We’d all prefer that every client-agency conversation was a win. But the nature of agency life is such that we often encounter client interactions that test the limits of our patience, diplomacy, and professionalism.
These encounters are an unavoidable aspect of running a successful marketing agency. From scope creep to budget disputes and communication breakdowns, the spectrum of challenges is vast.
As a mental health therapist and group practice owner who also runs a marketing agency, I’ve had my fair share of these difficult client conversations in both of my businesses.
Whether it's talking to a client about their mental health in my group psychotherapy practice, or discussing campaign performance with a small business owner in my SEO business, I'm well aware of how navigating challenging conversations takes a great deal of skill.
Having taught communication skills to counseling clients for more than 15 years, I’ve picked up some helpful tips that I’d like to share with you today. Use these strategies to avoid putting clients on the defensive, and ultimately, end the conversation with a positive outcome.
1. Choose the Best Method of Communication
The first step to a fruitful conversation is determining how the conversation will be had. While some nitty gritty details may fare best laid out in writing, most difficult conversations benefit from face-to-face contact–whether in-person or over zoom.
Email is easily misinterpreted, and when emotions are running high, you want to be sure that every word is received in the way you intended. Shorter communication styles like texts or emails can be misconstrued easily due to their lack of tone and non-verbal cues.
Long-distance in-person conversations, such as Zoom calls, are my personal favorites. Not only do they allow for real-time interaction and clarification of misunderstandings, but they also foster a more personal and empathetic connection. The clients can see your genuine interest and concern in your expressions and body language, making these conversations more satisfying for both parties.
Choose a face-to-face meeting method when possible
Choose email to avoid an “awkward” face-to-face exchange
Make your care and concern known through body language
Confuse “professionalism” with lack of emotion
Take time for an in-depth chat when necessary
Try to handle big disputes via text or short emails
2. Validate Your Clients
To prevent your client from becoming defensive, start by validating their point of view. No matter how irrational or illogical their statements may seem, every individual has their own unique perspective.
Take a moment to understand where they're coming from, ask questions, and acknowledge their experience. By trying to understand what they are saying and showing empathy, you’ll create a connection and build trust.
Never argue with your clients. Listen to their concerns and see if there is any common ground that you can build upon.
Dan Alper, Vice President, Rankworks
I'm not going to make this sound easier than it is. When a client is accusing you of scamming them, insisting you've done "nothing" (after you spent an extra three hours on their work to boost ROI), telling you how they completely redid some of your work, or just asking you to "do something really quick" (that’s way outside scope), it can be hard to validate their feelings.
To be clear, what I mean by "validation" is finding the kernel of truth in what they're saying. Look for where they're coming from. It doesn't have to be huge. And you don't have to agree with them.
It can be as simple as:
"This is really important to you."
"You're upset because you're not getting the results you expected."
"Because you got more calls last month, you had assumed if our work was paying off you'd get even more calls this month."
Notice that none of those statements actually agrees with the client. It just acknowledges or validates their emotion to help take a little of their defensiveness down.
Listen deeply + seek to understand the client’s position
Dive into defending your stance without first gaining an understanding of the client’s perspective
Validate the client’s feelings by mirroring their sentiments back to them
Take up all the airspace with only your own opinions
Find the kernel of truth in what the client is saying and demonstrate your understanding of their position
Dismiss the client’s perception as entirely false
3. Focus on the Present Moment
When you're in the middle of a difficult client conversation, it's easy to start thinking about all the past misunderstandings and grievances you’ve experienced together.
Let's be honest, a lot of our most challenging marketing clients have a history of being our most challenging marketing clients. So, it's likely you’ve done extra work for them in the past. When they're complaining again, it feels frustrating that they're not more grateful for how you dealt with the last issue.
But bringing up the past doesn't help.
Instead, it's essential to stay in the present moment. Focus on what your client is saying, and actively listen to them. Avoid getting defensive and stay objective. By staying present, you'll be able to respond more thoughtfully.
Stay in the present moment by focusing on the specific task at hand
Allow the past to color the meaning of this particular conversation
Stick with the facts of the current issue
Bring up past grievances
Stay objective and open
Become defensive and closed off
Generally, I've found that most "difficult client requests" are caused because we have mismanaged the relationship or set bad expectations. The biggest challenge is realigning and rebuilding.
Laurie Heard, President, Move Digital Group
4. Cultivate a Sense of Curiosity
Curiosity is one of the most powerful tools in difficult situations. When you're curious, you're open to new ideas and experiences.
In a client conversation, curiosity helps you identify the root cause of the issue. For example, if a client is unhappy with their marketing strategy, ask them why they feel this way. Keep asking questions until you get to the underlying issue. When clients feel heard and understood, they're more likely to be receptive to your ideas.
Honestly, I've been shocked over the last few years how many times we've solved difficult situations with clients just by kindly asking questions.
Always stay calm and make sure that you handle the situation with respect. Sometimes it can be difficult to find the best way forward but if you work through the problem carefully a good solution can normally be found.
Nick Farnborough, Founder, Clavis
Get curious about the client’s stance
Assume that the client is misinformed
Ask thoughtful questions to gain a better understanding of the client’s concern
Assume that you know the entirety of the client’s concerns
Keep asking questions until you get to the underlying issue
Settle for a surface-level understanding of the problem
5. Respond Promptly and Personally
In today's fast-paced digital world, timely responses to emails, phone calls, or texts are crucial for maintaining client relationships. A swift response shows that you value the client's time and are attentive to their concerns. But remember, rapid communication should not compromise on personal touch and understanding.
The more personal your communication, the better it will be received. All humans want to feel important. These more challenging conversations have huge potential to become awkward, leading to miscommunication or leaving a client feeling like you don't value them or their business.
