Every agency owner has faced the frustration of clients who ignore advice. Eventually, this leads to the breakdown of the relationship, so it makes sense to identify the root cause when it happens.
Most agencies want to be strategic and not simply transaction-oriented, but many account leads don’t understand that providing this type of consultative advice is actually an ongoing sales process.
It’s not enough to offer smart ideas to clients. You need to understand how your strategic guidance fits in to the bigger picture for them and consistently convincing them that your ideas will help.
Unfortunately, clients don’t always tell you the real reasons behind why they drag their feet or ignore your advice.
It’s your job as an agency leader to probe and uncover the truth so you can build a stronger client relationship.
Here are a few common reasons that clients may resist your ideas.
1. They don’t agree with you.
It’s the simplest and most obvious reason that someone ignores another person’s advice. They just don’t think it’s a good idea.
Your job as a strategic adviser to your client is not just to share the wisdom of your experience, but to clearly explain why it is the right course of action.
That means that you need to make a concise case that marries your expertise with the client’s needs and concerns.
Frequently, we assume that the client hired us for our know-how and they wouldn’t be paying us if they didn’t trust in our recommendations.
And that’s true up to a point, but be sure that you are communicating the “why” with each of your suggestions.
2. They don’t have enough budget.
You may have the best ideas in the world — and your client may even agree with them — but if they don’t have the funds to implement them, there’s likely to be little or no progress.
When you provide strategic advice, you need to understand your client’s available resources.
Keep in mind that client resources may be limited by absolute availability of cash or because their internal budget process doesn’t move quickly or any number of other reasons.
When confronted with budget as the reason your advice is getting ignored, you need to work with the client to understand if you can help provide them with budget justification.
If there’s no way to get the resources in the short-term, consider finding interim steps that match your strategy but ramp up spending over time.
3. They don’t have enough staff time.
A close corollary to lack of budget is lack of time.
If your advice simply piles more work on internal staff at your client, they’re not likely to be supportive for very long.
Even if the decision-maker likes your ideas and directs their team to implement them, it will likely build resentment over time if they feel it just overburdens them.
Just as you need to know the dollar costs of your recommendations, you need to have a sense for the manpower requirements.
If the client has budget, they may be able to overcome staff time challenges by adding to their team or outsourcing (potentially to your agency or a third party).
However, some clients may not be able to throw cash at the problem.
In those cases, you need to find other creative ways to minimize the burden on the client’s team.
That might be a staged implementation, or an 80-20 style approach that prioritizes the most impactful portions of the strategy.
4. They don’t have the necessary expertise.
A good plumber could recommend a fantastic new furnace for my home and even tell me where to buy it, but I would be at a loss figuring out how to install it myself.
A good consultant tailors strategic advice to the actual capabilities of a client.
Sometimes you can supplement the client’s abilities with support from your own agency or another third party. That would be the solution my plumber would no doubt suggest.
But sometimes that’s not practical, either due to budget or staff resources, or simply because the strategy is so particular to unique resources.
In those cases, you need to consider alternative approaches — even if they may not be ideal.
For example, coming up with a CEO-centric communications strategy is great if you have a leader who is comfortable communicating publicly and being in the spotlight, but not all CEO’s are well-suited to that role.
Don’t spend time tilting at windmills and instead find ways to work within the capabilities the client has or at least has access to.
5. They have other priorities.
Often, agencies only see part of the picture when it comes to what clients are doing.
That’s not a knock on the account lead or even necessarily a bad sign for the relationship. The reality is that the client spends all week working on their own issues, and most times the agency is only involved in a small piece of that.
We don’t see what pressures they may have from bosses, other departments, or their own clients.
That means we need to work extra hard to dig and probe and do our best to understand what other priorities may be diverting attention and resources.
It may be that the client completely agrees with your strategy. They may even have plenty of budget and sufficient staff resources.
But it may be that other priorities are taking away from executive mindshare or may even be in direct conflict with implementing your strategy at that time.
In these cases, we have two choices. We can find a modified strategy that marries well with those other priorities, or we can try to make the case that our strategic recommendation should actually be a higher priority.
6. They have internal disagreements.
Ah, corporate politics. Never fun, but always present.
Perhaps the decision-maker thinks our ideas are just fabulous, but her team disagrees so they slow walk them.
Or maybe our day-to-day contact is completely sold on our suggestions, but the decision-maker is skeptical.
Sometimes it may be an inter-departmental dispute where the sales team disagrees with the communications team.
Worse yet, perhaps your strategy is getting resistance from legal or accounting.
These situations can be particularly tricky because the agency may be hearing positive feedback only to see little movement.
Most clients are loathe to tell an outsider about their internal disputes, so it can be difficult to unearth the truth.
Even if you can suss out the disagreement, it often doesn’t pay to get in the middle of internal staff politics.
But that’s exactly what you end up having to do if you want to move your strategy forward.
7. They’re just not that into you anymore.
This list saves the worst case scenario for last.
Like any relationship, sometimes the agency-client dynamic can deteriorate over time.
Perhaps the client has grown and changed, or maybe the agency has evolved in a different direction.
Maybe there was a staff change on one side and the interpersonal dynamic just isn’t the same.
Or it could be that the client is striking up a relationship with a new agency and think the grass would be greener there.
Can the relationship still be saved? Perhaps. If it was a sudden change, perhaps the immediate cause can be reversed without too much difficulty.
More often, agencies and clients arrive at this point because they have grown apart over time. Frequently, some of the issues above may gone unidentified and therefore unresolved.
In those cases, it may be best to find a way to break up and try to remain friends.
Nip it in the bud.
As an agency leader, your best bet is to identify issues with clients ignoring your advice as early as possible.
The sooner you recognize that there is a problem, the sooner you can uncover the root cause and attempt to resolve it.
If you think about managing a client relationship as an ongoing sales process, you will be well prepared to not just offer smart ideas but ensure that the “why” and the “how” match your client’s expectations and abilities.
That’s the foundation for a strong strategic relationship between an agency and its client.