorts of simple satisfaction surveys into your client feedback loops so that you aren't left to interpret the silence.
The late client
It's annoying when your friend makes you late for the movie. But it's even more annoying when your client makes you late to hitting a vital campaign milestone. These delays happen for many reasons, some of which are forgivable. But when the same client is repeatedly slowing you down because assets aren't being delivered or approvals are taking too long, you need to quickly assess the situation and address the source of the problem.
How you address the issue varies. Is one person constantly mucking up the works? Find a way to nudge them out of the process. Are the client's processes too complicated? Tell them so and point out areas to be streamlined. But no matter what, don't just sit back and twiddle your thumbs. Ultimately, time and money are being wasted, and that's going to be blamed on you when your client starts asking questions about ROI.
The abusive client
Look, some clients are just jerks. Usually a person or a handful of people within the organization, but arguably even some organizations can be mean in their entirety (corporate policies, etc.). If you're constantly on the receiving end of angry phone calls and emails that simply want to tear down your work and cast blame on your agency, without constructively seeking a solution to the alleged issue, then you need to stand up for yourself. That might even entail ending the client relationship. But not always. Because sometimes clients just need to realize they're acting like jerks in order to cut it out. Just use care and approach the topic carefully.
If you screw up, admit it and take the heat -- but only a reasonable amount of heat. Don't let the relationship evolve into one where the client feels it's acceptable to hurt your feelings on a regular basis. I know the word "partnership" is overused, but that's what these relationships should be. You are not the whipping boy just because they write the checks. Respect yo' self.
The broke client
Working with limited budgets is one thing. But some clients have a knack for inexplicably running out of money every time you suggest a much-needed enhancement for their programs. Or they might seem allergic to paying bills altogether. In any case, as soon as the first bill goes unpaid, you have to cut the cord as soon as you can. If your client is unable to honor its end of the contract (i.e. paying you), then you are not obligated to honor your end (services). It's simple.
But other clients actually have the money. They just have a tendency of suddenly clamping down on all spending because they had a particularly intimidating phone call with their CFO. As such, the programs you've developed for them end up being underfunded, and you end up looking like you didn't do the job that was initially laid out for you. If the nickel-and-diming becomes a pattern and your contract doesn't guarantee the level of funding you know you need, consider ending the relationship.
The structurally unsound client
If you don't know who reports to whom at your client's organization, ask. You need to know who ultimately makes the final calls that affect your campaigns. Unfortunately, the answer to the hierarchy question is oftentimes unclear. You've stumbled into an organization of questionable titles and dotted-line responsibilities -- an HR mess.
Don't spend too much time trying to sort out the client's structure on your own. Get everyone in the same room (even if that room is an email thread) and ensure that everyone in that room agrees on who your ultimate point of signoff will be for given elements of a campaign. Unless it's your job to specifically make recommendations about your client's business structure, stay out of it. It's not worth it, man.
The shady client
You know that guy down the street who your otherwise-lovable dog growls menacingly at every time he sees him? Deep down, you don't trust that guy, right? Well, the shady client is like that. Something is -- off. It might be illegal. It might be unethical. You can't quite be sure. But the information that client will disclose to you is either suspiciously incomplete or illogical in certain areas.
I know it's hard to turn away clients on a vague suspicion of wrongdoing. But don't ignore your gut. Investigate further. If you unearth unsavory behavior, don't ignore that either. If the client is screwing its customers or the government or anyone else, it probably won't hesitate to try taking advantage of you too.
The revolving door client
No one seems to stay at this company for more than a few months. Every time you check in, you're handed to a new point of contact -- a new clueless person with whom you have to spend many precious hours just to get back to the point where you left off. Nothing seems to move forward because of it.
If this pattern presents itself, assess it as well as you can. Is the problem with the company as a whole, or is it a fixable problem? You might actually have an opportunity to play a bigger role within the client organization by filling in as an almost completely outsourced marketing department. Get to the highest executive in the company who you can find (don't go over your direct contact's head unless necessary), explain why projects keep stalling, and point out that you can eliminate those stalls by assuming more control and responsibility (and budget).
If that doesn't seem feasible, then at least document your processes and progress exceptionally thoroughly for this client -- so you can simply hand those documents over to the next eventual successor.
The needy client
The smallest-budget clients will sometimes eat up the majority of your time. The smaller the budget, the more panicked they are about parting with it. So they will be up in your business constantly. And while it's OK for clients to want to be heavily involved with your work, unless they've committed to hourly billing and can, in fact, compensate you for all the time lost on hand-holding, you'll quickly find these clients to be a money-losing proposition.
You don't necessarily need to get rid of these clients. But you do need to be direct with them when the ROI for you just isn't there and point out the places in which you need to reclaim some of your time resources. Document your time and point out what they should be paying for it. If they can't respect the value of your time, then you need to show them the door. It's not ultimately money lost -- it's money earned when you replace it with a client who does respect your time.
"Icons Of People With Speech Bubbles" image via Shutterstock.