Working Under a Microscope: A Guide to Working with Difficult Clients

Do you have clients micromanage your agency? It might sound something like this:

  • “Can we do a call to cover the keyword changes you made in Google Ads yesterday?”
  • “I think you should use these keywords”
  • “The bounce rate is going up because you guys are using the wrong bidding strategy”
  • Could you make the design pop a bit more?
  • “Can we set up weekly status calls?”

Clients that micromanage your team result in poorer performance, bad team morale, and reduced profitability. If you find yourself burning through too many hours on project management handling a demanding, micromanaging client, what should you do?

What’s the Root Cause?

Clients micromanage their agencies for numerous reasons. It’s important to know what’s causing them to behave this way so you can fix it with the right technique.

Common root causes of micromanaging behavior:

  • You never set clear boundaries and expectations at the beginning
  • You failed to reinforce boundaries
  • The client can’t clearly see the business impact your agency brings
  • The client lost trust in your ability to pick and execute work

Root Cause 1: You never set clear boundaries and expectations at the beginning

This is common because many agencies don’t put emphasis on both setting themselves as experts AND setting boundaries on where the client is expected to give feedback or not. Many account managers are too focused on winning the pitch and pleasing the client. In that initial pitch meeting AND in your external kickoff, it’s important to set appropriate boundaries. It sounds something like this:

“When it comes to how we manage Google Ads, we work together to set goals. Then, we write the ads and get your approval on our first batch. We may make minor tweaks to the ads over time on our own accord to optimize performance but if there are any major changes, we’ll run them by you first. We’ll handle bidding strategy, campaign, ad group, and keyword selection. We’ll report on top-level KPIs once per week, and we’ll dive a bit deeper into performance once per month.”

Critically, you want to set expectations on:

  • What they can give input on
  • Where you don’t want their input
  • How often reporting will happen

If you need to, frame it as a matter of expertise. They hired you because YOU’RE the expert at keyword selection, bidding strategy, etc.

Root Cause 2: You failed to reinforce boundaries

As you work together with a client, they learn more about marketing and what you do. This is a good thing because they’ll start to make better-educated suggestions and they’ll better understand the importance of roadblocks you need their help with. What’s critical is that you keep your role firmly established as the expert so that they don’t think they can do your job better than you can.

Root Cause 3: The client can’t clearly see the business impact your agency brings

Building simple lead storiesThis cause is a bit worse for you: the client worries that they’re not getting good value from your agency and they are micromanaging you to attempt to improve the situation. Maybe they were initially wowed by your expertise but can’t see that expertise turning into business results. They can’t see how your agency is contributing new leads and revenue. Luckily, this has a simple solution.

Make your reports easier to understand! Overwhelming your clients with BS will only work so long. You have to show a clear connection between your efforts and their business. Conversion and goal data by source/campaign are key here and building simple lead stories can help too.

Root Cause 4: The client lost trust in your ability to pick and execute work

There are a few paths to this spot and they’re usually the agency’s fault. Sometimes you sold the client a campaign you knew wouldn’t work. In times like that, you have to ask yourself whether the short-term revenue was more important than the loss of confidence and long-term relationship with the client.

Other times, the client insisted that you do something that you thought was a bad idea and it failed. Here, your documentation is going to cover your butt: your proposal or change request should be clear that you’ll happily go through with the service or strategy, but that you don’t think it’ll turn into any leads (or whatever the risk was). If the client tries to pin the failure on you, don’t forget that clearly documented bit of CYA you prepped.

If you chose a strategy or channel that didn’t work. . .that’s just life in marketing. Sometimes you need to experiment, just mask sure the client knows and that it’s documented.