How to Deal with Difficult Clients: Strategies Shared by 10 Agencies

Author's avatar Agencies Jan 5, 2022 18 minutes read

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    Peter Caputa

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    Pulling your hair and grinding your teeth as you think about how to deal with difficult clients?

    Admittedly, challenging clients can drive you bananas – to the point that you question whether you are in the right field. But then you remind yourself of all the reasons why you chose to work in an agency and calm down.

    Even so, you think to yourself: ‘there has got to be a way to manage difficult clients.’

    The answer: there is. In fact, in this post, we bring to you the secret ways other agencies handle tough clients.

    So, who’s ready to learn how to deal with difficult clients? Here’s everything that we’ll cover:

    10 Effective Strategies For Dealing With Difficult Clients

    To bring you the proven ways to handle tough clients, we talked to agencies on how to deal with difficult clients.

    Of these, 80.6% are marketing agencies and 19.4% are business development agencies. This way, all the tactics that you’ll learn today are only sourced from marketing and development agencies.

    Databox survey respondents profile

    At one time, these folks manage a plateful of clients.

    Most marketing agencies, about 34% to be specific, juggle between 11-25 clients. Some 20.5% handle 6-10 clients in total with 18% managing between 26-50 clients. Another 18% also work with over a hundred clients.

    On the other hand, the majority, 28%, of the development agencies have 11-25 or 26-50 clients each. Another 28% manage over a hundred clients with approximately 15% working with 51-100 clients.

    How many clients does your agency have?

    With that, let’s look at what these experts have to say about how to deal with difficult clients and the ways they’ve managed them.

    Related: How to Grow a Digital Marketing Agency: 20 Tried and True Strategies From Marketing Experts

    Best Practices from Business Development Agencies

    First, here are the strategies that development agencies share:

    Instill confidence in clients by optimizing your work process

    “Client-wrangling is something every agency loves to hate – it’s why we’re in this business,” admits Wildebeest’s Ran Craycraft.

    “If every project and every client was the same, this would be a monotonous line of work. Instead, each project and client comes in with ideas, fears, challenges, and opportunities that keep it fresh.”

    But when it comes to difficult clients, Craycraft thinks, “it’s up to the agency partner to figure out how to align all of these to instill confidence in your client.”

    Craycraft’s thoughts come as a result of their experience handling challenging clients. Says Craycraft: “Wildebeest started as an agency for entrepreneurs to quickly get to market. Soon after, we started landing bigger projects with massive companies and better budgets. It was easy to turn away from smaller projects and clients in favor of familiar brand names.

    However, after a while, we missed the level of engagement, passion, creativity, and impact an agency partner can make on a small business.”

    The solution? “To find a happy medium, we make it a point to optimize our process for working with both clients large and small. This helps us create at a massive scale, but still engage our clients with the white-glove, hands-on treatment a small business requires.”

    The takeaway here is simple: you need to make each client feel valued – to the point that they feel they’re your special client. And the way you can do so is by having a well-defined process that’s geared toward educating clients (at the start of the working relationship), setting clear expectations, and keeping them updated.

    Train your team to be better at handling tough clients

    This one’s another tip that Craycraft shares. In fact, it’s something the Wildebeest agency practices too.

    Here’s how they train team members: “Another practice we’ve implemented for our team to learn to work better with difficult clients is to give our team members an opportunity to actually be the client,” explains Craycraft.

    “Since our founding, we’ve made it a core part of our business to stay on top of the latest innovations in design and technology. We’ve created an internal Slack channel with a form submission for our team to submit product ideas for new prototypes.

    When one is chosen, that team member gets the opportunity to be the client and work with a project team through to completion.”

    Taking this approach comes with several advantages. Craycraft writes, “Our teammates get the chance to be creative, explore new technologies, and most importantly, develop the empathy of seeing production with our team through the lens of a client.”

    So you know what to do, right?

    Find out what’s wrong internally  

    “Slapping a label of ‘Difficult’ on a client is easy because it pushes the blame on someone else,” Jeff Mains from Champion Leadership Group comments. “Problems are rarely one-sided.”

