An Agency’s Guide to Avoiding “Bad” Clients (And How to Deal with Them)

Lysa Miller

In the world of owning a digital agency, avoiding nightmare clients can be your “make it or break it” moment. 

Projects can go outside of the projected scope causing you to lose money and scheduled time, frustration with your team, and leave you to have unhappy clients that can hurt your reputation. 

From time to time there are difficult clients that you just can’t avoid, but here are some strategies you can employ (and we have too) to help avoid and deal with those situations.

Client Selection is a Two-Way Process

The customer is always right…just maybe not always “right for you.”

In your business, you should make it a process to better select clients and not jump at every opportunity with dollar signs attached to it. Success is tied to many things including your client’s expectations, their knowledge of what you do, and how long they are willing to commit to a project or long-term relationship. 

So the biggest thing you should do is try to AVOID relationships that could turn sour. You want to set the stage for this practice, how to avoid it, and lead by example for future clients, industry peers, and partners. 

Every type of agency does things differently, but education, in general, is important for any service-based business and for their clients to understand realistic goals in the relationship. 

Here are some techniques for choosing your clients wisely.

Understands Your Services

An educated client is the best client.

Make sure the client has a full understanding of what the role of a digital agency plays and what expertise (keyword here, expertise) you provide. Maybe you prefer to work with people who have some marketing background, or who have worked with agencies before. But in the end, you at least want clients who have a strong understanding of what a business agency should look like (or at the very least, enthusiastic to learn). Someone who comes to the table as a valuable partner and not with a set of demands. 

Has Realistic Expectations

No, I can’t make your blog post go viral on Facebook for $500

From the get-go, before even taking on a client, their expectations must be aligned with what you can provide. You should aim to underpromise and overdeliver (not the opposite). If that alignment is not there, you are setting yourself up for failure. And failure is a failure and will come back to bite you in the, well, you know where. 

As soon as you feel like a potential client’s expectations are too high and unrealistic, that is a sign things could get difficult. If they are more open-minded to listening and aligning expectations, typically that is the kind of client they will turn out to be. Reasonable.

No RUSH clients, please

Your lack of planning is not my emergency. 

To do a great job at what you do, planning is required on both ends. If a client comes to your agency and wants a project completed in a month, and that is not realistic, nobody is going to end up happy. Make sure your clients have an ideal timeline, if they don’t fit that, it’s not a good match. 

Some clients also have a longer timeline, which might not always work for you either. If you have a process and it fits a timeline, stick to that. Don’t change your process for your timeline for your clients, unless it truly does not interrupt your business. In the case of a rushed timeline, you might not be the right fit. But happily try to find the client someone else (but again, the client can’t always determine the project timeline, only the agency can really define that).

Learn to say NO so you can say YES

No, that project is not really in our wheelhouse.

If you take the wrong clients, then you can’t find the right ones. Being patient, saying no, and turning those NO’s into other opportunities is a great strategy. 

Built a network of agencies in different niches who are best suited to different projects and types of work. If you have someone who needs a project done with a short deadline, refer them to a vetted partner. Make a personal introduction and partner them with other agencies you think you will be successful with.

This will be a win-win because first, you build relationships with these partners, second, you keep the lead happy, and third you will gain more experience and insight into how to get the best leads for your agency. 

But what if you do land a bad client, I mean it is going to happen sometimes. Here are some processes you can put in place for keeping clients who could be going off the rails, on track. 

Processes for dealing with BAD Clients

Project Schedules

Keep the train on time. 

Have projects run on software or templates that easily guide clients through the process. Once a client starts going off the rails, you need a system to alert you (and them) to follow up. Once a process starts going sideways you know you have to get it back on track. Provide your clients with deadlines to meet, schedule meetings throughout the process, and tie that to billing so that they are more incentivized to move to the next step. This process will allow you to get back on track with them and keep the project moving.

Weekly and Monthly Plans and Check-Ins

Showing Progress is Key.

It’s all about keeping the client engaged. In retainer-based relationships, create plans to keep the client on track. Again provide them with details, dates, and deadlines to keep them on track. If they don’t stay on track, that will affect their results very quickly and you can remind them of that.

Basically, in the end, we are just people, dealing with people. Turn bad situations into opportunities. 

