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Handling client complaints about your agency employees

We have all been there. Clients complain about something that your agency is doing. It might be the quality of the work. Or the timeliness of a deliverable. Or something else.

When it is about something that we control ourselves, that’s painful — but easier to address. What do you do when it is one of your team members that is the target of the client’s displeasure?

Chip and Gini take a look at this very common challenge and offer some strategies on how to make sure that you keep the client happy while also being fair to your own team.

The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello and welcome to the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And let’s get into the show.

Gini Dietrich: So, I don’t know. I’m, I’m feeling some energy now, so,

Chip Griffin: yeah, like, I’m, I’m kind of amped up now.

You know, we’ve, we’ve, we’ve changed if, if you’re paying any attention, all we’ve changed how we’re doing the opening to the show now. So instead of the stock prerecorded thing, we’ve got that little bumper at the beginning.

If you’re watching in video, you get to see our pretty animated faces coming across the screen. And if you’re listening, you just get that, you know, nice, nice beat there to kind of, you know, feel the energy and get into this before you have to listen to Gini and I go on and on and on and on and on and on and on.

Gini Dietrich: Well, you go on and on and on.

Wow. Wow, that’s, we’re not starting in a good place here. You’re already, you’re already taking shots at me.

Gini Dietrich: Well, you know, it’s my pleasure.

Chip Griffin: Fantastic. I’m sure the listeners appreciate it, even if I don’t. All right. So, something else that many of us don’t appreciate is when we hear from a client that they’re not too happy with one of our employees.

We’ve maybe got some performance issues or communications issues or something like that. And so this is a question that comes up pretty regularly in both of our practices. It’s a question that came to me in a recent open Q& A I was doing for SAGA members. So I thought it would be a good question for us to address here in a little bit more depth than I was able to do in that sort of town hall style format.

You know, I don’t think any of us who have employees in any business, but particularly in the agency world, have ever managed to survive without having at least one complaint. From a client. Oh yeah, for sure. Sometimes we get client, we get complaints about our own work. I mean, when, when, when many of us started out as solos, we got complaints.

Ah, this isn’t up to snuff. I don’t like this, blah, blah, blah. I have no idea what you’re talking about. Yeah. No, I mean, I mean, you and I we’re both perfect, which is why we advise other agencies because of our perfection. Mm-Hmm. . Yes. but. I mean, so it’s one thing when it’s about your own work, because it’s, that I think is a lot easier for you to address, because you know exactly what took place, you know what the truth or not is, and you know, you can make your own assessment as to what you need to do.

When it’s a client calling you or emailing you to complain about one of your team members, it’s a little more challenging.

Gini Dietrich: And I would also add to that, that it could just be a personality issue. It’s not all, it’s not always a performance issue. So they may present, the client may present it as a performance issue when that’s not the case at all.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. I mean, and so that’s, I mean, you, you almost have to be a detective at first. Right. You, you need to figure out. You know what, where the truth is, because, you know, the reality of all of these situations is that they’re going to be, he said, he said, he said, he said, he said, you know, I can go through every possible permutation there, but if I do, I’ll probably end up saying something nasty.

So I’m not gonna try to go through them that quickly because tongue twisters are not my specialty, but. It’s going to be one person said one thing another person says another thing because usually when you go to your employee They’ve got a little bit of a different take on it now. You don’t want to turn this into an inquisition, right?

This is not you know, while you have to do some detective work. It’s not it is not a full on investigation in most cases I mean obviously it depends on The severity of the complaint. If the complaint is, I’m getting a lot of typos in the work that I’m getting, or it’s not timely, or, you know, some of those are simpler.

If it’s just the work isn’t up to par, well, that’s more challenging because then you got to figure out what par even is and make sure that there’s agreement on that.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, it’s and I would, I think you’re right. There’s probably different levels. And as we talk about all the time, it depends. So there could be a situation like I have a client who says that someone on my team is always late and I’m like, it’s a zoom call.

What do you mean? She’s always late. And he was like, well, he’s showing always, always, always shows up between four and five minutes late. Well, I can actually check that, right? Because it’s in the software because it’s on our account. So I can actually check that. and she is, she is always late. So I’ve set her calendar so that she’s, she arrives five minutes early because she thinks it’s actually 10 o’clock instead of, you know,

Chip Griffin: but see now that, that only works as

Gini Dietrich: long as you don’t figure it out, right?

Chip Griffin: Cause for years, my wife would set her watch five minutes early. Or, yeah, and so I would say to her, but you know that it is, so that doesn’t really help any.

Gini Dietrich: So does it help or not? Is she still, because she knows it’s five minutes late, is she still, or five minutes early, is she still late?