    Keeping this in mind, Mains highlights, “If our company takes on a client, we have a responsibility to deliver an excellent outcome for them. Most of the time, difficult clients emerge when we have not understood expected results or failed to set proper expectations clearly.”

    Related: How to Measure Profitability for Your Agency: 6 Strategies and Metrics to Keep an Eye On

    Put this way, it makes sense to suggest that if you want to eliminate or correct the problem, you need to go to the heart of it. Of course, the foundation of the problem here centers around things like incorrectly managed expectations, pricing differences, unclear project scope, and similar.

    In fact, our respondents say the top three causes between agency-client tussles are: results of campaigns delivered, prices, and quality of campaigns delivered.

    Other reasons behind agency-client issues include culture alignment, lack of transparency, and time adherence.

    Most common causes of turmoil in agency-client relationships

    At Champion Leadership Group, Mains recalls: “A few years ago, I was summoned by a Fortune 500 CEO client and given quite a ripping because our SaaS implementation was not meeting expectations.”

    The catch? “All the internal data we had indicated the project was on schedule, and the client was happy with our progress.” But “with many competing priorities in the client organization, the project scope changed regularly.”

    “Our project manager regularly accommodated the clients’ team to shift deliverables to different phases to meet diverse expectations among various groups. The changes did not align with senior management expectations, who viewed delayed items as critical,” Mains continues.

    “Project feedback filtered through our manager, so only positive news reached home. To solve this, we first realigned the project with the original goals, so everyone involved had a clear picture of success.

    From then on, we measured every decision or change against this expected outcome. We implemented a simple feedback process that took clients less than sixty seconds per week, ensuring information was direct, never filtered,” Mains writes.

    In a nutshell, when faced with a difficult client, it helps to look internally with the aim of identifying exactly what’s going wrong as in the example above.

    As Mains summarizes, “It would have been easy to write the client off as ‘difficult’ or claim ‘they don’t know what they want.’ Success does not come from labels, blame, or excuses. It comes from committing, problem-solving, and staying close to the client so that we meet or exceed expectations.”

    Listen to what the client wants

    With so many clients in the pipeline, it’s possible that your attention toward a client might slip. It’s why Jonathan Tian of recommends active listening as an answer to how to deal with difficult clients.

    “Difficult clients are a part of the business. Also, no matter how difficult the client is, handling them is still the same,” Tian writes.  

    “We try to stay calm and listen to their concerns. Sometimes, clients start being difficult because they want to be heard. We take time to listen to their issues without getting protective, which could be all required to understand the problem.

    Then we try to deliver an immediate reply in an email and sometimes a call to assure our clients that the agency is there to help them.”

    Tian continues, “After that, we try to figure out what happened, i.e., the reasons for the client’s issues. Once we figure out the issues, we offer solutions to the client’s problems.”

    All this is, essentially, a three-step process that you can adopt too:

    • Actively listen to your client’s problem without being defensive
    • Proactively respond with either a solution or an assurance that you’re here to sort the concern
    • Study what happened. Understand possible reasons behind it and take steps to avoid similar future issues

    In short, there are two keys to success with this client handling tactic. First, always stay calm. And, second, “review and learn from every problematic client,” which Tian says is the most important thing to do. “Because as Bill Gates said, ‘Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.’”

    Best Practices from Marketing Agencies

    Now, let’s look at the solutions that marketing agencies adhere to when dealing with problem clients:

    1. Set clear expectations
    2. Develop a transparent process
    3. Correct your temperament
    4. Be candid with all your clients
    5. Cultivate a strong work relationship and proactively take steps to avoid conflict
    6. Consistently update clients on progress made

    Set clear expectations

    “Our agency manages online shopping campaigns for multiple clients. We find that clients can become difficult if their sales volume doesn’t meet their expectations,” shares James Adams of Shopping Campaigns.

    “The way we have learned to deal with this over the years is to manage expectations up front,” Adams confides. “To jointly agree on KPIs and SLAs and to bake these into the contract.”

    “If the client becomes difficult during the course of the relationship, then we find that this has probably been down to ineffective account management,” adds Adams.

