How to Tell If You’re a Toxic Client

How to Tell If You’re a Toxic Client
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Key Takeaways
  • It's fair to challenge on price, but don’t immediately expect reductions in price with no impact on what’s being offered.
  • If you're emailing your agency, try to get all of your thoughts and requirements down in a single message.
  • Look collectively at how much organic traffic you’re receiving month-on-month rather than looking at the ranking stats one-dimensionally.

Contradictory to the popular phrase, “the customer is always right”, a good client will recognize that isn’t always the case. When it comes to managing your relationship with your local SEO provider (or any other SEO or digital marketing service you retain), it pays to know how you’re being perceived so that you can ultimately get the best out of it.

There isn’t an agency out there that doesn’t want to make their clients happy; this not only retains clients, it’s the foundation of growing client business too. Let’s be real though; business is still business. While core ideologies and relationship maintenance is a big part of it, every client has a different value from an agency perspective.

Value isn’t always purely financial so even if you’re spending—or  considering spending—big bucks with a marketing or SEO agency, it doesn’t mean they have to like you. Stress, extra time consumption or even simply being rude all decrease the perceived value of working with you and will ultimately affect the relationship and perhaps even the quality of service you receive.

Are you a Toxic Client?

Local SEO is hard, and as much as Google might give you free access to tools that let you investigate your SEO situation (and even build your own website), if you don’t have thorough training and experience, you’ll fail to spot the causes and fixes for the issues you’re facing. If you have recognised your own SEO shortcomings and are in the process of choosing your new local SEO agency or consultant, it’s probably never crossed your mind to wonder if you’re a toxic client.

However, it’s at this stage that red flags start to pop up to your chosen agency. In the same way that, when going for a job interview, you’re also “interviewing” the company to learn if you like them, your SEO agency will be wondering if you’re worth their time and effort throughout the initial pitch process. After all, they want to see results as much as you do, because results = testimonials = trust signals and social proof and that leads to new business.

Are you a toxic client? Are you exhibiting signs of being your chosen agency’s worst nightmare? Does the team draw straws when it comes time to answer your call?

Read on for help spotting the tell-tale signs you’re in danger of being labelled a toxic client and how to change your ways.

The Yard Sale Haggler

Was the recruitment process for your agency hire unusually drawn out with umpteen edits to the costs and payment structure? Was the agency owner quietly sobbing by the time you reached an agreeable route forward?

Yes, we all want to get the most for our marketing spend. And we agree, there is absolutely nothing wrong with challenging an agency on costs, but you should keep in mind that the majority of agencies base costs on the amount of time required to service your account and deliver against your requirements.

The quote will also factor in subscription or purchase costs for software and licenses they will be using on your behalf.

Remember the golden rule: if the price changes, then the product or service changes, too. Every time you push your agency partners down on price, something is changing, reducing or being left out of the original offering. If an agency is happy to make considerable price drops without removing or changing the service offering on the table, something is very wrong.

Our advice is to always challenge on price, but don’t immediately expect reductions in price with no impact on what’s being offered. You should be able to attribute clear deliverables to your spend. If you’re haggling over a monthly retainer, how much of what service and at what quality will you receive per month? If the cost changes, what gets cut? If there are extra services built in to the package you don’t feel you need, suggest removing or reducing them to save costs rather than expecting an overall discount.

The “Can You Just…” Request

Most agency leads will be able to tell you a tale of a client who signs a service agreement but then seems to have a never-ending list of additional requirements. These requests are usually dropped into an email or given as a quick nudge at the end of a phone call. This will start with “Can you just…”. Inevitably, that is followed by a request for some form of extra work. The “can you just…” translated from toxic client talk to real speak means “without charging me…”

It’s all too common for agencies to receive requests for what seem like relatively minor pieces of work to be thrown in as part of the service. Some agencies will indulge these requests from time to time if they are reasonable and in the best interests of the relationship and the project. But nothing is free. Time and resources must be invested to deal with your request and if it’s out of the scope of the service agreement you have in place, don’t be shocked when the agency gives you a price for doing this extra work.

Writing in Entrepreneur magazine, Geoff McQueen, founder and CEO of AffinityLive says agencies should potentially sever relationships with clients who expect more without paying more. He advises,

…a client that’s consistently asking to do more and taking advantage of you and your team, prevents you from adding more paying clients to your roster. This can stress out your team and cause personal conflicts with the client.