Enter every difficult client conversation armed with all the knowledge on the background of the project and client relationship. Know the details of the concern, and the history that led to the conversation. Nothing will turn a relationship south like a curt response that confuses the details of the project, or fails to demonstrate understanding of the existing project requirements.
Respond promptly to client concerns
Let days go by without responding to the client
Take time to familiarize yourself with the history of the project
Enter the conversation without background knowledge
Demonstrate your involvement and understanding to the client
Make sweeping statements that aren’t backed by details from the specific project
6. Offer a Clear Path Forward
When you're having a difficult conversation, it's essential to offer a clear path forward. For example, if a business owner is unhappy with their SEO strategy, provide them with a simple action plan. Break down the steps, so they're easy to follow. This way, you help clients feel more confident and empowered, knowing exactly how you propose to solve the problem.
Suggestions Should Be Clear
Over the years, I've found that it's very important to provide clear plans. Business owners are busy, they have a lot going on in their day. They need to know that you have "got this." They need to feel that you have heard their concerns and that you have a firm, effective plan for moving forward.
Typically, you want to begin by restating what's been discussed so far, just to reiterate that you've heard them. Then, say something along the lines of, "I propose that moving forward we..." and in the simplest terms possible directly state what you think will solve the issue.
Communication is key, be patient, and explain simply. Stick to your processes, and refer back to the scope of work and terms of service if need be.
Calum Maxwell, Managing Director, Optimise Online
Does It Help to Already Have a Solution in Mind?
I like to approach conversations with a couple of different solutions in mind. However, there is a major danger to this. When you go in with an idea of what you might propose, you run the risk of not fully listening to the client's concerns.
So, even if you do have an idea in mind, still listen and let the conversation guide you. In the end, your proposed plan should be based on what will best solve the client's issue, not just what you initially thought of.
Think up a couple of potential solutions before the conversation
Enter the conversation empty-handed
Take time to listen fully to the client to ensure your potential solutions are a match
Offer your solutions without first gaining a full understanding of the client’s perspective
Offer potential solutions that are simply stated, with clear next steps
Offer vague or overly complicated solutions
7. Remember, It's Not Always About You
When I'm offering tips about how to communicate with difficult marketing clients, I have to point out that sometimes, it's not about you at all. Many business owners are under immense pressure to succeed and may have their own personal or financial issues that they're dealing with.
In my niche of helping mental health providers, I'm often aware that they've been carrying the stress of helping depressed/anxious/traumatized clients all day before we even speak. So, that person talking to you isn't only thinking about the topic at hand. And they're not only responding to what you're saying. They're also bringing the stress of everything else they're dealing with to the conversation.
Always remember to maintain professionalism. You never know what kind of situation your clients may be in, so handle the conversation with grace and poise.
Michael Quinn, Founder, My Site Ranked
When a client is being difficult, try to put yourself in their shoes and understand where they might be coming from. By showing empathy and understanding, you can build trust and strengthen your relationship with the client. Remember, it's not always about you, and often a little understanding goes a long way.
Sometimes, your clients don't need a big fix or an intricate action plan. Instead, they may simply be seeking a reassuring pep talk or a listening ear. As one of my favorite YouTube videos about communication issues explains, it's not about the nail.
Try to understand the macro issues that may be shaping the client’s demeanor
Assume that everything is your fault
Listen objectively, with an eye for solutions
Take every jab personally
Offer empathy, a listening ear, or a pep talk when you sense it’s needed
Gloss over your client’s intense emotions without acknowledging their distress
8. Follow-up and Check-in
After a difficult conversation, it's important to follow-up and check in with your client regularly. When a difficult conversation ends really well, nothing will mess that up more than never speaking about the issue again.
This could be as simple as sending the client an email or giving them a quick call. One thing my team loves to do in follow up emails is send clients a blog post from our website related to a topic we discussed on the call. We especially find this useful if we can send a blog post written by another team member, as it underscores the fact that the team member they talked to isn’t the only one giving that particular advice.
For example, if Mary was talking to a psychologist about readability on a call, in her follow up email she might send them this blog post about improving readability and it’s impact on SEO that Brianna wrote.
By following up, you ensure that everything is going well and that your client is happy. It's also an opportunity to provide additional support if needed.
Send a follow-up email, or make a phone call
Move on and never mention the conversation again
Follow up with additional support where possible
Follow up without touching on next steps
Make sure that your client is feeling happy and empowered after your conversation
Shy away from re-connecting for fear of it being “awkward”
Avoid These Common Client Communication Mistakes
As a business owner, I've seen my fair share of communication mistakes. Some of the most common ones include:
Getting defensive or taking things personally instead of staying calm and objective.
Ignoring the client's concerns or dismissing them without fully understanding the root cause.
Not providing clear guidance or leadership–just doing exactly what the client asks without explaining why you would recommend something else.
Avoiding difficult conversations altogether, hoping the issue will resolve itself.
By avoiding these mistakes and following the tips mentioned above, you’ll effectively communicate with difficult clients and maintain positive relationships. Remember that communication is key in any successful business, and by continuously improving your communication skills, you’ll deepen the bond between you and your clients, and in turn enhance client retention.
Difficult clients often provide the most effusive praise of your agency once they get on track and start seeing results.
Dan Alper, Vice President, Rankworks
Grow From Difficult Client Conversations
Difficult client conversations are never easy, but with the right approach, you’ll arrive at a positive outcome. Start by validating your clients and their experience, focus on the present moment, cultivate a sense of curiosity, offer a clear path forward, and follow-up regularly.
Remember that every conversation is an opportunity to learn and grow, so embrace the challenge. By mastering the art of difficult client conversations, you'll build stronger relationships, avoid putting clients on the defensive, increase trust, and ultimately, grow your business.