    “It is better to discover issues early on rather than let them boil over into full-on problems. If the issues do escalate, then nothing can beat a face-to-face meet-up to try and resolve any problems,” says Adams sharing more tips.

    “Obviously, this might not work with international clients, but where possible, meeting in person always helps to start to diffuse a situation and show willingness.”

    Amit Raj from The Links Guy applauds the same corrective tactic. “We had to have a way of conversing with the leadership face to face or on a call. If we didn’t have an opportunity to educate clients on why we were doing certain things, we would struggle to get them on the same page.

    However, with time I realized that the best way to deal with clients who could be potentially difficult is to address it at the start and manage expectations. If there were any serious warning signs, it’s better to just not take them on.”

    The take-home message? One, manage expectations including agreeing on expected results and KPIs to monitor. Two, resolve issues as quickly as possible before they turn into bigger problems. To this end, meeting with your client helps.

    Related: 15 Mistakes You’re Making in Client Reporting Meetings

    Develop a transparent process

    This is another way to manage expectations as clients can tell how their work is unfolding with the agency.

    “The best way to deal with difficult clients as a digital marketing agency is to be assertive & focus on facts only,” opines Prodima Digital Marketing Agency’s Benjamin Poirrier.

    “For this, the agency must have a bulletproof and transparent process. Defining a clear scope of work from the beginning of the cooperation eliminates the risks of having a difficult client,” elaborates Poirrier.

    To explain further, Poirrier shares an example: “We happened to work for a client who was complaining, after we ran an SEO campaign for them for 2 months, that they were not getting more online sales.

    We explained to them that, before signing the contract, we specifically mentioned that the purpose of doing SEO was to improve keyword ranking & increase website traffic. Online sales were not a guarantee, and this is what we clearly mentioned in the contract. “

    So the lesson here is to be upfront about explaining your work process and expected results. Plus “always base your communication with difficult clients on facts. Figures don’t lie. Figures don’t have emotions,” in Poirrier’s words.

    Related: 9 Ways Agency Reporting Can Help Create Transparency with Clients and Boost Client Retention

    Correct your temperament

    This tactic comes from Harrison Baron from Growth Generators who writes, “The key to dealing with difficult clients is simple but seems to go over everyone’s heads.”

    Here’s their 4-step process:

    • “First, remain calm. Two angry or upset people are worse than one.
    • The second is to be understanding and use a soft tone of voice (this helps keep people from getting very angry because you aren’t matching their energy).
    • Third, apologize regardless of who is wrong in the situation, it’s easy to apologize and take the blame. Once the customer understands they aren’t wrong, even if they might have been, it now allows you to move forward with a solution.
    • Fourth, make it right. Do what you can to make the situation right, and if your company did mess up, it’s easy to send someone an edible arrangement or buy them lunch on doordash. It makes a world of difference to the customer.”

    Baron adds, “Going above and beyond for customers like that can turn them into raving fans and will remove their desire to spread further negative information about your business.”

    Actionable takeaway: Never get angry. If you need to take some time to calm down – take it. Use this calm energy to understand the issue, apologize, and solve it. If you’re at fault, walk the extra mile to make it right.

    Be candid with all your clients

    “The best strategy I’ve used is being radically candid (a term from the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott) with all clients, but especially difficult ones,” Rank Tree’s Hunter Branch writes.

    “I always try to give them the benefit of the doubt — they’re human and might be going through difficult things I’m unaware of. So, I show as much grace as possible. But at the same time, I’m very direct about the situation.”

    “If the client isn’t communicating or paying, I let them know that things must change if they want to continue working towards their goals (that we’re helping them with),” explains Branch.

    “We always include details about communication and payment in our proposals that outline our processes for dealing with these things. And we stick to those processes.”

    “If the client is pushing back on strategy or is generally difficult to work with, I always like to remind them of the bigger picture goals. At the end of the day, it’s their business, and we have to respect that,” Branch points out.

    “But they hired us for a reason. They weren’t able to get the results they wanted on their own for whatever reason. And we can work with their requests, but if we aren’t on the same page with the direction from a big-picture standpoint, it might make sense to move on.”