“If you’re experiencing a lot of scope creep, recognize your client’s need for more work and ask for a higher retainer or break the project into phases…If they’re not open to a higher retainer or an extended project scope, it might be time to let them know that you’re unable to do the amount of work they need at their price point and suggest severing the relationship.”

If you do find yourself needing additional services or have quite simply realized after signing a contract that you are going to need additional support, be upfront about it. Open a transparent dialogue with your agency. Explain what you need. If your budget is tight, be upfront about that too.

Empower your agency to find a solution that makes sense with a fair price attached for the extra work. You should certainly expect economy alongside scale with most agencies, but that doesn’t mean free work or free time.

If you find yourself asking your agency if they “could just…”, know you’re exhibiting symptoms of being a toxic client. Step back. Ask yourself, would you work for free? If a regular customer walked into your grocery store and wondered if you could just give them an extra quart of milk, pound of ham and a few packs of fresh pasta on top of their regular shop – would you agree? Exactly. Neither should your agency.

The Needy Partner

Your day is spent thinking of new reasons to contact your agency, just to make sure they are thinking of you. You send more emails to your agency than you do your partner – probably checking on the status of a piece of work that isn’t due yet or for some insight into a piece of data.

If you don’t hear back after an email or two, you get a little concerned. They’ve forgotten about you, you aren’t their number one priority. The only way to get over the pain is to give your account manager or agency director a call so you can hear their voice.

Relationships require trust. You chose this agency for a reason, right? They must have appeared trustworthy and capable otherwise you wouldn’t be working with them.

Step back and find something else to do. If you can’t do that, consider this – you might actually be racking up a bill with your constant need for communication.

As business.com’s Niraj Ranjan explains to agencies,

Micromanagement is expensive for you and, by extension, your client. If you think you’re the right person for the job and your client is working with you for a good reason, don’t let them interfere with your work.

“It is okay for a client to want to be kept in the loop and to want their suggestions incorporated, but it is overkill if they badger you to do things their way. This ends with frustration for you, and you’re still left with an unsatisfied client.”

If deadlines and deliverables are in place, allow your agency to focus on meeting that deadline by not interrupting them too often or throwing in curve balls. Deadlines and delivery dates are put in place to allow adequate time to deliver good work. The chances are your agency has their head down producing the best they can for you.

Agree a schedule of calls and meetings so that you’re in regular contact without being a hindrance to your campaign’s progress. The agency can prepare for scheduled appointments and give you the information you need in a structured manner. They won’t always be able to answer every question on the fly and the more they have to stop working to respond to you, the longer your primary pieces of work are going to take.

If you are going to send an email, try to get all of your thoughts and requirements down in a single message addressed to the right person, ideally your account manager or project lead. As much as you might want to feel like you are only client that matters, you aren’t.

The SEO Ranking Report Fiend

The monthly SEO ranking report comes in and you’re not number 1 on Google for some of your keywords yet. This is an outrage and you call your agency immediately to demand blood. Or maybe just an explanation – it really depends quite how toxic you are!

If your agency followed best practice when it came to selling their SEO services, they probably explained that being number 1 on Google isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of your organic search goals. It also doesn’t happen overnight and it certainly isn’t guaranteed.

SEO is about generating a steady flow of traffic and ultimately, custom to your website. Look collectively at how much organic traffic you’re receiving month-on-month rather than looking at the ranking stats one-dimensionally. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t care if you were on page two for everything if you’d doubled your traffic figures and were making more sales anyway.

Look at how the channel is progressing as a whole instead of just obsessing over that single column on the spreadsheet.

Being a good client is about understanding the position of the agency as well as your own requirements. It’s about recognizing that collaboration and allowing them to do their work is the route to shared success. There are boundaries.

If you take your time hiring the right agency for the job, you should be confident that you can trust them to get the job done and meet your expectations without endless requests for additional work or daily onslaughts of emails and phone catch-ups.

Don’t ever sacrifice your right to challenge your service providers but understand where the limitations are. And above all, play nice. You’re a client but you’re also an individual and agencies will work harder and respond faster to the individuals they have a genuine rapport with.

We’d love to hear your thoughts

If you’re an agency leader, what warning signs do you look for which suggest a toxic client? On the client side, if you’ve worked with an agency are you guilty of exhibiting any of these behaviors? How did you work towards a healthier agency relationship? Whichever side of the table you sit, we’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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13 thoughts on “How to Tell If You’re a Toxic Client”

  1. I thought this article was amazing. We too have had the “can you just…?” clients and I am happy they are gone.

    What is amazing is that you make the client the thrust of this article instead of the SEO agency. There are already too many articles about “how to spot a bad SEO agency” or the like.