Chip Griffin: I’m going to take the fifth here. She doesn’t listen to this podcast, but I I mean, I’ll ask her, I’ll ask her. Oh, great, great. I mean, well that, it’s a good question for you to ask, because you’re never late.

Gini Dietrich: Oh, I’m late to this one all the time. All the time.

Chip Griffin: Disrespect your co host.

Gini Dietrich: I only disrespect you. This morning I was like, right on time, and then my computer went boop, and I was like, oh, come on!

Chip Griffin: And my dog ate my homework, Gini. I know, I know. I’m always late. Except I don’t have a dog. I never will, so.

Gini Dietrich: I mean, I say that in jest.

Of course she knows that, It’s been part of the performance review to say, you have to, you have to be early. You can’t be late. You can’t be on time. You have to be early. and then there are situations where many years ago I had a client who’s still a client who told me he was, he just wasn’t going to work with somebody on my team.

He’s like, I just don’t like her. And I was like, okay.

So we took her off the account. I mean, and then, and then, you know, it progressed, it can progress from there, but I think, I think you’re right. You have to figure out what the issue is. If it’s an issue that like the client who said, I’m just not going to work with her and you take them off the account and put them somewhere else, or is it, you know, typos are showing up late or whatever it happens to be.

Chip Griffin: That can be fixed and it’s a balancing act because you know your responsibility as an agency owner is absolutely to keep your client happy But you know if it’s a good employee you need to make sure that you’re keeping them happy as well So you’re the way that you solve it for the client can’t make it substantially worse with the employee and make them You know, resent the account or resent your reaction to it or those kinds of things.

So, so this really does require some substantial diplomacy on your part as a leader to figure out how to navigate it to make sure that you’re, you know, you’re, you’re keeping both sides as happy as possible.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And that’s, that’s a really good point too, because you don’t want to demoralize them or make them feel like, They can’t be trusted or the client’s unhappy.

And so they’re, so they’re demotivated and don’t want to do the work, you know, whatever happens to be, yeah, it’s, it is a good, it is a nice balancing act. I think there’s what I’ve learned over the years in, in terms of leading employees is just to be honest and say, Hey, listen, this sucks. But this is the feedback I’m getting.

Can you, can we talk this through and figure out what, if there’s a solution and that kind of, that honesty and transparency usually is pretty effective.

Chip Griffin: Right. And, and part of it depends too, on whether or not this comes as a surprise to you as the, as the manager, right? So if the, the client calls you up and says, you know, Jim’s writing is just, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s.

Rough around the edges. He’s clearly not proofreading or spell checking or whatever. and, and you know that, right? You’re like, okay, yeah, that’s kind of what I’ve seen too. First of all, on the one hand, that’s good, right? Cause you’re not seeing something out of left field. On the other hand, it means that it’s something that you were aware of and haven’t yet addressed.

And, but, but I mean, let’s be, let’s be realistic here. A lot of us allow. Certain employee shortcomings to slide because it’s the easier route, right? Sometimes we just we don’t want to deal with it. And if we can, you know skate by and the client’s still happy You know, it’s it’s not necessarily the right thing to do But we’ve all done it at one point or another and so but you have to ask yourself Are you are you letting it slide too far should you have addressed this?

Sooner, because a lot of times, at least in my case, where a client has come to me, it hasn’t been a surprise and it’s things I probably should have buckled down on sooner. Now, in the case where it does come out of left field, well that’s different because that’s really when you have to figure out, you know, is it a real problem or is this a client being difficult?

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, and maybe it’s not even always that they’re being difficult, but it is. It’s that the, your employee is not grasping the subject matter or, or has the expertise to do the kinds of work that you’ve committed to doing, or, I mean, there’s, there were tons of different reasons for it. One of the challenges that I’ve had in growing my agency.

And this has been a real challenge is clients will say to me. Well, I’d rather just work with you. I’m like

Chip Griffin: That’s fine, but you’re going to pay about 25 times as much I have a very limited amount of my time available.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah Yeah, and and that’s how i’ve solved it in many cases is i’m and I will say okay. Yeah, but it costs This amount and it ha either one of two things happens today. They say, oh no, we’re good.

Or, yeah, it’s important to us that we get the, we get your caliber level of work. and that’s been a real challenge because it doesn’t matter. I’ve had that challenge no matter what level the employees are. I can have somebody really experienced and the client just doesn’t. feel like they’re getting the same level, even though they are probably even better than they were with me.

But, and so, you know, having your name on the door, I think is a real challenge from an employee perspective as well because of that. And then that’s demoralizing to the employee too. Right, right. Absolutely.