Bad Client Situations and How to Deal with Them

In the end, we are people dealing with people. 

Recently a client had much higher expectations than what was scoped out in their proposal. The client pushed for immediacy and continued to scope creep. We just had an honest conversation that we were not a perfect match, and let’s end it rather than waste time. We had a good relationship with the client, so they appreciated our honesty and found a better partner for their needs. Better to fail fast. 

The Infamous Disappearing Act 

Now you see me, now you don’t. 

When you plan a project, you plan resources so every time a client goes MIA you are losing money. In this situation clients intermittently miss meetings, do not show up, and don’t even answer your phone calls or emails.

When you see this happening, get their attention, inform them the launch date has been extended as far as the deadlines missed, they will notice. A client might be very upset to find this out, but it does force them to get back on track and launch successfully (but not without a lot of pain).

The Swearing Cursing client

No, I’m really not an #@$%^%hole

We all make mistakes and sometimes overlook things. But the irate swearing client has to go. Sorry, there is no tolerance for that. A situation nobody should experience. The advice there, DO NOT ENGAGE. Have someone not involved call them and help them find another partner to work with. Engaging just cause more hostility but verbal abuse is not to be tolerated in any instance. When you stand up for these things, you are also standing up for the next agency they try to deploy nasty tricks on. As agencies, we need to set these standards across the board. 

Design Breakdown

I hate it, it’s not at all what I asked for.

Unfortunately, breakdowns during the design process can and does happen. In the example of our projects, the design process is when we show the client the first round of visual designs after research and discovery. We use a four sprint process for project success, but sometimes the projects can slow down or even stop during the design sprint.

It is important for the client to understand before the design is shown, that this is just the start, and where the design goes from here is based on their feedback. If they understand that before the design is shown, hopefully, that will not discourage them in the process. In most cases, clients love where design is going, and recognizing that they like your “style” in the client selection process is important. 

But if the client and the designer are not on the same page at this stage at this point, this sometimes is a distressing deal-breaker. And again, you may need to politely part ways (and cut your losses.)

The Money Ower

Avoid Collections at ALL COSTS. 

Yes, you need your money, but sending someone straight to collections is a great way to turn an unhappy customer into a raving hater. There is always a way around this and you can even hire someone to deal with setting up payment programs for clients. It’s already hard enough for them that they can’t pay a bill, so have some empathy and don’t hardline on bill payment. 

If you have to take a bit of a loss, own it and walk away. There is also the client who isn’t paying because they are dissatisfied. This is a difficult one, because who knows who is right. Again, you need a negotiator not close to the situation to handle this one. You want to avoid conflict and if you have to take a bit of a loss, it’s worth it at this point. Use your time and resources in better ways. 

The Never Ever Happy

Ditch the unhappy client from the start.

If your client is not happy in the beginning and it’s not going their way, that might be time to cut the apron strings. To keep them happy, as long as it’s not a huge loss for you, go above and beyond, return their money and help them find someone else. That kindness goes a long way for your reputation.

The Content Promiser

Got content? Yup, sure do. No, you don’t. 

Content submission is always a bit of a hassle for many agencies, we hear it all the time. Since this has become such a difficult milestone for our agency, we’ve deployed different methods for collecting content such as content submission software and requiring content to be a part of the project. This will always increase the cost of a project, but if the content collection is causing you major headaches, it’s time to make it a required piece of the project. 

If a client can show you they have content, you still might want to include a budget for massaging it or improving for the project, so it does not become an issue. If you don’t offer content, find a great partner agency to work with your clients. 

The Blindside

Overcommunication is the key.

If you have a client who is not working out don’t blindside them with a notice or formal communication. We are all people, we should talk and communicate about the issues, and prepare the client for what is coming. 

We have some templates we use, but we do like to keep it personal. We like to employ empathy in our business. Just because a client is difficult does not make them a bad person. 

 As a business and as humans we try our best to help everyone. 

Unfortunately, these are hard lessons to learn the hard way. The goal here is to help you avoid bad experiences by using some real-world tried and true advice to avoid nightmare clients. 

Running an agency is no easy feat. Any service-based business will run into a bad egg every once in a while. However, it is important to learn from your experiences so that you can recognize red or yellow flags, and avoid those types of problems before they happen.

Leave a Comment

Share this post

Related Posts

See all posts