5 Difficult Clients We've All Had to Deal With

By Michelle Brammer, September 17, 2014

Clients make businesses successful and rewarding, but can be unbearably unforgiving. Whether you’re the CEO, an administrative assistant, or somewhere in between, chances are you have dealt with a difficult client or two.

Dreading these clients, or avoiding dealing with them, is emotionally vexing, and not a healthy and mutual relationship. But you may have no other choice. They keep the lights turned on, the paychecks coming, and your business running. They’re the bread and butter of your businesses cash flow, but that doesn’t mean you need to suffer. Here are some surefire ways to deal with common agency complaints about difficult clients.

1. My Client Has No Direction

Without doubt, you’ve probably been told, “I’ll know it when I see it.” Dan Gregory of Hummingbird Creative Group, Inc. knows this frustration firsthand. “This usually results in ‘direction’ with no basis in reality other than the client’s ‘gut.’”

As the agency facing a client with little to no direction, this is frustrating to the account manager because there is little to no strategy associated with ‘gut feelings.’ So what do you do with these customers?

How to Deal

First, you need to reign in expectations and set some hard goals. Gregory suggests that agencies “develop a project plan with approval gates, over-communicate, clarify expectations after every conversation, and hold clients accountable.”

Pushing back on these difficult clients might be intimidating, but it's also a great time for account managers to hone their people skills to make sure relationships are mutually beneficial.

2. My Client Doesn’t Want to Strategize

“The client hired my company, then refused to participate in any strategic decisions about the company, branding, competition, or marketing.” Sound familiar?

For Julia Angelen Joy of Z Group PR, Inc., it’s a problem she’s seeing more and more amongst small business owners. “We don’t want you to tell us what is wrong, or to waste time talking about it, we just want you to work and get us media coverage. We do not need to understand the market, we need sales,” Joy laments.

For an agency, it’s difficult to develop a plan of action without knowing what the root of each problem is. Focusing agency efforts to fix a problem, without any knowledge of it, is just going to mask the issue, not fix it.

How to Deal

These clients might be difficult, or just painfully dismissive of addressing problems, but for agencies, they shouldn’t be your headache. Sometimes you just need to tell the client ‘no.’

“I am usually the first professional who has told them no,” says Joy. “I take the time to explain why their shoot-from-the-hip approach won’t work, and am kind and helpful along the way.” These clients are also usually the ones who become longtime, loyal, grateful clients, and eventually do open up and have deep discussions regarding the brand.

It becomes a win-win for the brand and the agency when the players involved come to a mutual understanding of how to improve the root issue.

3. My Client Doesn’t Want To Pay

Do you like working for free? Probably not, and your clients usually won’t work pro bono either, yet they expect their agencies to all of the time.

Todd Trahan, President of A Plus Computer Support, routinely has clients expecting work to be done for little to no money, but ignorance of the service could be to blame.

“Some people expect highly technical services for little or no money” Trahan says. “They do not understand what education, experience, and equipment is required, or how much it costs to get the job done."

Others, like Andrea Berkman-Donlon, founder of The Constant Professional, require partial payment up front, but finds that clients will try to change the payment terms after the work they had agreed upon has been submitted.

How to Deal

Whether the problem is caused by lack of education about the service or disagreements over payment terms, every agency wants to be paid for the work they do. And the client wants to feel like they’re in control of the payment terms.

One option is a written record of the agreement: “In lieu of a formal contract, which can scare off clients, I write a summary email stating the terms of the agreement, the rate and pay schedule, and require an email back before starting work,” says Berkman-Donlon.

Teri Bradshaw, Director of Franchise Development at 360Clean, does what she can to educate clients on routine issues or problems, which are often complaints and out of the scope of their contract.

This goes a long way towards advocacy: “Feedback from our clients is a positive part of our business. We consider complaints to be moments of learning for both us and the client” notes Bradshaw, adding that the “most vocal complainers will also become the most vocal advocates.”

4. My Client Has Unrealistic Expectations

The Holy Grail for PR firms is getting a write-up in a major outlet or publication, or even a celebrity endorsement. But realistically, those are far and few between, particularly when your product is intangible or a service that has a niche market.

PPC account managers have to deal with the same, but targeted with a different kind of expectations around media placement. Your clients might expect to see their ads in the #1 slot consistently, but may not recognize there's more that goes into that #1 slot than they think.

These are the clients who typically set unrealistic expectations that their PPC ads should be canvassing the internet, for pennies. And they often expect these results overnight, with consistent tried and true coverage.

How to Deal

It's frustrating to be the account rep charged with handling this type of agency client, but you can come off like a hero if you do it right mentions Cat LeDevic of Professional Writers International. “Being difficult doesn’t make a client stupid. Successfully deal with one, and the agency receives great kudos and the rep for dealing with such clients. The clients themselves are happy and spread that.”

5. My Client Threatens Us

Unfortunately, these tend to be the “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” clients. Melanie Young, Chief Connector at The Connected Table, recalls two bad experiences that compromised both the financial standing of her agency and her personal health.

“Enough was enough,” she said, but coming to this decision meant knowing she would have to let her staff go as well. It wasn’t an easy decision for Young to make, but knew closing her agency, and consulting instead, was in her best interest.

Young’s experience is one she sees with many younger clients who lack the maturity to manage their stress and manners, but it’s equally prevalent with clients who know better as.

Allen Greer, co-founder and head of digital strategy for FUZE, Inc., recalls threats to move accounts to competing agencies if they didn’t meet the client’s demands and patronizing his agency, consistently “reminding us how lucky we are to have their account.”

How to Deal

These threats have led FUZE to rely on some basic principles when dealing with a threatening client:

  • Never (ever) try to hash out tense situations via email.
  • Never apologize when it’s not your fault.
  • Explain to the client that you value respectful and mutually beneficial relationships, and that you expect them to show you the same level of courtesy.

With these three principles, Greer has successfully overcome dealing with difficult clients, and has also learned that trials and tribulations make you stronger. “If you can survive difficult moments and come out on top, you’ll be a better consultant [and] a better person because of it.”

Are you an agency who has dealt with similar situations, or a client of an agency who feels their difficult tactics are warranted? Tweet us at @eZangaInc and tell us about your experiences.

Michelle Brammer

Michelle Brammer

Michelle Brammer is the Director of Marketing for eZanga. Her unique background includes over 13 years of brand marketing, strategy, analytics, operations, and multi-channel experience, and she’s firmly rooted in client success and engagement. She is passionate about teaching youth about the digital advertising space and perfecting inbound marketing and social media efforts. Michelle’s thoughts on marketing, advertising, and social media have been published on Forbes, Convince & Convert, iMedia Connection, Bulldog Reporter, MediaPost, PRNewswire, and Fierce Pharma. Michelle is a graduate of Miami University and holds a degree in Marketing and Family Studies. Prior to eZanga, Michelle held management positions with Frito-Lay, Dominion Enterprises, and Genji in both sales and marketing capacities. In her spare time, she’s a cheer mom to two young girls, loves watching the Ohio State Buckeyes, and occasionally has time to pick up a good book and relax. More Articles by Michelle Brammer