Chip Griffin: Something like that. Well, and I think, you know, and we’ve said this before on the show when talking about business development, it’s so important to have your team exposed to the client during the prospect stage so that they don’t become attached just to you.

They’re becoming attached to the team and they’re seeing the expertise from your team so that. There isn’t that pressure for you to be the one that’s always on the call or always sending the email or doing the work or those kinds of things. Because that, that will destroy your ability to grow as an agency and it’s very, very important.

It’s demoralizing, not just to your team member, but to you too, because you’re, you’re then in a, I mean, sometimes even if someone’s willing to pay my hourly rate, I still don’t want to do the work, right? It’s not that, it’s just not the kind of work that, you know, almost 30 years into my career. Yep. Or, yeah, almost 30 years this year.

Great. That’s scary. No. Yeah, my, my, my first full time job was October 1st, 1991. Yep. Yeah, I started young, but, I was still in college, but anyway, so let’s not talk about me being old. You have plenty of opportunities to do that at some point, I’m sure. but so, and a lot of this comes down to expectations.

Right. Another thing that I harp on all the time because, because most client agency relationships go sour because expectations were never aligned or ended up diverging somewhere along the way. And so when you’ve got a complaint about an employee, it may be that their expectations are unreasonable.

Right. And you, and you touched on this earlier, as far as expertise clients, in my experience, often believe that their agency should become just as much of an expert in their subject matter as they are. Yep. And the reality is that if you’ve got a client that you’re working on a few hours a week, you’re just not going to be as expert as they are spending all day.

Not just. In their company, but in their industry and all that and they probably have years of experience leading up to that as well So even if you’re dedicated full time, you know, you’re working for a larger agency and you are full time working for one client You’re not going to have that same expertise for a long long time.

Gini Dietrich: Well, and not only that but you don’t have the Opportunity to I mean even if you sit in one meeting a day Or, you know, two meetings a week or whatever happens to be, you’re not in the internal meetings. You’re not in the typically you’re not in the town halls, unless you’re doing them for the client, but you’re not in the big meetings where they’re talking about changes in messaging or changes in strategy.

Or, you know, those, you’re just not part of those meetings because you’re not in the business all day, every day, and it’s, it’s a real challenge to be able to become that expert in their business. You may have industry expertise, but in their business.

Chip Griffin: Right, and sometimes the employee has allowed the expectations to shift over time to this particularly comes true when it has to do with turnaround times for things because that’s what clients will often complain that they’re not getting things quick enough.

And, and what I’ve seen in a lot of those cases is it’s because the individual employee has tried to over deliver and over a period of time, they’ve conditioned the client to expect faster turnaround than what you were originally promising. And so we’ve talked. Ad nauseum about the risks of over servicing from a profit perspective, but there’s also a risk in the over servicing as far as how it affects the relationship overall, because if you, you know, think about it in terms of, you know, like when you’ve got a house that’s got a fence built on your neighbor’s property, and the longer that fence sits there, the more likely you are to have a constructive use easement available to you were basically because that fence has been on their property the whole time, it’s basically become your property.

Now, Because they didn’t complain for long enough, and we’re not going to get into all the legal stuff around that. But it’s the same thing with a client. If you, if you promised two day turnaround, but your employee is always giving one day or same day turnaround on things, and they do this for months and months and months, well, now the client expects that.

And so it’s harder. So if they call up and say, well, I’m not getting the same same day turnaround because, you know, maybe they did this when business was slow. I mean, particularly we’ve seen this last year, right? A lot of agencies had a slow period in March, April, May. And so if you’ve now said, okay, well, we can just turn things around quicker.

Because we’re not as overloaded now, the businesses are coming back, it’s hard to recondition the clients back to a longer turnaround time. So, so that’s one of those areas where expectations can end up being reset inadvertently and perhaps even without your knowledge as an agency owner or leader. And so it’s something you need to stay on top of with your team so that you understand it and you can head this off before the client has a chance to complain.

Gini Dietrich: And I, I think it goes even beyond over servicing or over delivering. It, it goes to things like responding to emails after hours, or, you know, if they’re, if they’re texting you, which has become the new client thing and they, you respond immediately,

Chip Griffin: which is just terrible, by the way, it’s just terrible, do not let your clients text you all they do.

They don’t text me because I don’t give them the number, but They text me. No, I just, I mean, I mean, texting, I think, is terrible for so many reasons. First of all, is the time nature of it, but the second is, it’s almost impossible to accurately track texts that need follow up. Right. Right? Yeah. In email, I can put it in a folder, I can put a star on it, I can do something, I can copy it over to Evernote, you know, whatever I want to do to make sure I don’t overlook it, but on texts, it’s just If I don’t deal with it immediately, it’s hard for me to remember to come back.

