The Secrets to Fantastic Client-Consultant Relationships

The Secret to fantastic Client-Consultant Relationships

The Secrets to Fantastic Client-Consultant Relationships

The customer is always right! We have all grown up with this as a fundamental principle of business. Nonetheless, most of us quickly follow that with ‘Yeah right!” There can be no argument that companies (clients) and the digital marketing agencies (consultants) they commission should have a great working relationship. Good client-consultant relationships allow everyone to work harmoniously and focus our energy on achieving the client-business’ goals.

In reality, such always-positive client-consultant relationships are few and far between. Who hasn’t experienced the 80/20 rule in which 20 percent of your clients bring 80 percent of your profits and happiness (these are the rare, must-keep customers)? It follows that sadly the remaining 80 percent of our clients contribute just 20 percent of our profits while giving us the greatest amount of stress (These are the clients we dream of getting rid off). This situation is not unique to marketing agencies and their customers. It exists in any outsourced service relationship where a business commissions an outside agency to provide a specialist service. We have all had clients who behave in ways that appear intended to sabotage the service for which they are paying us. While too many negative experiences lead to consultancies either actively sacking their clients – that is deciding that we would prefer to do without a pay check than put up with the hassle of dealing with that particular customer – or passively by withdrawing our effort in the hope that the client will get the hint and walk away. This post explores ways that the client-consultant relationship can be made excellent for all involved because that is the only way everyone gets what they want and need – more and better results from marketing campaigns. Clients have a lot to learn about dealing with agencies, so I will explore some of the more annoying situations that marketers experience as well as some likely reasons for them. I also give organizations some guidance to mould clients into raving fans who work with us on an ongoing basis, bring repeat business and generate referrals for our services. I write this post in the hope that business clients will be more mindful to avoid the client-consultant pitfalls in the interest of achieving their marketing objectives. I am also a great believer in taking responsibility for the outcomes we achieve, so we as consultants must also take the right steps to build our fan base of clients.

Why hire an external marketing agency?

Younger and Smallwood explain that “External talent can provide companies with access to new capabilities and technologies; it can enable faster and more agile response to markets; it can be used to test new opportunities before making significant investments; it can be used to respond to demand peaks and to attain scale quickly; and, perhaps most commonly, it can reduce costs.

In an increasingly complex business environment, it is rarely the case that a business has all of the knowledge and skills to achieve their goals. Even those who have in-house specialists in an area like marketing may not have experts in some of the functions like copywriting, advertising, telemarketing or social media. In these circumstances, it makes sense to bring in specialists even if on a temporary basis. We can perform the expert tasks and perhaps upskill the existing staff to take on the functions going forward. And so the client –agency relationship starts.

In this scenario where the consultancy is called in to help the business with their expertise for a price, what could go wrong?

Challenges of working with external agencies

Every company wants that perfect client. The one that knows what they want, takes advice, and always brings work your way.

While it would be lovely if every client-consultant interaction were this easy, you can’t just hope to find it every time. Sadly, not every relationship is built to last. I am a firm believer in the notion that we must all take responsibility for situations that arise in our lives and business. However, agencies should not always take the blame for a toxic client relationship, just as customers cannot always be to blame. The reality is that in most cases, the issues exist somewhere between the two parties.

That said, there is much that agencies can and should do to increase the likelihood of a fruitful and long term engagement with clients.

A report from Hall & Partners found three major issues with the typical customer relationship:

  • Agencies do not understand their clients’ business
  • Agencies do not know their customers’ customers
  • Agencies do not understand technology and innovation

These are significant problems, and we as agencies must make an effort to fix them by working on fully understanding our clients’ services, outcomes, processes and more. In short, we must understand the customer’s brand as if we were in-house through asking the right questions and having honest conversations. Furthermore, these honest conversations with clients should not be a one-off at the start of the engagement. It is an ongoing process of dialogue through out the duration of the assignment.

Clients have a duty to help agencies to feel embedded in their company otherwise our efforts are doomed to failure. Clients must also go the extra mile to understand the consultancy’s services, processes and requirements to achieve the stated objectives. Understanding the agency you commission helps to avoid misaligned expectations. Clients also have a duty to behave professionally towards external consultants, which does not always happen as we will see in the next section.

