36 Marketing Agencies Share Lessons Learned From a Bad Client Experience

Author's avatar Agencies UPDATED Jan 20, 2022 PUBLISHED Nov 5, 2018 18 minutes read

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    Peter Caputa

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    “Every client we add makes each person in our company better or less effective at their job.”

    Doug Davidoff, founder and CEO at Imagine Business Development, says one bad client experience isn’t contained to the account in question.

    “When you’re a service provider, your people are the product. Unlike standard products, however, your people are affected by their various experiences. Therefore every client you add has the effect of altering the product you provide to your other clients.”

    “So, a bad client experience has a negative impact on a much broader base than just the client-provider experience.”

    In full transparency, we really weren’t sure if we’d get many (if any) responses to our latest report.

    In asking marketing agencies to share the lessons they learned from bad client experiences, we were asking them to share something potentially embarrassing, unflattering, and possibly even painful.

    People, let alone agencies, aren’t wired to do this sort of thing very easily.

    But, in a world that glorifies success–money, growth, conversion rates, downloads, etc., we were hoping for some levity. To learn from others as they shared details of a bad client experience, with the hope that after reading, maybe one other person/agency could avoid such a pitfall.

    Turns out agencies are more than willing, even eager, to share their bad client experiences.

    Not only did they share potentially painful experiences, but also their advice on how others can avoid them.

    Here’s what we learned.


    Watch for Early Warning Signs

    “If there are red flags during the sales process, take note,” says Rachel Lindteigen of Etched Marketing.

    “I had a client account at my former agency that was incredibly difficult and had unrealistic expectations even during the sales process. However, the agency was desperate for the revenue and took the program in spite of the warnings and red flags. They had expectations for results that couldn’t be delivered (red flag) with the program they insisted upon. They’d led the program design, not the professional marketing strategy teams. They insisted upon what they wanted to have done. Red Flag.”

    “And they only had one key performance indicator they wanted to see (red flag), a #1 ranking in Google for a highly competitive term that they were not going to rank #1 for because of several things they’d done in the past with link building (red flag, bad linking tactics) & their competition.”

    “The program didn’t work, the client’s demands took up so much time for the team, and in the end, they refused to pay because they didn’t receive the #1 rankings they wanted.”

    That’s a lot of red flags. But it’s not always that clear. Sometimes it’s just a feeling you get.

    Trust Your Intuition

    “I’ve learned to be picky about who I work with,” says business coach Amanda Abella. “I’ve learned to really vet people before I take them on as clients. If they don’t seem serious, I don’t even begin the coaching process anymore.”

    “I’ve even had to fire a client before because they really didn’t want to do the work,” added Abella. “One time, during a coaching session, I had a client say, ‘Oh, yeah… those books you recommended I read. Yeah. I haven’t read them. I don’t really read.’ Clients pay all this money for coaching with me but then don’t take responsibility for their own actions during the course of the coaching agreement.”

    Set Realistic Expectations

    “The one thing I’ve learned from a bad client experience is that it’s important to set the proper expectations from day one,” says James Pollard of The Advisor Coach.

    “Most problems in a relationship stem from differing expectations. In this case, I took a financial advisor on as a client without specifying how often he could email me and ask questions. Typically a financial advisor is respectful of my time and will only email me once every two weeks or so. However, this particular financial advisor thought it was okay to email me every single day. Then he got upset when I told him to stop.”

    “It was my fault and I accept complete responsibility for not making it clear in the beginning, but daily emails are not appropriate. I went back to my signup pages and made it clear on there that daily emails were not acceptable. I haven’t had a problem since.”

    FLUX‘s Jon Tavarez had a similar experience:

    “Once I signed an international client in which I mentioned being available at any time for them. This was a big mistake in this particular situation as the client would literally call us all the time for anything from a random unrelated question to something so small it didn’t warrant a phone call.”

    “Since then, I’ve learned to be specific about everything including availability and expectations. Now it’s ‘We will be available for 1 hour per month for a monthly call and need to schedule any other calls in advance.'”

    Be Clear on Expected Actions and Results

    Several marketers shared stories about clients who didn’t hold up their end of the bargain and were upset when they received less-than-stellar results:

    Octave Media‘s Matt Jacoby has seen clients give up on inbound marketing before the first campaigns are complete. Now Octave urges patience.

