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This is a post that shouldn’t have to be written. In a perfect world, your client would not only NOT sabotage your efforts, but they’d give you the information and assistance you need to effectively help them out. In the real world, however, you’ll find things don’t always work that way.
Unintentional client sabotage happens for a variety of reasons, but it can generally be boiled down to two types – failure to help, and failure to prevent harm.
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When a Client Fails to Help
This is by far the most common client sabotage scenario, and it happens with incredible frequency. This is when there are little things the company could and should be doing to help maximize the impact of your efforts, but for one reason or another, they fail to so do.
- You’re generating tons of leads at a great cost per lead, but you know you could do an even better job if you had some feedback about the lead quality. The client fails to talk to their sales team and implement a system for getting you this data (even with numerous requests and reminders). As a result, you’re forced to make decisions entirely on conversion data with no way to factor in quality of lead by source/campaign.
- You’re writing copy and you’ve requested to see a mockup of what the page will look like so you can effectively write to the design (or you’ve offered to adjust copy once it’s placed into the design). The client is in a rush, so the copy goes in as-is and the designer fills in random headlines and captions if more are needed. In some places, lines run too long, or sections are made uneven because you weren’t able to adjust the number of words to even things out.
- Your client gets most of their leads by phone, but they won’t implement a phone tracking system so you get to guess which campaigns are converting (to say nothing of optimizing for quality).
- You’re doing SEO for a client, and you’ve asked to be kept in the loop on press releases and new developments so you’ll have angles to work when trying to get new inbound links. They never follow up with their PR firm or department to get you that information, so you’re stuck relying on Google Alerts that often give you data after the time where it would have been really useful.
- You’re trying to help your client formulate a strategy for the new year, but they don’t have a clear idea of their goals or even basic data like the average value of a lead or customer.
- Your client’s industry has gotten significantly more competitive, but they refuse to bump up their now under-powered SEO plan.
Why does this happen?
The first few times I encountered clients like this, I was perplexed. Why are they paying me all this money if they’re not going to do a few simple things to help make it a good investment? Today, more than 10 years into working with clients, it doesn’t surprise me in the least. But why does it happen? The reasons vary, but most fall into one of the following categories:
- Your client is busy and overwhelmed and even simple requests feel like too much.
- Your client (or point of contact) doesn’t understand that your work doesn’t take place in a vacuum. They think they can just turn you loose and everything will work out without feedback or interaction with other parts of the company.
- They’ve outsourced numerous tasks or departments, and the other outsourced providers are dropping the ball.
- Your client is an employee at a larger company, and he or she hired you because they were instructed to hire someone – but they prefer to do as little actual work as possible. if results aren’t great, they’ll just blame you and hire somebody else.
What can you do about it?
With these situations, the problem is usually pretty subtle. You’re still able to be effective, just not as effective as you’d like to be. Still, it’s a problem you want to solve if at all possible.
I start by being open and honest. I do my best to explain the impact (always in writing at least once) so they know it’s not just me being difficult. Where possible, I try to get at the root of their objection or hesitance, then solve that problem. Maybe they don’t want to set up phone tracking because it’s an additional monthly expense. If that’s the case, I’ll show them some quotes and talk about how it will save them money pretty quickly.
If they’re not sure how to value a lead, I’ll walk them through the process. If they need manpower to do something, I may be able to suggest a provider.
More often than not, you can fix the problem with this approach. If you can’t, you need to decide whether you want to continue working with the client. Will their failure to help make it impossible for you to deliver the kind of results you pride yourself on? Does it make your job harder and less efficient (thereby cutting your effective hourly rate)? Will you be forever prefacing your monthly reports with, “Well, we could have done better, but…”?
Everyone draws the line in a different place, but definitely give it some thought. A client who doesn’t give you what you need can be very frustrating.
When a Client Does Something that Actively Hurts Your Efforts
This situation is a little less common, but I still see it from time to time. Basically, this is when a client takes some action that seriously, directly hurts the work you’ve been doing for them. It shouldn’t happen, and when it does it can be the kind of thing that sends you scrambling.
- You’re running a PPC campaign for your client and someone at their company deletes the landing page you’re using, causing traffic to go nowhere until Google figures it out – or, a bunch of old landing pages are redirected to a different page and you don’t realize it for days or even weeks because it doesn’t cause any errors or problems other than a mysteriously low conversion rate.
- You’ve written great copy for a client, but once you’re done with it, they send it over to the boss’s nephew so he can “SEO it up”. Lively, brand-appropriate copy is now barely-readable sludge – but they want to blame you when their new copy doesn’t convert.
- You’re doing SEO for a company, and they don’t bother to mention it when they get the entire site redesigned without any proper on-site SEO. Oh, and they don’t want to pay you to do it again since they already paid you for it once.
- You’ve spent the last year doing link building for a company website, then they decide to get a new domain. At the same time, they allow the old domain to expire and it gets snapped up at auction. All those old links are now benefiting the old domain, you can’t permanently redirect that page, and the client is wondering why their new domain isn’t ranking.
- You built a WordPress site for your client, but they changed their secure password back to something much more memorable – “password”. They get hacked, the site goes down, and hundreds or thousands of dollars of business are lost before you can get it back up.
Why does this happen?
These situations are almost always caused by one of two things. The first is just ignorance. It’s not uncommon to find yourself working with people who don’t understand how all the pieces fit together, and many don’t even know enough to realize they should be asking about potential impact before making big changes in other areas.
The other common cause is working with large companies where departments don’t interact enough. If your marketing contact asked you to use a specific landing page and then the site developer doesn’t check before deleting a folder of what he or she thought were retired landing pages, you could be sending traffic to a dead page. This also happens when working with smaller companies that use a lot of outside help, since freelancers and outsourced help are rarely invested enough to form relationships with other departments within the client company.
What can you do about it?
Prevention is by far your best option. When you begin a new ongoing client relationship, take a few moments to think about the nature of your work and anything that might damage your efforts. List those items and go over them with your point of contact. Education is not only useful for preventing problems – it can also help your client better understand the benefits of your work.
Make sure you let your client know which situations should warrant notification, and encourage them to ask you if they’re not sure about how something might impact your work.
This won’t prevent every problem, but it can definitely ward off a lot of them. If your client DOES do something that sabotages your work for them, the first thing to remember is that you shouldn’t panic or start assigning blame. That’s doubly important if you end up on a call or email chain with your point of contact and their boss or superiors.
My general approach is to outline the problem and its impact on results , then discuss the cause in a very impersonal way. Instead of saying, “When Jake switched domains…” I will instead say something like, “When the site’s content was moved to the new domain…” Everyone will know who did it, but the focus needs to be on explaining the problem so everyone understands, then moving quickly to the important work of fixing it.
In very rare instances, you may get a call from someone higher up at the client company, asking questions about the role of your point of contact or someone else involved in the situation. That can be extremely awkward, but just be honest and polite. If the person they’re inquiring about is genuinely great but just made one big mistake, say that – and do your best to highlight some of the good things they’ve done in relation to your work together.
Remember: for you it’s just one client of many. For someone else, it may be the job that keeps a roof overhead and food on the table. Don’t absorb unnecessary damage to your company’s reputation, but be calm and kind for the sake of your point of contact.
By not rushing to blame, you look more professional, and the people at fault will remember your kindness. They’ll be much more likely to show lenience if you make a mistake in the future. They may also turn into clients as they move to other companies over the course of their careers, and some will become loyal referral sources.
Have you dealt with clients whose actions sabotaged or diminished the effectiveness of your efforts? How did you handle it?