Annoying client-marketer experiences

Marketing Clients' annoying behaviours

Shareen Pathak in a post on Digiday lists these annoying ways that clients upset consultants that most of us have seen or heard about. ‘A lack of manners’ best describes the behaviours as reflected in these examples:

  • Lunch anyone – customers schedule meetings over lunch at their offices but don’t order lunch for the agency, and “eat theirs in front of us while we — hungrily — present,” Another company president had a guy come into the office for a first meeting, sit down and ask for a menu so he could order a cheeseburger for the meeting.
  • Lateness – senior clients that show up 20 minutes late to client presentations, don’t apologise and then have to leave before the agency has presented all the work.
  • Simple courtesy – Clients don’t say ‘thank you’ at the end of a big presentation.
  • Anyone will do – Often, junior-level people are assigned to provide feedback that usually isn’t what the senior client wants. They give us specific instructions that contradict their boss’ feedback and insist we do it. When we do, and the boss gets upset, the junior doesn’t say anything, so we take the bullet. It all stems from the idea that if the person in charge can’t be present, it’s OK to have someone else in the room. It’s not. There’s usually a presentation tailored for a particular person. If that person can’t be there, don’t have the meeting.
  • Pay attention, pleaseAccount people send through creative accompanied by a detailed email outlining all the changes that still need to happen. Then, the client won’t read the email, see the creative and send back feedback that lists all the things that we already said we knew had to happen. The client’s job being often bigger than dealing with the agency doesn’t mean they should feel entitled to tune out during pitches, looking at their cell phones, laptops and Apple Watches during presentations, then asking to go back and repeat things.
  • Rewind and come again – we have clients on a video shoot that don’t pay attention during the takes. So when we confirm that they are good and ready to move on, they request playbacks of all the takes while the cast and crew stand around waiting. There are some meetings where we ask them to put their devices away or pay attention to us because they’re paying for us to do this.

Occasionally, my growing marketing consultancy experience echoes Theodore Kinni’s quote: “I have worked for corporate clients who seem hell-bent on getting less than what they are paying me for. This may sound improbable, but it’s happened often enough over the past 25 years that I now try to proactively identify such clients and avoid the lose-lose propositions they present.”

These three customer behaviours mainly make me see a dark shade of red:

  • Random posting – Clients who insist on posting irrelevant, uninteresting or poorly produced content to blogs and social networks even though the posts are in no way related to the marketing strategy. I am all for a client actively responding to enquiries and questions. However, posts that are off-message actively work against the marketing strategy and can damage the brand (for example, about personal beliefs rarely conform to best practice? Resist!
  • The blame game – clients who pick on any reason to apportion blame on the external consultant and everything we do but are never willing to consider looking at themselves or their business practices. The reason your product or service is not selling could be due to a thousand factors of which I have control over a tiny number. If your target clients feel your price is too high for the value they receive, then address your offer. If I bring the number of qualified leads to your business and your website does not convert, improve your landing page. We can advise and help you with these improvements if you commission us to provide a complete service. Don’t pay us for a particular activity then expect us to run your company!
  • No hurry – clients who do not implement agreed changes or provide approved budget or resources for weeks, thereby slowing down marketing activities and results. Some clients even have the temerity to feel frustrated and ask why there is no progress! Be proactive and responsive!  

While these scenarios can seem mildly amusing, to marketers who have experienced them, they are not funny. I agree with one agency executive in Pathak’s article who reasons that “just because you’re a client and you pay me doesn’t mean you act like that.”

It is a travesty, as Pathak found, that ex-agency people often make the worst clients, mostly because they know the inner workings of agencies and know how to manipulate the system. “It’s not the norm; it’s something that happens once in a while and kills us.”

Invariably, there are many reasons for challenging client-consultant relationships. Pathak blames the issues on this one:

Marketing agency as a vendor – arguing that a big driver behind these problems lies in the gap between how important an agency is to a client, and how important the customer is to the consultancy. She goes on to explain that clients typically have more responsibilities than marketing alone, as clients have numbers and objectives to hit. The result is that clients see the marketing agency as just another vendor, instead of seeing us as a strategic partner for their business.

It is easy to see the logic in Pathak’s argument, although it should not be a basis for disrespecting a marketing agency you have commissioned.

Here I would add these seven other reasons for difficult client-agency relationships.

  1.  Business goals

There are two sets of goals at play in any client–consultant relationships. The customer’s business objectives that involve marketing doing a great job regardless of the circumstances on the one hand. And on the other side, the marketing agency’s goals to be profitable while delivering value for money service. When things affect the equation, usually resulting in marketing objectives falling short, clients sometimes mistakenly believe that the marketing company is putting their interests (and business goals) first.


  1. Misunderstanding marketing

Many clients expect expert marketing to deliver fantastic results instantly. Such expectations should not be automatically classed as unrealistic especially if the marketing agency has made big promises and then fails to deliver.

