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Critical tips for navigating difficult client relationships…

At some point in your PPC career, it’s nearly guaranteed you’ll have to manage a difficult client. Whether it’s an agency, consultancy or in-house relationship, somebody’s bound to be unhappy. Numerous issues will arise that will test your patience, attitude and self-worth.

This article will share a few tips regarding how to navigate the choppy waters of managing difficult clients, and how you can build a successful relationship with them.

Tip #1: Demonstrate empathy

Whenever a client of mine is being difficult, I try to visualize myself in their situation. Clients exert a ton of pressure on those who execute their PPC programs, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to pressure being put on them.

With difficult clients, I want to ensure I have a full understanding of their context, and I probe for answers to the following questions:

  • How is actual PPC performance vs. the client’s goal? If performance is down, do I truly understand why? Have I fully communicated the “why” to my client, and have I also communicated a comprehensive plan for addressing any performance issues? Clients get frustrated when they need answers and those who are responsible for executing their paid search program are not proactively supplying this information to them.
  • Is there a bigger business issue at play that I’m not aware of? Oftentimes, when clients are stressed about performance and become overly demanding, there are usually bigger issues at play — such as across-the-board digital underperformance. PPC is usually the one lever that can be pulled quickly to drive immediate results, so clients lean on their PPC team to help them get out of trouble. Recognizing this dynamic and asking questions about the entire business helps project confidence that you have a 360-degree understanding of the challenges your client faces.
  • Am I being innovative enough? I’ve experienced firsthand clients getting frustrated because I didn’t bring big ideas to the table. Clients spend a lot of money on paid search and social — and they demand (rightfully) that they’re getting above-and-beyond value.

Knowing your client’s overall situation can help you better discern what’s driving them to be frustrated and difficult. Having a deep understanding of your client’s pain points will help you develop a plan of attack that reduces frustration and therefore allows you to focus on what’s most important, which is doing the work and driving results.

Tip #2: Always provide context

A current client of mine once told me, “Data is just data. I don’t care about it. What I need to know is what it all means and what you’re going to do about it.”

Clients really dislike having a lack of context and insight regarding the state of their PPC. Following are some of the ways we can provide context to our stakeholders:

  • As I mentioned earlier in this article, always have a definitive answer to the question of “why.” In my experience, poor client relationships and associated churn is a direct consequence of failing to explain the “why” behind both good and bad performance. Failure to provide deep performance insights creates a lack of understanding perception that destroys trust. For instance, when not being able to explain why performance is good, clients form a perception that PPC is doing well despite your efforts. Not being able to explain why performance is bad could radiate a perception of incompetence. Being able to explain what the results are, what they mean, and what’s going to be done to double down on success or adjust after failure signals to clients that you’re in control of the situation and have a solid plan to move forward.
  • Have a document on hand that can be shared with clients to show them what you’re working on. You shouldn’t spend much time discussing the to-do list, as clients can read over the status doc at their leisure and ask questions when needed. Instead, focus your meeting times to explain the impact of your work and what it’s leading you to work on next. Having a status doc that can be proactively shared with clients allows them to stay constantly updated regarding your work. It also demonstrates your willingness to be 100 percent transparent, which increases trust.
  • Understand your client’s most important KPI, and drive to it as hard and fast as possible. I work with many lead-gen clients, and they usually have dual goals (e.g., get me x leads at x CPA). When taking that guidance literally, then explaining results, I usually receive response statements such as, “We don’t have enough lead volume,” or “CPA is too high despite the increase in leads.” KPIs are usually not created equal, so ask your client to define which KPI is most important to hit. This will give you some insight into whether their business is focused on growth or efficiency. Having this information will help you design a better-informed overall account strategy. Having this extra context could mean the difference between experimenting with new platforms to grow volume or spending most of your time trimming bids and adding negative keywords to an account.

Providing the “why” can help remove frustration directed at you personally. Clients want to know why things are the way they are so the best decisions can be made. Make it easy for your client by providing all the information available that’s relevant to share. Clients will appreciate the transparency, and while they might be frustrated about performance, they’ll want to continue working with you to find new solutions and ways forward.

Tip #3: Make it a partnership

The client relationship profile most prone to failure is one that lacks some level of partnership. For instance, a situation wherein a client insists on dictating strategy and action plans without input from the PPC team usually leads to disagreements, misalignments and frustration on both sides.

On the other hand, I’ve experienced client relationships that do not work out because a client is too hands-off. Without some level of guidance and direction from clients, it’s very difficult to keep PPC aligned with the overall business strategy, goals and objectives.

Below are a couple of things you can do to help create a successful partnership:

  • Negotiate a nearly equal say in the direction of the PPC program. In this scenario, someone has to be the final decision-maker in terms of strategy and overall direction — and in my opinion, that should be the client’s responsibility. However, if the everyday PPC person or team can provide a large amount of input into the strategy and direction, they’ll feel more invested in its success.
  • Do your part to ensure everyone involved with the PPC program is treated with respect. Passing the buck or assigning blame in a non-constructive, disrespectful way will only lead to animosity, which will reduce the effectiveness of the relationship and hurt results. Tough feedback from clients is part of the business and should absolutely happen. Agencies and partners should feel comfortable providing tough feedback of their own when warranted and be able to hold those clients they work for accountable as well. In all instances, both sides should be working to provide feedback and criticism in a constructive, positive way.

Final thoughts

Collaborating with clients is difficult, but it doesn’t have to be adversarial. Understanding your client’s point of view, determining the stress they’re under and providing them with the information and context needed to be successful can go a long way toward cutting through negative emotions. Doing so allows both sides to focus on what’s important: finding solutions to big problems.


Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.



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