Four Tips for Marketers Working with Difficult Clients

Posted by Ashley Dains on April 29, 2014

In my career I’ve had all types of clients: the good, the bad and the frustrating. We all love those clients that we have a collaborative relationship with and who respect what we do as marketers. On the flip side, we also have those clients that question every motive and fight every decision, making our jobs a little more difficult.

There’s only so much that we can do without client approval, so it’s imperative to manage those clients very carefully. You need to step back and think about why the relationship is challenging. We always jump to the easiest assumption that they are just difficult by nature and that our only option is to put on our armor and get ready for battle before every meeting. As marketers, we all know that we take our job very personally. If you don’t agree, think about the last time you asked a creative to make a slight adjustment on an ad they worked on… I recall one time I did and had a stapler thrown at me! So when dealing with these difficult clients, you need to take the emotion out of it and approach the relationship with more of a cool head and accept that most of the issues may not lie within their personality, but more with their confusion.

Think about how our industry has changed. Ten years ago, before SEO and social, the biggest point of contention with my clients was how much “sizzle” should be in our print ads in the newspaper. While I won most of the battles over how many “starbursts” were really necessary on a quarter page ad, it at least was a discussion where the client understood the tactics we used to grab readers’ attention. But now, thanks to technology and data, we’re smarter marketers. We just don’t create campaigns that are pretty to appeal to an emotion, thanks to data, we now create campaigns based on behaviors and trends for better success rates.

But just because we’ve evolved, doesn’t mean our clients have. It’s hard for many of them to accept that we just don’t “make stuff pretty” anymore. The data we rely on to create our revenue generating campaigns, is data they don’t understand or use. Their numbers are different then our numbers. Most clients don’t understand the role marketing now plays in their business and how intricately all of our functions are intertwined to deliver the most effective results. It’s this frustration that creates the obstacles that can derail projects resulting in delayed deadlines, increased costs or worse, a project never getting off the ground.

So in order to keep your client’s business moving forward, you need to speak their language. Here are four tips for working with difficult clients:

Patience

Yes, I know that you know this. But it’s important to remember this. When a client either gives you an immediate “no” or the Spanish inquisition when presenting your next big initiative, take a breath and respond carefully. Stop and think about your approach. Think about what makes your client tick. Is it data? Is it visual? Keep calm when working with difficult clients and tailor your approach to how they like to digest information.

Frequent Communication

I used to think, if the client doesn’t understand the project, then they don’t care to hear about the project. But I was wrong. Frequent communication is the key to their education. How else are they going to learn how we’re affecting their business if they don’t know the progress being made? Taking them through the process, share with them any successes being seen and don’t be afraid to share what’s not working. They’ll appreciate being kept in the loop, and it will help earn their trust.

Prove it!

The best way to get them to trust you is to prove your results. When working with difficult clients, make sure you have clearly identified goals at the start of the project and report on those at the end.

Having real data to back up your campaigns will help those more analytic, less creative, clients understand the importance of what you’re doing and how it’ll affect their business. Clear reporting will help connect the dots for the clients and prove your credibility.

Positive Intent

My last piece of advice is one that I just recently learned from someone I highly respect. Laurie Chamberlin President of Special Counsel, spoke to my marketing department recently and had a piece of advice that hit close to home. Laurie recommended to “always assume positive intent.” This made me sit back and evaluate my relationships with clients. Maybe what I was mistaking as argumentative and unsupportive were really their attempts to understand. These “difficult” clients aren’t being so just to ruin my day, but if it’s taking them longer to buy into a new project, then it’s my responsibility to take the time necessary to explain it. By assuming positive intent, I now approach conversations with my clients differently by not taking their questions so personally. I don’t walk into our meetings expecting a battle, but I now go with the intent that we’ll have a productive conversation and that I’ll help them understand how our marketing team is going to improve their business.

Our job as marketers is not just to think of the next great idea, but it’s also our responsibility to bring our clients into this new age of marketing. And sometimes that’s the hardest part of our job! You may never have the type of relationship with these difficult clients where you actually enjoy the client dinners, but in order to have a productive relationship, these tips should help move you in the right direction!

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About the author

Ashley Dains

Ashley Dains Ashley is a Marketing Director and resides in Jacksonville, FL. She spends much of her time focusing on business development strategy and how marketing can best serve her clients. Ashley also spends her time renovating her 1926 bungalow and enjoying local craft beers.

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