Businesses misunderstand marketing in at least these three ways:

  • Budgets vs. Costs

Some clients that are new to online marketing want to see the exact marketing budget for the next six to twelve months even on short term assignments. Most of the time, however, an initial proposed budget is nowhere near accurate because the marketing plan usually consists of a three-month pilot phase and two or three expansion phases. It follows that the marketing budget will change as we learn what works that we should do more of and what does not get the results we want, which we should turn down of stop

  • Marketing ‘investment’ versus ‘costs.’

Christina Baldasarre describes a second standard budget-related error clients make: when customers look at the first online marketing proposal from agencies, they often consider the marketing budget as a cost when you should see digital marketing budgets as an investment. Marketing generates leads who when they become paying customers, generate income, directly with sales or indirectly with branding. The difference in wording between seeing marketing as investment or costs makes a big difference because everyone knows that investments have a degree of risk to them. So keep in mind what the different numbers in your marketing proposal stand for.

  • Underestimating third party costs

Long gone are the days when it was a given that ‘if you build it they will come’. It is shocking that many business people who have little or no idea of how marketing achieves results believe that selling is as simple as launching marketing campaigns and customers will come in droves. This is rarely the case because with standard drives, for example, PPC on Adwords, Bing or even Facebook and Twitter, conversions from visitors to paying clients are typically 2 – 4% of website visitors.

Today, much of the increased potential for conversions comes from utilising third party tools for all sorts of marketing tasks including re-targeting/remarketing, personalised product recommendations, automated email capture and sequenced personalised emails, automated social media content generation, etc.

None of these third party tools are free, in my experience. They are an additional expenditure that most marketing agencies will pass on to clients in the course of the marketing campaign to stand a chance of achieving anywhere near the conversion rates to meet business objectives.


  1. Task creep

I have spent a considerable amount of time clarifying and refining my service packages. So I explain what I will deliver within a given budget in a marketing proposal for every client as well as the tasks that clients must undertake to increase outcomes. I even go the extra mile and specify the outputs in the agreement that the client signs.

However, I don’t believe I am unique in the sense that builders typically experience the task creep challenges in their building projects. In construction, most customers do not see any harm in asking for a light switch or plug socket to be moved from the location stated in the plans to be moved. We all know clients (if not us) to even go as far as asking for additional features that were never in the plans to be built.

Granted, the majority of tradespeople take these changes on the chin and agree to make them, free of charge. And so it goes on until the budget or time runs out, and they are left with an annoyed customer who demands to know why the works are not completed as agreed.

In marketing, having accepted a plan and schedule of activities and got the sign-off, asking us to completely change and re-do activities are additional tasks which eat into the tight margins on which our program is based. Don’t be surprised if we ask you to cover the costs of major changes of direction.


  1. Wanting everything to be done at once

Perhaps due to the success of marketing gimmicks (and marketing platform vendors), many business owners/managers want the world from day one – by that, I mean that they are unrealistic and expect marketing agencies to give them global visibility on every marketing channel/platform right from the off.

“Starting with multiple platforms at once is a typical digital marketing mistake.”

Good marketers know that doing this is neither desirable nor prudent, especially when they are working on a small budget. The good marketer will know that different marketing channels are right for various things. For example, the Facebook audience is massively different in interests and demographics to the Snapchat users.

Not surprisingly, many marketers prefer to learn what works rather than find out what does not work. This is typically evident for marketers that want to identify the right marketing platform (s) on which to reach the business’ target audience. They may try to achieve the marketing objectives by first building a presence on the best platform, based on their understanding and assumptions about getting most traffic with the fewest variables, before scaling up to building a presence on other channels.

This scaling up approach ensures that marketers are on the right path and more importantly, be able to replicate successful campaigns on similar channels for a similar target audience to get the best return on investment on the businesses marketing budget.


  1. Unrealistic route to success

The reality in many a marketing campaign is worth bearing in mind, however. It is for this reason that most marketers should implore clients to think long-term, while ensuring clients understand that achieving marketing objectives typically involves a learning cycle based on a process of proposing campaigns, implementing them, assessing progress towards goals and making changes along the way.


  1. Learning CYCLE

It is not uncommon for 7 out of 10 digital marketing campaigns to fail to achieve the desired level of sales/conversions, despite good strategy, planning and implementation. Sometimes, entire marketing strategies have to be scrapped, re-thought and planned all over again.

When this happens, Digital Marketer advises taking the doctor’s approach, when campaign traffic does not convert at desired rates, by diagnosing the reasons from these four likely culprits:

  • Your Offer
  • Your Targeting
  • Your Ad Copy / Creative
  • Your Ad Scent – refers to your landing page

It should not come as a massive surprise that the digital marketing agency might require more or different resources to improve the campaign to get it on the right track. These changes can involve more work and resources from clients. For example, creating new/different landing pages, re-examining the offer’s package or price, etc.