Same problem. I used to use Skype a lot in, when I was, working in an international business and everybody was, that was the easiest way for everybody to communicate effectively. And so I would always say to people, don’t send a request that you don’t need an instant response on via Skype because I will never, ever remember to go back to it.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And if it’s lost, you can’t search it. You can’t put it in folders. You can’t, yeah.

Chip Griffin: So, so my advice is just stop them from sending you texts on anything that’s non urgent. And, and again, it’s, it’s where you set expectations, right? So maybe you do allow them to text you generally, but you do do what I did with my colleagues regarding Skype.

If it’s something that doesn’t need an immediate response, you know, send an email and sometimes I would just respond and say, can you send this to me in an email? Something like that to continuously condition them.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And I think that that’s right. And as you have, you have to set expectations. You have to set boundaries and you have to continue to condition them.

And I had had, I have a former employee who, no matter how often we talked about these things, and we talked about it a lot, she continued to over service. And then she got herself in trouble because for exactly what you were saying, because the client began to expect it. And then all of a sudden we had this huge issue with the client thinking that she wasn’t performing when she was actually delivering.

Time in a timely manner. She just wasn’t doing it as quickly as she had been but she had spent two and a half years Doing it that way and then suddenly she was like, oh I have other priorities. I don’t want to continue to do this And slowed it down and the client flew it, but she didn’t listen to me. So, you know, it was her own fault

Chip Griffin: Yeah, which which feels good to say but it’s It it may be her fault, but it’s ultimately your problem.

Of course. I’m just Studying Yeah, and, and so it, it is, it is something you need to be aware of, and I, and I think, you know, we, we’ve talked about, I think, some of the things that are, on the simpler variety to deal with, they’re, they’re still painful, but they’re simpler. I think the most difficult is where the client has come to you with a concern, and it’s more over the quality of the work, right?

So it’s not responsiveness, it’s not blatant. You know, typos, that kind of stuff. It’s just, it’s where the quality just isn’t there, whether it’s strategic or the content that’s being created, you know, where it’s just not quite right. And you look at it and you say, yeah, you know, it’s, it’s not, it really, it really needs to be stepped up.

I think that’s the most difficult. As a manager to deal with, because you, you know, it’s a problem, but how do you get that kind of improvement without just spending a ton of your own time on it? And so that I think is the one I’ve struggled with the most. And I know that I’ve got one client right now who’s struggling that very direct, struggling with that very directly with one of their employees.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I actually have a couple of clients who are struggling with that as well. and with one of them, we’ve actually hired a coach. For her employee, because she wants to invest in this employee’s growth and and hope and mentor and coach and all this. So we fired a coach specific to writing and writing, in a technical manner for every to be organization.

So that’s that’s where she’s spending her time. It’s not an overnight solution. And so she’s had to hire a contractor to help out in the interim. So it’s costing her some money. She’s, she’s having to invest for sure, but that’s the way that we’re solving that, that particular one.

Chip Griffin: Yep. And, and the situation that I’ve got is pretty similar.

although we’re trying to use some third party training resources first, you know, webinars training, virtual trainings and that kind of stuff. So, so part of the thing is the, the, the first assessment you have to make is. you know, can this employee improve in whatever area it is? I mean, have, have they tapped out?

Are they, you know, is it, are they just years away from having the, you know, the expertise or the skill or whatever to get there? So you need to determine, is it reasonable to get them where the client wants them and where you think they should be going? And if so, then you have to decide how you want to invest in it.

And you really do. I mean, you know, I think one of the, the hardest transitions that, you know, new agency owners or even experienced agency owners as they’re growing and letting go to take on is that the, the idea that they are a coach, they have to be coaching their employees and helping them to improve.

They can’t step in and just do the work for them. They can’t step in and micromanage them. They’ve got to find a way to help those individuals improve their skills, whether that’s by working more with colleagues, getting some external help from a coach or a training system or something like that. But you need to make that mindset shift.

You need to decide. If that employee is worth that investment, and if not, then maybe you need to make a change.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, and, and it could be, the change could be putting them on, oh my gosh, we’ve got a blizzard outside, I just looked up, holy cow, sorry, was not expecting that.

Chip Griffin: Chicago in the wintertime, it snows, right?

Gini Dietrich: It must be lake effect. Wow. so it’s, it does. Can you, can you move the employee to a different account where they will be able to, to flourish? Or do they have to go somewhere else?

Chip Griffin: Right. Or, you know, can you, can you bring someone else in your team onto that account for part of the time to serve as a bit of a mentor and a, you know, a shepherd to guide them through?

