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Chip Griffin is the founder and the Small Agency Growth Alliance where he helps PR & marketing agencies grow and thrive. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur. He shares 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.

Recent Episodes

Handling clients who disagree with your agency’s advice

Sometimes clients just won’t take their agency’s expert advice. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that — after all, we can only offer advice.

But how should you handle it when they ignore your recommended course of action? When should you push back — and how should you do it?

Chip and Gini explore this topic and talk about the importance of understanding the root cause of the client’s objection or desire to proceed differently. With that information in hand, it becomes much easier to figure out your own next steps.

Key takeaways

  • Gini Dietrich: “When you hire a professional – and we all hire professionals in some form in our lives – do you hire them so that you can tell them what to do? Or do you hire them because they have an expertise that you don’t have? And you want them to provide real concrete professionalism that will help you do whatever it is – from building shelves, to cleaning your house, to going to the dentist. I don’t go to the dentist and say, You’re cleaning my teeth incorrectly.”
  • Chip Griffin: “Sometimes clients still make bad decisions. We all do. It’s like raising kids. We can tell the kids, you shouldn’t touch that hot stove. Guess what? Sometimes they touch the hot stove.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “Don’t be afraid to give advice. Because even if they’re ignoring you, that’s what they’ve hired us for. They’ve hired us because this is what we do every single day and we’re professionals and we’re experts.”
  • Chip Griffin: “We are not the decision maker. We are the agency. It’s like a lawyer. You hire a lawyer for their advice. You have the right to ignore that advice.”

Resources

7 reasons clients ignore advice from your agency (SAGA article)

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

Chip Griffin: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: Gini, I think I want to take this show in a whole different direction right after this.

Gini Dietrich: Okay.

Chip Griffin: So have you ever been in a meeting with a client where they say, I want to go and do this, and you’re thinking that’s not a good idea, I think we should do something totally different. 180 degrees opposite.

Gini Dietrich: I have in fact, just a couple of days ago. I have been there.

Chip Griffin: Well, how timely? I didn’t even know that when we, when we settled on this topic for today’s conversation, but it is something that agencies run into all the time where our advice is to do one thing.

The client wants to do another. And so the question is, what do you do? How do you handle it? And I think too often, the default for many agencies is they just go with what the client says. Yeah, for sure. Because in their minds, that’s how I keep the business. And that’s how I make sure that I’m not rocking the boat, right.

Because we’re all, we all want to keep all that revenue we’ve got. And we think that if we start disagreeing with clients too much, they’re going to tell us to go take a hike.

Gini Dietrich: Here’s the thing about this. When you hire a professional and we all hire professionals in some form in our lives, do you hire them to tell you what to do so that you can tell them what to do?

Or do you hire them because they have an expertise that you don’t have. And you, you want them to provide real concrete professionalism that will help you do whatever it is from building shelves to cleaning your house, to going to the dentist. Like I don’t go to the dentist and say, You’re cleaning my teeth incorrectly.

I go to the dentist and I open my mouth and I let them clean my teeth and floss. Like, that’s what I do. Right. It’s not, we don’t, you don’t go in there and argue with them. So why do we think that the client can tell us what to do? And we just go along with it?

Chip Griffin: Well, I think, I think part of the problem is that agencies put the blinders on when they win the business.

And so they’re not listening for the signs to understand why is the client really hiring them? And sometimes the, the client isn’t actually hiring you for your advice. They just want you to be an implementer. They just want you to be the arms and legs that we talk about here on a regular basis. And, and so in those situations, if the client is hiring you to just do what they tell you to do, it’s difficult for you to expect that they should listen to your advice. Now, some will still listen to you in those circumstances. Many will not because that’s not how they saw you from the beginning. So I think part of this goes to, you need to make sure you have clarity at the start of the engagement.

What is your role? How do you fit in? What are the client’s expectations?

Gini Dietrich: Sure. And I think there’s, there are situations and I’ve had plenty of situations that I can point to where you’re rolling along and doing great work. And then the client says, I want to do this. And you’re like, no, no, we’re not going to do that.

