What do you do if a client asks for something that you don’t believe will progress the engagement towards their goals?
It’s a tricky situation…
The client is the one paying you for your services, so their opinion matters. But at the end of the day, you live and die by the results you achieve. So if you simply “do as they say,” even if you don’t think it will get results, it sets the relationship up for failure.
The art of saying “no” to a client and challenging their perspective is a critical skill for account managers at agencies. If you handle this situation in the wrong way, it can destroy the trust you have with your client and result in irreparable damage to the relationship. On the flip side, if you get it right, you will earn more respect and autonomy, freeing up space to get things done.
To help you navigate this problematic scenario, let’s take a look at when you should challenge a client and some tips for doing it the right way.
When should you challenge a client?
There are hundreds of decisions that need to be made on a day-to-day basis in the agency-client relationship. Some of them are big, and some of them are small.
Will you run with creative A or B? Is the budget being distributed to the highest converting channels? Which prize will you use for the monthly giveaway?
Many of these decisions are made on the run subconsciously, but the more significant decisions require discussion and client input. You’re essentially deciding whether or not something contributes to the goals of the engagement.
With so many decisions being made, it’s easy to get bogged down in back and forth communication with your client. That’s why you should establish autonomy and communication guidelines at the beginning of a relationship. In general, the client should only be involved in strategic decisions or final-step campaign approvals – not at every twist and turn.
If you have appropriate decision-making guidelines in place, involving the client in key strategic decisions can be an excellent way to improve their confidence in your work. However, you don’t want to fall into the trap of nitpicking and handing over the reigns. They’ve hired you as an expert, and you should make decisions accordingly.
If a client suggests an incongruent path with their stated goals for the campaign, you need to push back and guide them in the right direction. In saying that, you don’t want to challenge the client about every decision. Play your cards on the big hands – and give the client what they want on the small ones.
Just remember that you are judged on your results, not by saying yes to the client every time. Agencies that only say “yes” end up on a hamster wheel of underperforming campaigns, overworked staff, and disappointed clients.
Tips for challenging a client the right way
It’s easy to say that you should challenge your clients at the right moment, but it’s much harder to execute in practice. Here are some tips for pushing back without damaging the relationship.
- Pause, breathe and schedule a meeting. More often than not, the heat of the battle is not when you want to respond to a client about a big decision. If they bring something up that you’re not expecting, take a moment, acknowledge the request’s importance, and suggest a future meeting to handle the decision. That way, you can plan your response and come prepared.
- Research the situation. Given some breathing space to contemplate the client’s request, make sure you do your research about the situation. Perhaps they’ve asked you to start a campaign on TikTok, and you don’t believe it’s the right channel for accessing their customers. Dive into the audience numbers from TikTok and come into the meeting armed with independent data that aids your point of view.
- Make it about them, not you. Instead of pushing your agenda onto the client, make the discussion about their goals. Say something like, “When we started working together, you said you wanted to achieve X; based on my experience with A, B, and C, the path you are taking is incongruent with getting those results.”
- Establish your credibility. Yes, it would help if you focus your discussion on the client and their goals. However, to be taken seriously in the decision-making process, you need to demonstrate value and credibility. Share other examples or case studies with the client to reinforce why you are the expert and should be making the decision in question. Many agencies already have this collateral available on their website:
An example of agency case studies to establish credibility
- Suggest a middle ground. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, the client won’t budge on a decision. In this situation, take a solution-focused approach. Use your research, experience, and the client’s input to find a middle ground that will suit both parties. Give something up to get something back.
- Understand your client. Every client is different, and no one knows them better than you do. So while all of these tips are good in theory, you need to play what you see in front of you. Some clients respect direct feedback, while others need to be nurtured with a softer and more subtle approach. Adapt your process for challenging clients based on the person(s) you’re dealing with.
- Think about how you are perceived. It doesn’t matter how good your intentions are; if your client feels like you are talking down to them and devaluing their opinion, things can go south very quickly. Choose your words carefully and consider the impact they will have on your client. Be clear about your position and how it relates to the client’s goals, but don’t constantly look for opportunities to say “no” for the sake of it.
Challenging a client is a nuanced and complex process. While these tips are a good starting point, real-life experience is the only way you will improve your negotiation skills in such scenarios.
Pushing back on clients is a necessary evil if you want to maintain your sanity and ensure your team’s effectiveness. However, as you probably know, providing feedback and having uncomfortable conversations with the people that are paying your fees is difficult.
The more you have these kinds of conversations, the better you will get at managing them. So don’t shy away from doing so; lean in and get beaten up a few times. You’ll be better for it.
Be sure to choose your moments, though. Challenge a client when it is absolutely necessary for the success of the engagement, not for the sake of it. Then, when you do, consider the best practice tips shared in this article.
How do you handle tricky client discussions when you need to challenge them?