Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done it too. In fact, I got all excited when The Agency Post invited me to write about “how agencies make bad clients even worse". I immediately started listing some of the bad client experiences I’ve had and experienced some self-centered pleasure at calling out – anonymously – some of the people I’ve worked with. It didn’t take long for me to realize, with some shame, that such thinking leads to nowhere good.
There are so many bad clients now, not because people are any worse than they used to be — if anything, they are better — but because we’ve turned into thin-skinned saps who can’t handle tough situations and interactions. How about our water-cooler conversations? There’s nothing quite as stimulating as bonding over tales of traumatic client interactions: those awful doubters, endless revisers, non-appreciators, pixel-movers, impossible-to-reach killers of our best work. If only we didn’t have to deal with them!
This kind of whining may be symptomatic of a larger issue. We modern humans complain about everything from a common cold to a sleepless night, and we’re surrounded by industries promising quick and easy cures for every woe. Are you sad, angry, nervous, or uncomfortable? There’s a bed, pill, chair, car, channel, game, or therapist to make it all better.
And so we feel it is within our rights to get bent out of shape by tough client interactions.
What’s more, the same people who wax on about horrible clients tell me that their agency can solve all sorts of client pains. Recently I heard: “Our team can solve any client communication pain. In fact, if there isn’t real pain, it can be hard to create a meaningful engagement.”
I’ve got news for you: If there is real pain, there is also likely to be pain-in-the-ass behavior. Because pain means there’s pressure, fear, uncertainty, and most definitely an urgent need to know what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and when you’re going to start curing the pain.
Real pain isn’t a scratch or a splinter. It’s is a compound fracture. It’s a kidney stone. That’s the kind of pain people will pay well for you to cure. When I passed a kidney stone last year and the EMTs were trying to strap me onto a gurney, do you think I was pleasant to them, suggesting we all stop for a cup of tea on the way to the hospital to discuss the options? No, I was whimpering, writhing, and occasionally screaming at them to do more, move faster, make miracles happen. And, incidentally, I was willing to pay for anything to make it better.
So what behaviors should agencies stop catering to? Unhurried, unworried requests for unambitious marketing initiatives. These might come from uninspired clients who are consistently empathetic about the stress of agency life and work hard to promote a feel-good relationship above anything else.
Such clients are often accommodating, even deferential, giving us plenty of time for meetings and even more time to execute the work. I often think they’re so calm because their businesses have a unique market advantage, with a product or service that is the first, best, or only in its class. Their investors are happy, customers feel like leaders, and employees believe they’re part of the next Apple, Facebook, or Whole Foods Market.
When an agency wins work with such clients, the most important job should be to help them realize their pain as soon as possible. If you’re the first, best, or only, there’s a hoard of hungry imitators and detractors on the warpath behind you. You’d better market the heck out of your advantages before they become obsolete.
While I often look forward to working with our nice, unhurried, respectful clients, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t light a fire under their feet and urge them to do more with their upper hand. Too many great advantages have fallen victim to lazy marketing.
So what’s a bad client? One who doesn’t pay the bills, makes unwanted passes, or uses abusive language. You shouldn’t work with someone like that. But the others — the whiners, worriers, micro-managers, scope-changers, incessant callers, doubters, and chronic malcontents — they’re just clients in pain. They’re human beings who need help making their businesses shine with great ideas and execution. And they’re willing to pay you to do what you do best.
I recently visited a CFO who wouldn’t return my calls or pay my company’s bills. The CFO was surprised to see me, and invited me into his office where he spent a full 15 minutes berating me, my team, and my agency. It turns out his marketing director — who had kept us from meeting the rest of the executive team for many months — had been blaming the agency for everything that was going wrong in marketing and sales. After he poured out his pain, I thanked him for his feedback, and we had a productive conversation. We didn’t solve every problem, but we created a bridge, and he praised me for showing up in person. He said that this alone spoke highly of me and my organization. I walked out with new knowledge and the check he had been withholding for months.
Mother Theresa didn’t look for happy suburbanites to make a difference in the world. And while you may not have signed up for Mother Theresa’s line of work, you’re still in the services business because you want to make a difference — in a business, a brand, or a CMO's professional life.
The next time you’re on a client call and are feeling sorry for yourself as the victim of a “bad client,” try something different: Instead of backing away and adding to your complaint file, insist on an in-person meeting. When you’re face-to-face with that person and his pain, sit quietly and listen. Ask questions. Absorb, empathize, strategize, shake hands, and get to work.
That “bad client” — that human being — may end up becoming your most loyal advocate. And you might end up doing the best work of your career.
While we should all "buck up" and manage tough people and tough situations, there are certainly ways to make these interactions better. I will address how to deal with tough clients in part 2. Sign up for email updates to be notified when the next piece in this series is published.