Like, I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but we had a client several, several years ago that was working on trying to decide which state to build a manufacturing plant in. And they were trying to get the best deal from the state to be able to, you know, get all the tax breaks and all that kind of stuff.

So we’re trying to figure out which state to build in and one state’s governor would not return his call. And so he wanted a member of my team who is a former journalist to call and pretend that he still worked for the newspaper he used to work for. And, like, right? Like, no, we’re not going to do that. And under no circumstance, are we going to do that for you.

I’m happy to call the governor’s office and say that I work with you and we’re trying to, you know, we’re down to the wire, we’re trying to figure this out, but I’m not going to have my employee pretend that he still works at the paper he used to work at and, and call as if he’s a reporter trying to dig up information.

And he and I – the client and I went back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. And he said some really nasty things to me because he really believed that that was the right thing to do. And I was willing to walk away from the business because of it, because it was such a – no, we’re not doing that.

So even when you’re hired for the right reasons, there are going to be situations like that that happened that you absolutely positively should not do under no circumstance.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. I think that it’s important to understand the difference between something that is crossing the line for you, like this is, and, and certainly there have been occasion, many occasions where clients have asked me to do things that I felt crossed a line either because it was something I was uncomfortable doing or because I thought the outcome for them would be so bad. Even if it didn’t blow back on me in any way that it didn’t make sense for me and my team to pursue it.

But I think you also have to understand that what we are providing is advice. And so if it’s not something that crosses one of those lines, the client does have the option not to take your advice. Sure. And at some point you then decide, are they rejecting your advice often enough that the relationship no longer makes sense?

Or is it just, hey, look, we, I mean, we’re, we’re two smart people and we have a difference of opinion on how we should proceed or what language we should use or you know, what date we should launch or any of these kinds of things. And, and so there is this balancing act and we have to make sure that when our advice isn’t taken, we don’t always take it personally because sometimes they may have more information or insight that helps them to get there beyond what we’re sharing with them and what we know.

Gini Dietrich: That’s really fair. I think that. You know, I think we discredit the fact that they’re in it every day and as agency leaders, we’re not in there everyday with them. So while the advice is probably sound and solid, in some cases, they may not be able to take it because they know 16,000 other things that are happening inside the business that we are just, we just don’t know about.

So I think that’s totally fair.

Chip Griffin: And I think one of the things that we need to do on the agency side is to ask questions and try to understand where they’re coming from and why they want to go in a different direction. So we shouldn’t assume we know why they’re making a certain choice. We should actually ask.

Because that information will help us with future things. Yep. And so rather than viewing this as something, oh, we need to stay or stay clear of this because it might jeopardize the business. A good client will understand that the more that you know about them and their thought process and the things that are driving them, the more effective you will be.

And if they don’t recognize that you probably have a doomed relationship anyway. Yeah.

Gini Dietrich: As you’re saying this, I am privy to a client and another agency relationship. At first, it was really uncomfortable. And now we’ve sort of made a joke, a game of it, but the chief marketing officer for the client and the agency owner for the agency do not see eye to eye.

They don’t agree on anything. They do not like one another and they both have to be the smartest person in the room. So you sit in meetings with them and they argue about things that are literally semantics. Like one person will call a marketing qualified lead a lead, and the other one will call it a marketing lead.

Like it’s the same thing. And they argue about this stuff constantly. And they’re going to get fired because the agency owner can’t take a step back and take a seat with his ego and just come to agree first of all, this is dumb. Why are we arguing over this? If you want to call it a marketing lead, let’s call it a marketing lead. Okay. But he, he won’t do that and they’re going to get fired because of it.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, that seems kind of crazy to me. I mean, if I have a difference of opinion over terminology, I will often use the client’s terminology. Right. With kind of a wink and a smile, like, so they know that I still disagree with it, but I’m going to go along with them.

Right.

Gini Dietrich: But the same thing, like he can’t offer any advice to the CMO anymore because the CMO just won’t take it because, I mean, you wrote an article about this, but he’s just not into them anymore because for this very reason, and it’s not because their work sucks and it’s not because you know, they haven’t done a good job it’s because the, the leader cannot take a step back in any situation.

