How to handle nightmare clients

Anyone working in a marketing agency is likely to have a nightmare client or two in their time. The ones that make you dread meetings, stress about things that really don’t matter, and make you wonder if you can get away with calling in sick today…

We’re all human and every client is entitled to a bad day here and there, but if they are consistently a nightmare, you will need to take action sooner rather than later to ensure that you can continue to enjoy your job and do great work for all of your clients.

If left unchecked, nightmare clients can turn into vampire clients that drain resources and morale…

What makes a client a nightmare?

In our experience, some of the most common things that make clients a ‘nightmare’ include:

Little respect for time

These clients show little respect for your time by

  • Expecting immediate responses
  • Consistently missing deadlines for feedback, approval, or actions on their end
  • Demanding that things be completed ASAP with little notice
  • Hogging your time with unnecessary meetings, calls, and messages
  • Wasting your time with small tasks they could complete themselves

Unrealistic expectations

Most clients have ambitious goals when it comes to their marketing, but those true nightmarish ones often

  • Want to achieve the same results as competitors with a fraction of the budget
  • Expect immediate results
  • Don’t want to do the work on their side to turn marketing-qualified leads into sales-qualified leads
  • Have an inflated perception of themselves and their business
  • Frequently ask for you to complete more work than agreed upon
  • Gives you limited control over their activity yet expects the results as if you had full control

Unclear or fluctuating goals

Marketing takes time to work effectively – which means it’s much harder for clients to see the results they want if they don’t have an objective they can stick to or a clear picture of what they want to achieve. These clients will

  • Change their mind about their goals and subsequent activity
  • Micromanage your activity based on influencer recommendations, trends, or an article they’ve just read
  • Frequently tweak the strategy or activity without leaving enough time to truly test it and learn from the results
  • Avoid providing or working on a business vision or strategy to inform the marketing side of the business
  • Say things like “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it”

Ignoring or second-guessing your expertise

There is no single way to market a business and it can be incredibly beneficial for both clients and marketers alike to discuss the reasons behind certain decisions. However, this can become a nightmare if clients

  • Frequently ignore your advice and then blame you for the lack of results
  • Try to change the process you want to follow to achieve the results
  • Only apply one part of the recommendations you provide and ignore the rest
  • Question or criticise every item of work you produce and every decision you make

How to handle clients who:

Have little respect for your time

One of the best things you can do to help manage client expectations around time is to communicate them upfront – in writing if you can. You can do this by creating a formal service level agreement (SLA) or simply sharing your time expectations in an email when you start working with them. This can help them understand how quickly they can expect to see work from you and how quickly you may respond to ad-hoc communication.

For work that needs feedback or approval before you can take any further action, there are a few things we do that help keep our clients on schedule:

  • Provide specific dates when clients will receive work from you so they can plan for it in advance
  • Provide a deadline for feedback and state that you will assume the work is approved unless you hear otherwise before that date (this can spur on clients who often have delayed responses)
  • Provide a visual demonstration of how each piece of work (and the results they’ll achieve) is dependent on each other and feedback. This can help clients understand how a delay on their end can impact the results they’ll see from their marketing activities.

You’ve also probably had one (or many) of those clients who send you numerous messages throughout the day with new or contradicting tasks to complete ASAP. Firstly, we recommend that you don’t let yourself get into a habit of immediately reading and responding to them – it will make clients think that they can keep doing it.

Instead, set aside a specific time of day (or time of the week) to handle all of their requests in one go. Again, communicating with them in advance that this is how you will work will help to manage the expectations that they have around your response times. (Although reminding them with a quick “Thanks – I’ll take a look at this on Wednesday!” won’t hurt.) The knowledge that you won’t do it for them immediately can also get them to think a bit more carefully about what tasks they need you to do vs what they can do themselves.

Have unrealistic expectations

Most clients who have unrealistic expectations aren’t trying to be difficult, they simply have a limited understanding of how much effort goes into a successful campaign. We believe one of the most important things you can do for any client – nightmare or not – is to educate them about how different marketing activities work, how different parts of the buyer journey influence each other, and what their competitors are doing to achieve great results.

Use competitor research, industry benchmarks, and historic performance data to help these clients set realistic benchmarks for future performance that will enable them to accurately track progress and measure success.

Have unclear or fluctuating goals

Similarly to those clients with unrealistic expectations, those with unclear or fluctuating goals aren’t deliberately being a nightmare – instead, this often stems from a lack of awareness or understanding about the important role goals play in your marketing.

For clients that don’t already have them, we hold training sessions and workshops to help them identify and set their marketing objectives. Not only does this make it easier for us to determine what campaigns need to be run, but it also helps us form a deeper understanding of how marketing supports their long-term business objectives.

If your clients have goals but keep changing them, have an honest conversation with them about how these changes are impacting their results. Suggest supporting them to identify their marketing objectives so that you can understand what the underlying motivator is beneath their constant changes.

When clients provide you with vague instructions for a project (e.g. “Make it pop!”) there are two things you can choose to do (depending on the type of client they are):

  1. Push for more details – even if it’s just examples of things they like from other brands
  2. Highlight just how much (or little) time they have budgeted for you to work on this and how vague instructions mean some of that will be wasted simply trying to figure out what they’re after

For those clients who keep changing the strategy or not leaving you enough time to truly achieve the goals they have, the best thing you can do is build trust in you and your process (see next point).

Ignore or second-guess your expertise

Clients want the best for their business and are only ever going to make decisions that they believe will have the best impact. If they ignore or question your recommendations, it’s because they (knowingly or unknowingly) don’t trust your expertise – or trust someone else’s (like an influencer’s) over yours.

Building and maintaining trust is one of the most effective ways to handle a nightmare client – if they like and trust you, they’ll listen to you. Our tips for building trust with a client are

  • Be honest about what they should expect, what they need to do, and what you think is best
  • Show them that you’re just as invested in the success of their business as they are by being proactive with your advice rather than simply reacting to questions they give you
  • Educate them (see section above) about how various marketing activities work so they can start to understand your process and strategy
  • Ask questions to show your interest in their life and business

What problems have you experienced with vampire clients? Let us know on LinkedIn!

At Logic Digital, we’re always looking for ways to support other marketers and agencies to grow their businesses and achieve success for their clients. Want to see how we can work together? Get in touch with our team.

Alex Clifford – Director
If I am not helping businesses to improve their digital profile or performance then you will find me by the pond feeding the fish.