You also need to understand how does your employee learn? Will they learn better with a one on one coach? Will they learn better? Better through some video training or by going when we ever have in person again to an in person training different people have different approaches and so you need to try to find out from them.

So what I like to do is I like to talk with the employee and sort of talk about, you know, here’s where I want you to get and try to get some of their feedback. about, you know, how they would like to get there, you know, what, what are their ideas? So we can throw them around and, and try to collaboratively figure out what the solution is.

Cause you don’t want to come in and just tell the employee, these are the seven corrective steps you’re going to take. Because I’ll tell you, most people do not react particularly well to that, right? You have to find a way where either you make it their own idea, or at least they feel like they were invested in the decision.

and that’s how you actually get change to take place. And so again, it’s tough. It’s not. I mean, I know that this is not my general mindset. My general mindset is why can’t you just do it right the first time? I could do that in five seconds. Why is it taking you so long? Right? I mean, that’s and I consciously had to work on that over years and years.

I did. And I’m still not perfect at it.

Gini Dietrich: I’m whistling and looking away because I’m the same way.

Chip Griffin: And look, I think, I think a lot of the people listening are because that’s one of the ways that you end up getting ahead because you are, you know, a type A, you’re, you’re driven. You want to improve yourself.

You want to have a high standard. And the reality is as much as we want it, not every employee is. Not even every good employee has that same mindset. There are plenty of people who will do a great job for your agency, but they’re never going to be rock stars. But you don’t need a rock star in every single role.

And we’ve seen plenty of agencies over the years fail when they try to put together, you know, a hall of fame style teams or all star teams. I mean, you need to have a good mix of people and some people who are just really skilled at certain. Bits of it, but maybe not, you know, overall rock stars. So these are all very difficult things for owners to understand, but they’re so critical if you’re going to be in a position where you can keep both your clients and your team happy.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I 100 percent totally agree. I, I remember probably seven or eight years ago, hearing it described as a, A plus, A and B players on your team and you need them all. You need every single one of them because the B players are going to be really solid employees who do the work, get it done, deliver on time.

Are they going to be the ones that are like, give me more or yeah, let me go to that event or, you know, no, they’re not. And that’s okay. The A players are going to be the ones that, you know, want to move up the ladder and get to the A plus. And then the A plus, of course you are your rockstars, but you can’t have an agency full of rockstars.

You just can’t. Like why should we have an agency full of B players either?

Chip Griffin: Right. It really is. It’s a healthy mix that you have to have. And obviously, you know, the more it skews towards the A players, the better. Certainly, you don’t want a lot of C, D, and F players. No, I wouldn’t want it. That’s a problem.

Too many agencies do carry those people too far. So these opportunities, these communications from clients where they express a concern, look at them as an opportunity to evaluate. Is, is this person In the wrong seat on the bus. Do they just need help on the bus or should they get off the bus altogether?

And and you really need to to evaluate those not be overly reactionary, but you need to evaluate it as part of the process

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, 100. This is this is a this is a really hard one and this has been something i’ve struggled with The entire time i’ve had my agency

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And, and you’re just, you’re always going to struggle with it.

I mean, it’s just, it’s the, it’s reality that you cannot be a manager of people without having these challenges, these difficult conversations with clients, these difficult conversations with employees, and frankly, the difficult choices that you have to make over time. So, hopefully we’ve given, given people a little bit of an idea as to how they might address this when the inevitable happens and they do get this call, if they haven’t already gotten it.

and, and hopefully there’s some constructive things that they can take away and, and improve how they’re handling client concerns about employees going forward. Yes, indeedy. And so with that, Gini, we’re going to wrap up this episode and we’ve got a whole new set of ending credits. If you usually just stop listening right now, don’t, because it’s, it’s different.

It’s all different. So at least listen to the next 45 seconds or so of credits so that you know what the new sign off is. And with that, I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And it depends. for listening to the agency leadership podcast. You can watch or listen to every episode by visiting agencyleadershippodcast.com or subscribing on your favorite podcast player. We would also love it if you would leave a rating or review at iTunes or wherever you go to find podcasts. Be sure to check out Gini Dietrich at spinsucks.com and join the spin sucks community at spinsucks.com/spin-sucks-community.

You can learn more about me, Chip Griffin at smallagencygrowth.com, where you can also sign up for a free community membership to engage with other agency leaders. The Agency Leadership Podcast is distributed on the FIR podcast network, where you can find lots of other communications oriented podcasts.

Just visit www. firpodcastnetwork. com. We welcome your feedback and suggestions and look forward to being back with you again next week.

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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