Chip Griffin: Right. Well. And, I think that you’ve underscored a great point here, that there are sometimes things beyond the substance that may be driving the disagreement with the advice that you’re giving. It could be the human dynamic that’s involved. I’ve seen circumstances where a team member of mine proposed something to a client, the client rejected it. We had a subsequent call. I proposed the exact same thing. They embraced it. It was a personal dynamic. It was not that the substance was any different. And you know, and I’ve seen that repeatedly in other organizations that you will, and, and we see it all the time as outside advisors and consultants. We’ll come in and we will say the exact same thing that an in-house person has been saying sometimes for years and being ignored. We say it. And all of a sudden it’s gospel. That’s right. So, so there are a lot of things that can be driving this resistance to what you want. And if you don’t understand what’s driving it, you can’t figure out how to steer it in a direction that is more amenable to how you think things should proceed. And as you referenced, I did write an article a while back about some of the reasons that clients will ignore your advice.

And it really, it’s not all about the substance. That’s just one of the many things that it could be.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I think that, I think it’s really important to, I always joke that we’re not just agency leaders, we’re therapists, we’re babysitters, there’s 700 other things that we do. Right. And it’s really being able to use our emotional intelligence to figure out what’s going on.

Because, and sometimes it is, they’re just, you’re not into them anymore. They’re not into you anymore. And that’s okay. But there could be other reasons as well that are taking place that you just have to be really in tune and socially aware of what’s going on with the client relationship.

Chip Griffin: Right. And, and if you start, if you start digging – well, first of all, if you’re afraid to dig in, then that’s probably an indication that, you know, it it’s time to start planning for the departure of this client. Because if you can’t have a reasonable conversation with them about decisions and understanding it, you know, you’re not headed anywhere good. But, but as you dig into it, you may find that there are some of these other reasons, and then you can address those. So, you know, sometimes it’s about resources, time, or money or staffing. And so that’s why they’re resisting it. Then maybe you can find an alternative approach that is, you know, doesn’t tax them as much from their side to get things done. Sometimes it’s, they’re afraid, Hey, this is going to create too much work for me. Right. I know you’re doing this, but then I’m going to have to review all this and I’m going to have to pass it up the chain. So maybe you come up with a way to streamline some of that.

It’s not always that they think what you have is a bad idea. It’s sometimes that they don’t understand what it really would involve. And maybe you don’t understand what it’s really going to involve on their end to carry the ball forward.

Gini Dietrich: And I would say, and you referenced some of those in your article too, but I would say that there are instances where you’ll start down a path and then priorities change or something shifts, and you have to go focus on something else. Like there is an agency I am dying to partner with, dying, but right now is not the right time. And I know, they feel like I’m ignoring them or stringing them along.

And, and I have said to them, listen, I’m an agency owner too. Like, I am not stringing you along. It’s just, the priorities have shifted and it’s not the right time right now. I really want to work with you. It’s just not the right time right now. And I know as an agency owner, that’s hard to hear. And it’s also hard to figure out how to stay top of mind and make sure you’re there and ready for when they’re ready.

But sometimes it’s just because they don’t have time. It’s not the right time. Priorities have shifted, whatever it happens to be. And it has nothing to do with you.

Chip Griffin: Right. And I think, you know, we do need to accept that client priorities do change. Particularly for longer term relationships that we have with clients.

Right. I mean, it happens fast, but certainly if I have a client who I’ve had for a year or two, their priorities, when they originally retained my agency are almost certainly different today than 12, 18, 24 months ago. Yep. And if we don’t accept and understand that then we’re in a position where we’re not going to be offering them the best advice that we can.

We also have to make sure that when we’re providing advice, it doesn’t appear to be self-serving. Because I think that’s one of the things that, that clients, they will often incorrectly, immediately assume that we’re doing something because it’s either easier for us. Right. So, We’re trying to find the easy way out.

And so that’s where our advice is coming from. Particularly if we say something like, yeah, I don’t think you should put out a press release on that. I don’t think it’s newsworthy. Well, is it just cause you don’t want to have to actually try? No, it’s because we don’t think it’s going to get covered.