    “I usually inform clients upfront that inbound is a long-term solution and doesn’t work as quickly as most of them would like,” said Jacoby, “and saying they understand that but then having their patience run short and give up only after a matter of a couple months (usually just during the setup, configuration and content creation process before the first campaigns) is probably the biggest fail. I’m not sure where it breaks down, possibly in communication or setting expectations (although I feel like I do keep that fairly transparent), but I’m continuously getting reminded to keep streamlining communications and setting expectations and lead education to make sure future clients fall into this trap less and less.”

    After SEO Hacker got a client to the first page of Google SERPs, the client revamped their website and lost their rankings. Sean Si says his agency now maintains contact with clients even after achieving their goals.

    “The biggest mistake I’ve experienced is when a client that enjoyed their place in the first page of Google SERPs suddenly decided to revamp their website without consulting us,” said Si. “This led to us not being able to monitor what was happening to their website and we were unable to work with their developer as the site revamp was ongoing. The moment they released the revamped website, they were removed from the 1st page of Google SERPs All of our efforts to take them to the 1st page of Google SERPs were wasted because there was a lack of communication between us and the client.”

    “My learning from this experience is that agencies such as ours have to be proactive in the current state of their client’s website and to never be complacent even if you’ve achieved your goal. The solution to this is to always have a communication network with the client wherein inquiries and updates can be sent immediately.”

    Jonathan Matz from Penguin Strategies had a client get upset when their traffic and contacts list were shrinking—even though they’d stopped creating content in favor of other tasks.

    “We were having an update call with a client about the performance of their marketing tactics,” remembers Matz. “They had stopped working on creating new content for their blogs and premium content bank and asked to focus on redesigning presentation for their board members, upcoming events, etc.

    “They were upset that their traffic and new contacts list had gone down but were unwilling to accept that it was because they requested to stop work on their digital marketing efforts. We learned to make sure that a client who divests their work away from the marketing plan is aware that performance doesn’t keep improving if work isn’t invested in those areas.”

    Jonathan Aufray from Growth Hackers offered advice on avoiding problems like this:

    “Before signing an agreement with a client, it’s crucial to make sure the client understands clearly what he/she’s going to get, details of the services, kind of results he/she could expect (This has to be an estimate, not a specific number) and also what he/she is NOT going to get.”

    Get Clear Right Away

    Doorbell Digital Marketing‘s Ken Marshall made an expectations-related mistake when he onboarded two clients at once.

    “On the surface, the scope of work would be similar and fit well into my agency’s availability at the time,” said Marshall. “The problem came after the first payment from each client. On client B’s website, we found that they had a ton of secondary and tertiary pages that weren’t linked anywhere on the site, but that we were expected to include in our page-by-page-level analysis.”

    “This, coupled with a WordPress site that had a ton of modifications and overpromising on a newly created service, made for our time spent on the project to quadruple. That made the quality of work drastically go down, and we essentially lost money on the project.”

    “The lesson is clear,” says Marshall. “Make sure you have a complete understanding of who the client is, what their needs are, and what your company is realistically able to provide for them.”

    Get the Budget Right

    “It’s probably no surprise to marketers that my bad client experience involved the dreaded ‘B’ word: budget,” says Kimberly Scholten of Odd Dog Media.

    “It’s easy to become overworked and under-compensated while trying to make the client as happy as possible within their budget. We all like to throw in a few things when we can to do the right thing for the businesses we work for, but too many freebies undermine the value of services agencies provides.”

    “I’ve had a client on a retainer for a specific service—SEO, for example—but ask for a collateral design or other out of scope request and then assume that’s included in their retainer. (Insert uncomfortable conversation here.)”

    “When writing proposals, include a full list of services the agency can provide and the associated fees/fee ranges should they have those types requests in the future. This way, once they sign the dotted line you’ve spared yourself any uncomfortable ‘B’ word surprises.”

    Money Doesn’t Solve Every Problem

    Getting the budget right isn’t always the answer, says demandDrive‘s AJ Alonzo. After a previous “disastrous” project with a client, demandDrive met with them again.

    “From the get-go, this project had the telltale signs of a repeat disaster,” said Alonzo. “The big difference this time was money—the client made sure to pay before we began the relationship and assured us they had plenty to spend on a long-term partnership if things went right.”

    “Hey, if they’re willing to spend the money then how could we tell them no? What we lost in time and sanity trying to right their ship wasn’t nearly worth its weight in contract value. Just because someone is willing to throw money at a problem doesn’t mean you have to make it YOUR problem.”

    “If a project comes up and has the telltale signs of a bad partnership, don’t let money sway you into taking a bad deal.”