    Summing up, Branch observes, “To me, it’s all about transparent and open communication, being empathetic and understanding, being clear and direct, and deciding to move on when one party isn’t holding up their end of the agreement.”

    Cultivate a strong work relationship and proactively take steps to avoid conflict

    “In my opinion, the best way to manage difficult clients is to remain transparent and cultivate a real client relationship, all while managing client expectations,” notes Matt Weber of Weber & Co.

    “It’s better to under-promise and over-deliver. The client’s success is our success, so we take that very seriously. You can’t please everyone all of the time.”

    “The best marketers know how to avoid conflict before it happens,” Weber adds.  

    “Here are five ways to do just that:

    • Accept feedback gracefully. If there’s something wrong or if someone wants to change, don’t try to defend yourself or repeat yourself over and over again until they are satisfied.
    • Stay calm at all times. Clients love passion, but not anger! Show them that you believe in your work by staying calm during discussions, even when things get heated.
    • Focus on the big picture. If your relationship is more important than any single marketing tactic, don’t fall into the trap of letting one or two unhappy clients drive you off course.
    • Take responsibility for your work. It’s up to you to prove that your marketing delivers results. So focus on value rather than beating people over the head with data and metrics. And remember that just because something isn’t broken doesn’t mean it can’t be improved!
    • Learn from every experience. Feedback is extremely valuable, so make sure you receive it openly and give yourself time to absorb what the client is saying. Then use their feedback to improve future campaigns before moving on without resentment!”

    Consistently update clients on progress made

    This can potentially avoid issues in the first place as is Falconics’ Brandon Falcon’s experience.

    Falcon agrees that most agency-client problems birth internally. The reason? Unclear expectations, poor communication, and lack of progress updates.

    “Difficult clients are created by the agency, not the client,” in Falcon’s words. “9 out of 10 times when we encounter difficult clients, the actual issue stems from the expectations set forth when we started working with them.”

    “It’s very easy from an agency perspective to assume that clients outside of our scope know what actually goes into the work we are doing,” says Falcon. “WE know how long it takes, WE know what goes into getting the results we spoke about, but if WE don’t educate on what is happening, it’s easy for the client to become concerned and impatient.”

    Sharing their experience, Falcon writes: “We had a client recently that BLEW UP. Anger, 20 calls in a day, just not a good situation all around. The perception from the client was easy: No work was being done because he hadn’t physically seen the work being done.”

    “A simple email/phone call updating this client a week after the start could have prevented this, but that call fell through the cracks and created an enormous problem.”

    “No one likes being wrong, and blaming someone else (the client is wrong, not us!!) is the simple solution. But when agencies look inward and try to find what created the difficult client there is always a step that was missed or could have been added to minimize the problem or completely eradicate it altogether.”

    Related: Client Reporting 101: Tips and Best Practices for Agencies and Freelancers

    Hence, “the BEST way to deal with a difficult client is setting expectations early on and making sure that the work done is clearly laid out, so there is zero guesswork,” concludes Falcon.

    Manage Your Clients Better Starting Today

    With these ten strategies explaining how to deal with difficult clients, you’d be able to develop excellent client relationships.

    To briefly recap:

    • Stay calm
    • Listen actively
    • Respond quickly
    • Set clear expectations
    • Look within for the heart of the problem
    • Be empathic and apologize when at fault
    • Review the issue to avoid similar conflict in the future

    And, don’t forget: always keep your clients updated about the progress made.

    Want an easy way to do so?

    Create individual client dashboards with Databox that show each client the progress on their projects/campaigns.

    This way, our client dashboard software does all the transparent communication and constant updating instead of you. In doing so, it will not only help you save time but also build stronger client relationships.

    What’s more, you can create not just progress dashboards but also result-oriented dashboards that aid clear and timely client reporting.

    Finding all of these perks too good to be true? Try Databox for free and boost your client relationships today.

    Author's avatar
    Article by
    Masooma Memon

    Masooma is a freelance writer for SaaS and a lover to-do lists. When she's not writing, she usually has her head buried in a business book or fantasy novel.

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