Gini Dietrich: No it’s because it’s not newsworthy.

Chip Griffin: Right. But, from a client perspective, they may think you’re just trying to reduce your workload.

If you come up with a new idea, they may assume that you’re just trying to get some extra piece of their budget. And so, so we need to be mindful of these things that, that when it involves more from them or less from us, they may perceive our advice through the lens not of us being an honest broker in that advice, but instead trying to make things work better for us.

And it’s something we just need to be clear about when we’re making suggestions that we understand that can be the perception. And so therefore we need to counteract those in the information that we’re providing for the decision-making process.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, it’s, it’s a fine dance that we have to learn how to play and we have to take into account all of these things.

But I think the big underlying thing that we have to think about here is don’t be afraid to give advice. Because even if they’re ignoring you or they ignore you one time, or it’s not the right time, that’s what they’ve hired us for. They’ve hired us because this is what we do every single day and we’re professionals and we’re experts.

So you have to be able to stand up and say, you know what? No, we, we should not newsjack mass shootings. Absolutely not. Do not bring it up again. And if that’s something that you want to do, then we are not going to be involved. Like you have to be able to do that. That actually happened. And the client kept talking and I kept saying no. And he kept, he goes, let me explain. I was like, no, no, no. And now he’s mad at me, but I just saved them. So you can be mad at me, but you, you have to be able to be able to do that. You have to be able to be confident enough to stand up for what you know is the right thing to do. And if they take your advice or not, that’s not your problem. But certainly if they continue to not take your advice over and over and over again, to the point of your article, there’s something else going on, but you have to be able to stand up and say, this is what we do. We are experts in this, and this is why we’re giving you this advice.

Chip Griffin: Right. And, and sometimes there are things like what you’ve described, where that you can’t put lipstick on that pig. And there’s no reason to pursue that conversation any further, but a lot of the times when a client doesn’t want to take the advice that we’re giving and wants to go in a different direction, we can find ways to make some adjustments to it in order to make it more palatable, less bad, better.

However you want to think about it. And so we, you know, we should view it in some ways as a negotiation over that advice. And so if, if we’re proposing A and they want to do B, is there some middle ground there? Are there elements of each that we can bring together? And a lot of times clients will be receptive to that.

Particularly going back to my earlier point, if you’re digging and understanding why they want to do B, then maybe you can say, okay, In order to make my advice better. What if we added this to it or took this away from it, and maybe that gets us closer, or maybe you adjust it from there idea. It doesn’t matter.

As long as you’re getting to a place where you’re doing the best you can with what you have in front of you. Because you know, we are not the decision maker. We are the agency. We are, we are ultimately there, you know, it’s like a lawyer, right? You hire a lawyer for their advice. You have the right to ignore that advice.

I’ve had lawyers tell me, you know, you should change this or that in a contract. We usually accept some of the recommendations and not others. Sure. But they’ve now informed me. And it’s now an informed decision on my part. And they don’t, you know, bang the table and say, no, no, no, you should have listened to me.

You know, I only want to work with you if you listen to everything I say. That’s not how it works. And we shouldn’t think of it the same way as an agency, you know, but you know, we, we should be giving the best advice we can at all times. Not trying to hide from it, not trying to shirk from, from tough conversations, because that’s how you end up having a relationship wither rather than achieve all that it can.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. I think the challenge is for the most part where you tend to be people pleasers, which is why we do what we do. And so certainly we, we choose the path of least resistance, but I think you can combine being a people pleaser with the confidence that you know what you’re doing and provide the advice. But also understand that you don’t have all of the context that the client has and you’re not in it every day. So while you can provide the best advice that you can, based on what, you know, there may be things you are not privy to. And that’s why they’re making a decision not to take the advice.

Chip Griffin: Right. And look, sometimes clients, they still make bad decisions, right?

We all do. It’s like raising kids. We can tell the kids, you shouldn’t, you shouldn’t touch that hot stove. Guess what? Sometimes they touch the hot stove.