    Make Sure You Charge What You’re Worth

    Getting the right budget nailed down isn’t just about getting the client the right results. It’s also about getting paid what you deserve.

    Orbit Media‘s Andy Crestodina pointed out that digital marketers are in high demand and should price their time accordingly.

    “The key to working with clients is to value your time,” said Crestodina. “Clients want results. They have hired you so they have the right to expect this, of course.

    “But your time is valuable and you need to protect it in two ways:

    1. Price your time properly
    2. Decide when you have given enough of it to a client based on how much they have paid

    “No one owns you. You have to decide when to say when and either stop providing service or ask for more money. Every ethical business person understanding this. But when they don’t, you are headed for a very bad client experience.”

    How do you know if you’re asking for a reasonable amount? Crestodina sent us this graph to show average digital marketing salaries and the remarkable jumps they made between 2016 and 2017:

    Source: Orbit Media.

    Are you getting paid what you’re worth? If not, you’re headed for a bad experience.

    Get Paid on Time

    The right budget doesn’t help if your client doesn’t (or can’t) pay.

    “Ensure your clients pay in a timely manner,” says Alistair Dodds of Smoking Chili Media. “The bigger the client, the more they leverage their supposed importance to you by trying to reset the terms mid-contract.”

    “We let this happen with a large corporation. They ended up owing us tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid invoices. The threat of walking away without payment was used as leverage against us. As was the implied ‘if you don’t like it, sue us’ attitude.”

    “In the end, we decided to write off the bad debt, change our payment terms and apply a down tools threshold after a 10-day payment delay. We’ve not had an issue since with a client big or small.”

    Try New Payment Terms

    Chirp Media had gotten into the habit of “helping” clients, says Richard Walsh. “It’s been well over a year with no payment” from one of them, and Chirp is now pursuing legal actions.

    What did they learn from this experience?

    “We now require the client to pay 100% up front. If they can’t do it, we do offer financing options where they pay 50% of the fee up front and then pay a monthly amount plus interest.”

    “What we’ve seen in this shift is that it also drastically changed the caliber of clients we were attracting. We started seeing more serious prospects with larger budgets. It has been amazing.”

    Stacy Caprio from her.ceo took a different tack:

    “My first client didn’t pay for months, so after that, I added a late fee into the contract, where every day they wait to pay after the due date they are charged an extra 2%. It seems to have been an effective way to remind people to pay on time and to get them to pay.”

    Communicate Often

    “We’ve learned that you need to be in constant communication with your clients,” says Erik Christian Johnson.

    “It’s amazing how many positive responses we receive when we reach out to customers via email. On the flip side, when we haven’t been in communication with clients (even though we’re executing well) they have become angry and doubtful due to our lack of attention.”

    “The moral of the story is that a few emails or a detailed CRM system can go a long way.”

    Web Profits‘ Kath Chalhoub agrees:

    “Consistent communication is key to sustaining and maintaining any client relationship, despite the positive or negative results achieved from any campaign-based work.” You can leverage tools like a client tracking dashboard to ensure that the client is always keep in the loop on progress made.

    Be Straightforward

    Communication is important to make sure things keep going well. But it’s also important when they’re not.

    “A huge lesson for us is about the value of being aggressive in telling a client directly that their actions or behaviors are detrimental to the effectiveness of their inbound program,” says Greg Linnemanstons of Weidert Group.

    “Excessive rounds of revision, feedback by committee, striving for content perfection in exchange for publication speed, are all behaviors that dilute the impact of a program, and we’ve learned that we need to address them with the client as soon as we see patterns start to appear.”

    Sometimes It’s Just Not Worth Your Time

    Michael Hanson from CloudTask has a hard lesson for agencies:

    “As you grow, sometimes you have to fire your worst clients. To grow your business and improve operations, you have to break ties with the customers that are eating up both time and resources, so that you can focus your energy where it is needed.”

    And Hanson wasn’t the only one to bring up this issue.

    “I fired a client in my first year of business and it was absolutely the right decision!” says Mavens & Moguls‘ Paige Arnof-Fenn.

    “I did not want to attract other bad clients so even though he signed a 1-year contract I ended it after 3 months. It sent a signal to my team that the money was not worth an unappreciative client who was a jerk and treated us poorly. We replaced the income and more within a month with a much better client. I have never looked back.”

    Roxanne Williams from Full Stack Talent shared a similar story. After a client opened multiple job orders with the staffing agency—and even had a signed offer letter from a candidate—they significantly lowered the offered salaries.

