impossible client? look in the mirror first.


From time to time agency staff can get frustrated with a client. Ninety Nine percent of all clients are delights to work with of course… But, for the purpose of discussion, let’s take an edge case.

Often times I see agency expectations of clients far surpass the internal expectations of themselves. Why is that? If an organization was capable or skillful enough to accomplish what they hired you to do, they wouldn’t hire you would they?

It seems to me that within interactive and digital production there is a shortcoming in the recognition by Agencies that they are responsible for not just the end result but for laying pavement on the road to get there. This is a herculean task! Could you imagine being asked to build Mt. Rushmore as well as well as constructing the road to get there, the tools to make it AND the debris removal? Very few Agencies would sign up for this job but every job in digital is similar to this one.

I have worked with clients who have the skill set to do the work we contracted to do but not in the time it is needed to be done. Or clients who have resources who should be able to do it, have the time, but not the skill set. And of course clients who have the vision, see their competitors doing it and just, well, don’t know how to get from A to B.

One of the first questions I ask my sales team when we begin a pitch and a recurring question of my teams is, ‘what are we solving?’

There are very few things in life where the process doesn’t matter to me. I doubt there is for you either. I choose coffee based on how it got to me, I choose electronics based on reputation, a maid service based on reviews and products used. I choose a mechanic that I can trust, a lawyer who I am confident won’t overcharge me and an accountant who shows me they can make me money, by saving or by being smarter.

These of course are simplistic examples (though I believe the service provider or coffee maker, manufacturer or maid would argue).

The more interesting question to me when I hear complaints of difficult clients is ‘Why are you letting them get away with it?’ Difficult clients are rarely difficult from the beginning are they? I don’t ever get my sales team coming to me saying ‘We have a great opportunity with a difficult client, lets go win this.’ So when does it happen? I submit it isn’t at one moment but rather in a series of moments where agencies can fall short on forcing the conversation.

Clients, like agencies, are made of up people, humans, and thus human nature. No one wants to be a difficult client or a bad partner and in fact even the most challenging clients I have dealt with would never categorize themselves that way, but instead would likely put the onus of the relationship status back on me. And well they should. The root of any difficult client I have worked with has simply been a gap in expectations. Small gaps can be fixed often times with an email whereas large gaps require teams of people to come together and sit for long periods of time.

If you have one of these ‘come to jesus’ moments with a client, first and foremost fill the gap first. But then take a look inside your own organization and determine why the CTJ meeting had to happen in the first place.

My experience and suspicion that it was a series of smaller moments stacked on top of one another will likely be proved after you eagerly look for a smoking gun, and don’t find one. More than likely a series of empathetic and people pleasing moments will be at the series of the expectations gap. They won’t be dramatic moments at all, they will have been, in the moment, executed with the best of intentions in hopes of pursuing new business, making a stakeholder look good or knowing it is the right thing for the clients business.

But they should have been dramatic in smaller ways. Those moments where you caved, appeased and swept it under the rug was your chance to manage expectations with the client and instead you communicated that they could set their own. And that is where you are now. Your difficult client isn’t anything more than a monster you created and fed over and over again. So hesitate the next time you want to complain about a client and what they want, expect or are demanding as you likely helped manifest it.

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