Gini Dietrich: Sometimes they do that. Correct. They learn that lesson one time.

Chip Griffin: Right. And so, you know, if you work with a client and they don’t take your advice and they make a mistake, you know, if they do it once, okay. If they keep ignoring you and keep doing the same thing. Okay. Now find a different solution.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. Yeah. There’s something else going on. But yeah, I think, I think not shirking away from it, understanding that you are the expert. I say this to my team all the time. Even the interns. The interns have more communications experience than most of our clients.

This is what they do every single day. You’re an expert. Most of our clients are not. You can give advice. I say that to them all the time.

Chip Griffin: Yep. And I mean a lot of it is how you provide it too, by the way. Right. Because if you provide it in that, I’m the expert kind of way, which I’ve seen agencies do. That’s not generally as well received if you offer your advice and you explain how you got to that piece of advice. It often helps. And it shouldn’t just be because I’m smarter than you are, because I know you do right. I mean, that’s, that’s, if you’re resorting to that, you’ve got a whole other issue.

Gini Dietrich: I always like to ask questions before I provide the advice. So I’ll say things like another good example is we have a client that’s doing a conference, but it’s VIP only and they wanted to send a news release.

And I was like, But if it’s VIP only, why would we send a news release to tell the world that you’re having this conference? And they kept coming back at me and I kept asking more and more questions. And finally they go, yeah, sending a news release is a dumb idea. And I wasn’t the one who said it. I just asked a whole bunch of questions.

Chip Griffin: Well, and that’s a great point too, because, you know, just because a client wants to go in a particular direction, you shouldn’t have a knee jerk reaction. You don’t have a knee jerk reaction to your advice. Don’t have it to what they want to do either. Ask those questions because you may not really understand what they mean when they say, Hey, I want to do this. Right. And sometime because clients often don’t use the same language that we do.

Gini Dietrich: That’s absolutely fair.

Chip Griffin: And so when you dig into it, you realize, oh, they’re not really talking about something on the same scale that I’m thinking. They’re really, you know, I want to do a media training for 50 employees.

Oh, okay. That’s, you know, that’s going to be a pretty heavy lift. And then I start talking to them and what they want is like a five minute video that gets sent to them about, basically says don’t talk to the media, right?

Gini Dietrich: Not actual media training.

Chip Griffin: Right. So you need to understand what they’re really trying to accomplish.

And as you say, sometimes you can then lead them to the right decision, which is to reject their own initial idea or adjust it. And you haven’t even had to get to that point where you have an actual disagreement, because you’ve essentially made the ultimate idea theirs. Yep. And any time you can make the client think it’s their idea – again, just like kids, just like kids. Right. You know, I bet you can’t clean your room in under five minutes. Here, let me time you. Oh yes, I can! You’re not going to tell me what I can’t do. Unfortunately, they eventually get older and realize that you’re tricking them into those kinds of things, but that was always fun.

Like, you know, how fast can you brush your teeth or clean your room or make your bed, or any of these kinds of things.

Gini Dietrich: I bet you can’t be quiet for three minutes. That one’s right popular in our house.

Chip Griffin: They figure those things out. But I’ll say clients often don’t.

Particularly if you do it artfully. So don’t be afraid of those difficult conversations. Don’t be afraid of asking questions. Don’t be afraid of giving the advice that you really want to give. And finally if someone’s going to cross a line and not listen to advice that’s that important to you? Walk away.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. You have to be willing to do that.

Chip Griffin: With that, we’re going to walk away from this episode.

Gini Dietrich: Oh jeez.

Chip Griffin: Not because we’ve had that much disagreement because once again, we are in almost total agreement.

Gini Dietrich: We try, we try.

Chip Griffin: No we didn’t try today. I mean, we have tried. One day, one day, Gini, knock down, drag out. We’re going to hang up the conversation and just say, I don’t know why I don’t want to talk to them again.

Gini Dietrich: Okay. Sure.

Chip Griffin: I’m Chip Griffin

Gini Dietrich: and I’m Gini Dietrich

Chip Griffin: and it depends.

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