    “The candidates were very upset. Our staff pushed back with the client, stating they agreed to the salaries, they accepted what the candidates were submitted at, etc. The client wouldn’t budge.”

    “We ended up severing our relationship with the client. We learned to vet who we take on as clients much more stringently, especially if these clients already have an iffy reputation in the area. The candidate experience is very important to us, and we never want to have to deliver news as awful as that.”

    Decide Earlier Rather Than Later

    Sometimes you just know that a client’s not going to work out. And it’s best to act on that knowledge quickly.

    “We had a particularly painful experience with a client who wanted all the benefits of inbound marketing but didn’t understand the process—at all,” says Tanya Wigmore of Meticulosity.

    After several weeks of constant calls explaining (and re-explaining) the basics of inbound marketing, Meticulosity “had to let this client go because we were not only unable to progress the campaign to the point where we could see results, but we were also losing money in the process.”

    “The lesson learned for us as an agency is to make sure our clients understand the process. We spend time early on educating them on the steps we will take and the platforms we will use so we can identify potential barriers early on. This client experience has also spurred us to build in a Scope Change agreement so all scope and platform changes are agreed on and documented if we need to reference them specifically later on.”

    Similarly, Whole Vs Term Life Insurance has learned to say no to some clients, says Scott W Johnson.

    “Sometimes there is that little feeling that you get that something sounds or feels fishy or off. Sometimes the best way to handle this is to just refuse the business offered. Many clients will be shocked by your response. But saving yourself a huge headache down the road can be well worth it.”

    Keep a Sense of Humility

    We all make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are detrimental to your client. But if you can keep a sense of humility during these situations, you can salvage or even strengthen the relationship.

    Adam Bockler from ONEFIRE shard a perfect example:

    We started a new relationship with a student apartment complex on the campus of Illinois State University and were taking actions necessary to increase their social media engagement and following. We noticed that they had disabled ‘review comments’ on their Facebook page and in the spirit of increasing engagement, we turned them back on. That was our mistake.”

    “As with any apartment complex on a college campus, negative reviews are common. Within 3 hours of turning those comments on, we received a rather heated email from our customer about turning them back off. Since this was a new relationship, we could have lost their trust right then and there for not seeking approval from them before taking action. However, this interaction actually built a deeper relationship with the company because we admitted our mistake, took responsibility for our actions, and responded quickly.”

    “Even a small mistake can really damage the relationship with a client if it’s not handled properly,” says Lydie Deborne of Agence Nile.

    “As an example, I sent a newsletter to the wrong people. This could have endangered the trust of our client but as we immediately alerted them and proposed a solution to ‘correct’ the mistake, we at the contrary built a stronger relationship.”

    Be Cool

    Sometimes you can’t come back from your mistake. Don Wede from Heartland Funding shared this particular painful story:

    “On one occasion when discussing a purchase of a home from a potential seller I lost my temper. After repeating myself three times I raised my voice to the seller. This fractured the seller/buyer relationship. We lost the home purchase. Patience, patience, patience, keeping ones cool is a must in negotiations.”

    Be humble, admit to your mistakes, fix them, and move on.

    Learn From Others

    Learning from your own experience is great. But if you can learn from others’ mistakes, you’ll be ahead of the game. The advice above is invaluable to growing marketers and agencies.

    The final piece of advice I’ll share comes from Stephan Roussan of ICVM Group:

    “It’s always exciting when you’re pitching a new opportunity and from the start, you feel like you’re really connecting with the people involved. In these moments, and in the interest of locking up a deal, you might be tempted to rush through the formalities… not vetting the contract as thoroughly, relaxing terms, lowering the initial deposit or starting the work without one, and so on. Don’t. As much as you might not want to play the ‘Debbie Downer’ and just keep things informal and cool, always stick to your business basics.”

    “Getting along on a personal level doesn’t mean that one party or the other isn’t making assumptions about the upcoming work that they shouldn’t be making, and these early negotiations and requirements reviews are critical to ironing those out.”

    “A good client understands that these formal steps are for their benefit just as much as yours, and should never be a cause for friction.”

    “If you experience any resistance when initiating this part of the process, or the client is pushing forward with the project but avoiding the business end of things, take it as a red flag… the opportunity may not be as good as you thought.”

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    Dann Albright

    Dann is a freelance writer who helps B2B companies reach their audiences more effectively. With an emphasis on organic traffic and conversion, he takes big ideas and turns them into highly practical content that keeps readers hooked.

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