– Here are unique situations to think about before you side with a client behaving badly or simply walk away –
By Justine Castellon and Carlos Castellon
How far is too far when you adhere to the customer driven mantra ‘the customer is always right’? Your business survival is dependent on how you take care of your customers. In fact, taking good care of your customers is not just important, it’s imperative. More than any other factor, the service you give your customers affects your business success or failure. But sometimes it isn’t right to always bend over backwards for abusive customers. There are times when sticking with this mantra will be bad for you and your business – and you have to say no.
Drawing from professional experiences, we have had our fair shares of obnoxious, abusive and downright unpleasant customers. Having been in the customer-driven business for years, we’ve seen them all: angry customers at the retail stores, remitters (money senders) insisting on using previous day’s exchange rates, arrogant agency regulars and abusive clients who does nothing but get your ideas and pass it on as theirs. While the nature of each job differs, the customers and the belief that they are always right remains the same.
So what we are going to do? Force ourselves and our entire team to put up with abusive customers who motivate agencies by saying “there are plenty of agencies out there”?
Absolutely not. Here are unique situations to think about before you side with a client behaving badly or simply walk away.
The client imposes the fear-factor.
“You better do this, otherwise, my company is entertaining new agencies” This is very common situation where the client implies if you don’t give in to his unrealistic requests.
Is it right to tell clients to go ahead and accommodate possible competitors? Yes.
Remember, they come to an agency principally because they are looking for help on a specific project. They do not have the expertise to fulfill their creative or business objectives without outside assistance. You’re not simply peddling your services. You entered a partnership where you provide guidance, structure and collaboration.
If you’re starting out and need a gig, by all means give in. Once you develop other clients and have the power to walk away, call their bluff. Chances are, they’re just testing how far you can bend backwards. For instance, while clients may understand marketing, they have a difficult time connecting the dots of an integrated marketing plan. They lack the experience and understanding necessary to grasp the complexities of what a plan or what the project phases consist of. Keep in mind that agencies are not order takers – they’re developers and implementers.
The client and his/her minions think customer service = corruption
We make it a point to remember our clients’ and their cronies’ birthdays and treat them as newly found BFFs to make our lives easier. This is just basic customer relationship-building. Salesmanship. However, some bad eggs can be abusive and will want a bigger slice of the pie.
Should we give in or not? Maintain a respectful relationship but you just can’t please everyone–especially those who are not directly involved in the business processes. We’ve had clients with unmannerly secretaries and administrative assistants. In the beginning (when coffee and pizza treats from us were in abundance), life was somewhat were easier: our billing statements were routed (relatively) on time, which resulted to us getting paid on time. FAs (Final Artwork) for approval landed on the right desks at the right time. These were just intended as occasional treats, as giving them frequently was simply unsustainable.
When those cups and boxes stopped, they gave us the passive-aggressive treatment. Our billing statements often got lost resulting in the delay of payments. They even lost the copies of the statements. They do not pick up their phones every time we need to talk to the client to discuss something important immediately. We called the attention of the client (marketing manager) but she just said, “suyuin nyo silang mabuti” (read: kiss their boots or worse). Don’t get me wrong. We were not rude to them in any way. We were not asking them to do something above and beyond their responsibilities. We just want them to do their jobs. Sounds simple enough, but we all know that bribery isn’t good for business and this can leave you prone to more abuse. Worse, they will come from those people who aren’t even your direct customers.
The client thinks he’s a designer and you’re merely his implementer
A little knowledge can truly be dangerous. Some people who know nothing (or a just a teeny-weeny bit) about design, fancy themselves as designers. They insist that their design is better than any proposed concept and solution. Some product and brand managers have this kind of “designer complex” and often lead to disjointed promotions and horrible design materials.
Should you fight for quality designs or simply accept the bucks? Should we just silently curse the client and tell him, “It’s your neck, anyway”? This is where we should tread carefully. While some agencies give up and follow the dictum, “obey as they say”, one way to manage this is by having our designers develop two kinds of materials: (1) Material generated from the fantasies of these so-called client-designers, and; (2) Material based on OUR output. Then we present and persuade the client to choose the latter because the design and copy best represents what the brand stands for. As creative professionals we have a responsibility to come up with solutions efficiently and economically.
“Do I look like an ATM to you?” The client considers you his bank.
Steve Coby in his article 5 Customers You Should Fire shares “Some clients think we’re their bank. So, they’ll ask us to front their out-of-pocket expenses. Or, they’ll ignore our 30-day payment terms.”
Should we strictly impose the 30-days term? Yes. It’s better if you practice the “50% down payment” in the contract especially for brand activation programs that require more than concept designing. Coby added, “as every entrepreneur knows, cash flow is the lifeblood of any business, so when a client starts abusing the financial aspect of the relationship, it’s time to have a come-to-Jesus conversation.” You are in the business of providing creative and marketing services and not a financial firm. Leave the latter function to your clients’ CFOs
The client keeps on stealing your ideas and designs and passes them off as his.
In this business, you’re prone to customers who are kleptomaniacs for ideas. Ok, they say ideas are free. BUT when we get an idea and we come up with particular ways to use it, to milk it for all it’s worth, and to run with it until we get a solution to their business problem, the idea becomes UNIQUELY ours. This is why they hired us—because they could not come up with the solution themselves. These people have no qualms about ripping off your idea and telling others they came up with it. They will, for example, ask you to develop a project or marketing program to be presented to the bosses and principals (these are the brand owners if your client happens to be a distribution company). When the projects get a nod from the approving party, they will have this implemented by another agency while insisting it was their idea. We’ve encountered product managers from the same company who shamelessly stole creative briefs and claimed it was his to begin with. Once, we submitted a creative brief (not even an FA). After being informed that it will be approved in a couple of days, we saw a production sample on the manager’s desk by accident. He already had it produced by another outfit-while he told us to wait. Clearly he had done this before.
Is it worth the trouble telling the management about this type of unprofessional behavior of their employee? If the company is worth fighting for, it won’t hurt to try, otherwise, just bid them sayonara. That’s what we did. We fired the client – after a couple of weeks, a competitor approached us, and we began a healthy relationship. Your best revenge is to let the guy deal with stolen ideas. Concept is just the beginning, what matters most is the execution – it where the rubber meets the road.
The client expects that ideas and designs are free.
Clients with little experience are often the ones who insist that designs and concepts should be charged minimal if not free. Since there is no absolute quantifier to this type of service, in contrast to printing and media placement where investments are visible.
Take this job order seriously. This is worth more than the printing and production costs. One prospective client implied that we don’t have any investment in ideas – they’re just concepts. He added that he can ask his admin assistant to do it instead. The reason why he called for an agency as he explained is the execution and implementation. And that’s the only thing he’s willing to pay for. We politely explained that our investment consisted of 20 years experience in marketing and communications. That investment is too significant that we can’t just easily give it for free.
While this may seem like an aggressive move because of the conventional belief that great customer care is the single most controllable difference between you and your competition, and with so many choices available, customers have little or no reason to remain loyal to a company or agency if they are not 101% pleased with the experience.
Thankfully, good customers still outnumber the bad ones by a significant margin. This is not a call for imprudence or even experimentation, but a call to recognize that while most clients simply can afford to buy or hire your services, they do not have either the background or organizational structure to maximize their brand message. It’s up to us to communicate our value to them. We have to let clients know how we can help them come up with solutions to their business problems, while telling them how much we value their business in return. It’s a testament to a value for value relationship.
The customer is always right, right? Therefore it’s important to pick the right customer – even if this means letting go of the bad ones.