Rules for Tough Conversations With Unhappy Clients

Rules for Tough Conversations With Unhappy Clients

Sometimes you do a great job and everything goes as planned. You make something beautiful and useful, your engagement is through the roof, you dazzle your client and they’re thrilled. But sometimes (read: lots of times) it is just not that simple. Here’s our advice for having tough conversations with clients who just aren’t happy. 


First things first. Your main job is to do everything you can to ensure that a campaign goes well from the outset. Kicking ass on the campaign and having a happy client is the number one way to not have to have a hard conversation. Put together a meaningful and comprehensive agreement with your client at the outset and make sure you’ve got a smooth operating system while the campaign is rolling.  If you’ve covered all your bases and things are still going south, here are some rules to follow to right the ship. 

Rule #1: Avoidance will make everything worse. 


Does it totally suck to talk to an unhappy client? Yes. Is it necessary? Absolutely. 
If you try to avoid a client that seems upset by not answering their emails or avoiding select tough questions and answering other softball ones… you’re gonna brew up a seriously bad situation that you will have to deal with once it boils over. Just bite the bullet (or “eat the shit sandwich” as my mother would say) and address the issue head on with your client. 
Heading off issues allows you to be on the offensive instead of the defensive. That leads us to rule #2… 

Rule #2: Frame the conversation


Start the conversation with the things that are going well before you dive into all the bad stuff. Tell them about some of the small victories-- the content is performing really well, the creative is all complete, etc.-- then dive right into the issue. This is rule is not designed to make you seem evasive, but it is important to help shape the client’s state of mind. They might be entering the conversation thinking that things are worse than they really are, this is your opportunity to show them what is going well before you address what isn’t going so hot. 

Rule #3: Take responsibility


If there was something that went wrong and it was clearly your fault, fess up to it right away. This is just part of being an adult. If you know what happened to make the program derail, odds are that the client also knows or will soon find out. So unless you feel like being caught in a lie and having a triple-time awkward conversation later on, just explain what happened. Here are the steps to take: 1. Explain what happened. Don’t make excuses but do give them the reasons that things went wrong. 2. Own it. Take responsibility for the failure. 3. Apologize. Tell them you are sorry for the oversight and the confusion it caused, the time it consumed, etc. 4. Make it right. This is the most important part. Don’t just say “woops, sorry” let them know what you are doing to fix it. Are you going to give them something extra to make up for it? Are you going to add another person to the project to make sure it stays on track better? Etc. 


Rule #4: Provide a smart wrap up


You should give your clients a report on how your partnership went. This should include all of the successes, but it should not gloss over the harder topics. Campaigns don’t always go well. Marketers know this and you should know it too. If your content doesn’t perform quite the way you expected, don’t just say “oops, sorry” and leave it at that. If you want to maintain a working relationship with the brand team, you should do a postmortem on your unsuccessful brand partnerships. Provide your thoughts on why the partnership might have underperformed. Some reasons include: bad brand fit, too much content direction, insincere caption, or  too many posts required in the partnership.  Putting this kind of thought into each campaign wrap up will not only impress your clients and give you a great reputation in the field, but will also help you hone in more quickly on which partnerships are actually a good fit.


Photo by Johann Walter Bantz on Unsplash

Creative Community Director at Snapfluence. 

There is often a pen stuck in my hair.