Unhappy Clients and How to Make Them Happier by Tightening Up

Client at Bospar
August 7, 2019
Client at Bospar

Occasionally, we at Bospar will hear from an unhappy client. This might be because a client is frustrated with account service, media results, or some combination thereof. My job as agency principal is to constructively resolve these issues, while incorporating “lessons learned” and illuminating a path forward for shared success.

These issues “run to a type,” and I’ve cataloged a few similar complaints over the years. These complaints are usually valid, and the companies we work with deserve to have their concerns heard. But the good news is that the solutions that restore value and happiness to the client-agency relationship are usually based on more effective communication, as well as simple account management course-corrections – and they’re pretty easy to implement.

So, presented here are some typical client complaints, along with actionable tips to address these issues while adding long-term value to client-agency relationships.

Strategic Shortfalls

We occasionally get bogged down with media relations and program management to the detriment of strategic thinking. Providing regular strategic insights to clients is part of our ongoing responsibility, and we’re sometimes dinged for not tracking the competition, not providing enough context for PR activities, and for failing to anticipate client needs by not asking enough thoughtful questions and anticipating next steps.

Addressing strategic issues begins with an ongoing dialog and true engagement in the client’s business. This includes tracking competitors and taking a deep dive into client technologies and solutions and sharing that knowledge across the entire account team. A well-informed approach naturally leads to asking the “right questions” of the client and cultivating a better understanding of context, which demonstrates that the agency is paying attention to strategy.

Leadership Issues

Agencies are hired not just as outsourcers. They are hired because at our best, agencies are creative, independent, and proactive marketing leaders. But when we fall short in leadership, we hear from clients that we’re not being proactive, we’re not leading, and we’re not being creative.

Leading and being proactive can sometimes be easier said than done, especially when we’re buried in program execution, reacting to the “crisis du jour” or just focused on other tactics. However, if an agency is working effectively from a strategic standpoint and has developed a focused understanding of the client’s business, the stage is already set for proactive dialog. Actionable counsel on a wide range of communications and marketing topics should flow freely from this collective knowledge. Finally, creativity should be everyone’s job, and using shared knowledge as inspiration, account teams should brainstorm together even when the client may not be asking for new ideas. That way, the agency always has fresh ideas in hand, and the client knows the agency is keeping their interests top-of-mind.

Project Management Screwups

Another area for improvement is that of project management. Clients will note shortcomings in expectation setting, responsiveness, and meeting deadlines, as well as not giving a head’s up about impending issues.

Failing in these areas is justifiably frustrating. As agency pros, we seek to avoid those “gotcha” moments – but they do happen. Absent any real excuse, agencies must always avoid blowing deadlines, and avoiding problems can be as easy as more vigilant project management, both within account teams and by using technology-based solutions. Ongoing and regular client updates should be the norm, as should quick response to inbound client requests. Updates about late deliverables or strategic issues should always be communicated well in advance.

Managing Clients

Agencies must also develop their client management skills, ranging from saying “no” and setting boundaries to having contingency plans for when things go badly. Agencies let themselves down by failing to tell clients when they’re asking for too much, not saying something cannot be done, and not having a contingency plan.

Agencies always say “yes,” but pushing back has an appropriate role in our relationships. This includes projects that are beyond program scope and budget or strategically off. Empirical data and/or a business case are helpful backup when presenting a “no” answer, and facts usually leads to more reasonable client responses and, ultimately, demands on the agency.

Lessons Learned

Client feedback, even when negative, is highly useful to agencies. It is a real wake-up call that tells us how we’re operating as an agency. As we Texans would say, it enables us to “tighten up” in real time and to ultimately deliver better PR results in the end.

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Curtis Sparrer Principal Bospar PR Marketing

About the author

Curtis Sparrer is a principal of Bospar PR. He has represented brands like PayPal, Tetris and the alien hunters of the SETI Institute. He is a member of the Forbes Communications Council and has written for Adweek, Forbes, the Dallas Morning News, and PRWeek. He is an active member of the National Lesbian Gay Journalist Association. Business Insider has twice listed him as one of the Top Fifty in Tech PR.