  1. Not appreciating marketing profession

A recent survey by Profoundry reported that only 8% of startups outsource their marketing to a consultant or an agency and 65% of startups have never received nor considered any formal digital marketing training. Many businesses believe that marketing is a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) functions that any one can do. Admittedly, marketers must take some responsibility for preaching the DIY mantra in our quest to be seen as giving away valuable content that our target clients can implement themselves. The truth is that no expert gives away their tips and tricks – we give away the basics in the expectation that people will come back to us for our services when they do not get the results they want. It is called marketing! A side-effect is that potential clients may become sceptical of marketing agencies as being good specialists.

Konni may be correct in his assertion that:

The problem, to which I can attest, is that most companies don’t have a system in place to ensure that they are optimising their return on external talent. Instead, they treat external talent with the same narrow “you work, we pay you” mindset that they abandoned long ago with their full-time employees because of its adverse effects on productivity, loyalty and retention, and quality and customer experience”.


Setting the scene for happy client-agency relationships

Setting the scene in client-consultant relationships

Like in all walks of life and business, laying the ground work up front for a solid foundation for the client- agency relationship can help to smooth out many of the complications that can arise. I work hard to adhere to Patrick Whatman’s advice in his five practical steps you can take to improve client relationships by doing the right things at the start of the working relationship. They can be summarised as follows:

1. Set Clear Goals and Expectations

2. Understand Your Client Better

3. Work Together as Partners

4. Report Your Progress and Results

5. Deliver On Your Promises

Whatman’s post is well worth a read for all agencies that struggle with maintaining happy client relationships. Even with your best efforts, it is unrealistic to expect to have a 100% customer fan club because difficulties will arise. How should you respond when disagreements surface?


Responding to frustrating clients

Here’s the bottom line: losing or sacking clients costs agencies money because it is more expensive to find a new customer than retain existing ones. This puts a duty on agencies to explore ways of building and maintaining the best possible relationships with every client. The task at hand is to point out the ways that your clients are frustrating your marketing efforts, yet be respectful of their concerns and needs to retain a productive relationship. 

Pam Didner suggests these five steps to refusing unhelpful requests, behaviours and transgressions from clients appropriately with these:

  1. 1. Say No With Facts & Data

The best way to take emotion out of disagreement is to present statistics, facts and data. Let the numbers speak for themselves. This works well for technology companies with data-driven corporate cultures or clients with analytical mindsets. Use the stats as supporting points to explain your decisions.

  1. Say No When There Really Is No Choice

This often happens in top-down communications when management decides to do things in certain ways without consulting every person or department that will be affected. They may not have explained the reasons or logic and may not even be able to for legal or other reasons.

  1. Say No by Providing Alternatives

I usually come up with a couple of options for my clients if I can’t do things exactly as requested.

When I needed to say no, I made sure that I proposed other options for them. I also worked with them to ensure they received the support they needed. It’s not ideal, but they understood. Although I couldn’t give them A, I would try to find B and C to ensure we meet their needs.

  1. Say No by Prioritizing

Another way to say no is to let them know that we cannot do this right now, but we will complete the request at a later time. This may work well for non-pressing deliverables such as content creation for secondary target audiences or products without paid-media support.

I let my clients know that I can’t do it this week, but I should be able to complete it next week.

  1. Say No & Do Something Nice

Saying no with a plate of homemade cookies does minimise clients’’ ire. My clients simultaneously detested and loved me when I brought desserts and food to meetings. They immediately knew that I had bad news to share, yet they loved to eat the goodies. Filling up their tummies helps to distract or mollify them a little and make the ‘no’ go down a bit easier (sometimes).

Moving forward

I would hope that this post would one day become a useful resource for businesses and consultancies that want to work together. My core message is the obvious fact that it takes two to tango in a world in which no one teaches us how to be good clients, just as no one teaches us how to be good consultants. Agencies and customers go into matchmaking based on our technical skills and knowledge. We give too little attention to the psychological factors that can derail relationships.

Whatman’s post cited above and books like Consulting for Real People: A Client-Centred Approach for Change Agents and Leaders provide good insights to help agencies and consultants to learn the right strategies to deliver to clients. They emphasise the importance of starting the working relationship on the right track, how to approach and resolve difficulties that arise and more. I do not know of any such books on how to be a good client sadly.

Even if you do everything you can, you may still end up with the bitter or grumpy client. Yes, you should expect to hear an earful of complaints, protests and occasional shouts. The key is to be sincere, honest and be willing to lend a hand (or ear) when possible.


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We’d love to have your feedback and suggestions about this post. What are your experiences of working with demanding clients or difficult external experts? Which strategies that have worked really well for your company? Please leave your comments in the Comments Section below.

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