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The Agency Guide to Handling Difficult Conversations with Clients

Digital Marketing agency Client Services

No one likes an uncomfortable conversation, yet many of these exist as part and parcel of our everyday agency life.

When handled properly and tactfully, you’d feel like a champ. However, maneuvering around these landmines require levels of skill, empathy and a whole lot of face – abilities none of us dare admit we’re masters of (yet).

Here are 7 of our toughest conversations to date:

1. Urm, the invoice is due ...

Professionally: An overdue invoice

In Agency Terms: Y U NO PAY

Any topic relating to money is going to be tough – especially when you’re asking for it. There’s really no easy nor nice way of saying “it’s time to pay up”, so it’s better to just ask, rather than to beat around the bush. From our experience, most of them have genuinely forgotten about it anyway – so it’s certainly no harm reminding them!


2. We can't work with that ...

Professionally: An inappropriate collateral to work with

In Agency Terms: I’d rather die than to be working with that

Some clients take real pride in their work, even if it’s a tacky brochure designed on Microsoft Word with a wavy, sparkly WordArt header on it. The horror comes when they expect you to work with that terrible unpolished piece of collateral for an upcoming Facebook event post, or an email blast.

It definitely helps to be honest here, as we wouldn’t to be associated with a terrible piece of work either. Be upfront about the fact that you need something better to work with – reasonable clients will understand.


3. This was your idea to begin with ...

Professionally: Client deviated from original brief

In Agency Terms: Client pulled a stunt

Your team is thrilled to receive a simple, straightforward brief. You follow it to a T, and complete everything your client asked for. You deliver your work and head out for a celebration. Then they very quickly get back with a “…but this wasn’t what we asked for”. Wait, what?

This is an incredibly frustrating situation to be in, since you pretty much followed everything instruction-for-instruction. We’ve encountered this a number of times, and since then, we've learnt the importance of reiterating the brief back to the clients. Get the agreement and confirmation on that infographic you need to prepare, or that 4-page article to be drafted. Locking down the expectations of both parties goes a long way.


4. Hmm, that is out of our scope. We'll have to bill extra for that ...

Professionally: Request is out of agreed job scope

In Agency Terms: Trying to jiak (take advantage of) us

Every client loves getting a good deal. But then again, there are those who are out to wring your team dry, making every penny of theirs count.

It’s hard turning down a sincere “hope you can do this as a favour” request, but sometimes it really takes a stern reminder that the request is out of your agreed scope, and the work would have to be additionally billed. Well, unless you really owe them that favour – we can’t help you on that one.


5. We were late because you were late first ...

Professionally: Proposal of deadline extension due to client delay

In Agency Terms: You need time I no need time meh?

You receive the brief 3 days after the stipulated timeline, but the client won’t budge on the previously agreed deadline – which is now just one day away. Now, what would you do?

When stuck in these circumstances, it’s important to stand firm and be straightforward about the situation, and turn down their requests. Propose a more realistic timeline and have both parties to agree upon it – while, of course, delivering the project on time.


6. Look, it's really not as urgent as you think it is ...

Professionally: Sufficient buffer time allocated

In Agency Terms: I am fighting other fires right now

Clients are paying us for our services, so it only makes sense for them to feel deserving of our time. However, it might not be that obvious to them that they aren’t the only clients in your portfolio.

The conversation to have here should be the establishment of clear timelines from the get-go. After that, do take special note to meet all these deadlines, showing them that everything is on track – and that everything is under control and going as planned. As an additional measure, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to drop them the occasional reminder that you may be busy with other clients as well.


7. I have a confession to make ...

Professionally: I screwed up

In Agency Terms: I screwed up

To err is human. But agencies, in the eyes of clients, aren’t mere mortals. Committed a mistake? Well, in paraphrasing the immortal words of Elton John, sorry may seem to be the hardest word. 

The unfortunate thing here is that most of these things often occur uncontrollably. It may be that you’d accidentally deleted a master file copy on the shared Dropbox account, or that you weren’t able to deliver upon what you’d promised because of technical hiccups. While you’d attempt to solve the problem as much as possible from your end, sometimes it would help to quickly convey the issue across. Offer a solution too while you’re at it and the situation could instantly becomes better.


Of course, these conversations don’t happen on a day to day basis (unless you’re doing something terribly wrong!). There are lots of happy conversations too – and at the end of the day, we still love all our clients (smiles sheepishly). 😉

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