    Robert

    1. Thanks Robert, I thought I’d spin the oft-used ‘how to spot a bad SEO agency’ article on its head and get people thinking about it from the other direction.

      Glad you enjoyed (and hope maybe your clients do, too)!

  2. I own a SEO agency and I have dealt with the toxic client many times, if they start badgering me I ask them if they would like to cancel. I have too many fabulous clients to allow these idiots to disrespect me or my work. We generally get most of our clients ranking very high at very reasonable SEO pricing without a contract. We are now starting to get higher end clients that have great attitudes which makes it even more easier to get rid of toxic clients. As a debt free company whose residual income keeps growing we say good riddance to unreasonable clients, go bother someone else. My saying is, take advantage of me once shame on you, twice shame on me. Mark Downing Founder of Acme Web Agency.

    1. That’s a good saying, Mark! It’s certainly true that one of the benefits of growing as a business is that larger clients have a bit more experience working with suppliers to get the best out of them, but we can still support our small clients and try to educate them on what makes a good working relationship.

      Thanks

      Jamie

    1. Haha, here’s hoping they come across it of their own free will. Or maybe leave a printout lying around next time they visit your office?

      Thanks

      Jamie

  3. Dear Jamie,

    We are a SEO Agency and liked your article. Sharing this with our office, we did get a charge.. We especially liked the “Can You Just” customer comment. We call it the “Altcha Gotta Do” (NY).. Yes! We have more than a few of those clients..

    But, on the other side of the coin, who created these “Toxic Clients”? We think the so called SEO agencies who simply did not deliver on their promises.. We hear of nightmare stories all the time of broken promises and what makes us any different.. Out of the gate, we are placed in defensive mode, before we even begin to discuss the project at hand..

    In any case, we enjoyed your article and may send it to our toxic clients, along with their new invoice with increased rates, which will be on their new invoice listed as “toxicities”..

    1. Hi Nicole,

      Thanks ever so much for sharing the article – glad it resonated with the team! Yes, it’s a nature/nurture thing with client toxicity, isn’t it? As anyone who works with people on a regular basis will tell you, you always have to consider what the previous experiences of the person you’re dealing with have been. It’s not always a case of them just ‘being like that’. If a previous agency let them get away with some of these behaviours, they’d rightly think it was par for the course, for instance.

      Hoping that however you do it, you manage to reduce the toxicity level of your client base!

      Jamie

  4. Hi Jamie,

    An interesting article which makes sense to me even as a customer of SEO rather than an agency. There is another side of the house which I believe is an equally if not more important issue. I have had the misfortune of engaging a few SEO agencies to help our business which I would regard as extremely toxic.

    In the process of challenging them on much of the work they have done which as a layman sounds rather dubious and suspect they may consider their client toxic if they don’t simply keep quiet and accept everything they say and do.

    For me it’s an issue of trust more than toxicity.

    I have had experiences whereby I have asked an SEO the same question several times and they either can’t answer the question, answer a question which wasn’t the one I asked or simply send me a link of someone else’s explanation to read for myself.

    My business has spent many thousands of pounds with SEO agencies that have:

    – Built back links which we later found out were ‘toxic’ and had to disavow.
    – Built hundreds of location pages which they insisted was what was needed, for us to find out later that this was a potential huge penalty waiting to come from Google
    – Built an SEO campaign around key words which had little if no search volume but couldn’t explain why
    – Sent 30 page reports fraught with graphs, charts and data that looked extremely impressive but very confusing and when you took the time to study closer most of the data was largely meaningless.
    – Send us videos of other experts to explain something they couldn’t.
    – Tell us page speed is not important to Google.

    I could go on and on and on but hopefully you get my point..

    What I’d like to read is an article on how you can spot a toxic SEO agency before you spend thousands of pounds with them.

    Best wishes, Maurice

    1. Hi Maurice,

      Thanks for your comment and detailed description of your unfortunate experience with SEO agencies. I certainly agree that agencies can be toxic, too! I actually wrote about this topic a little while ago, in a post called ‘How to Choose a Local SEO Agency or Consultant’ (https://www.brightlocal.com/2018/03/05/how-to-choose-a-local-seo-agency-or-consultant/) which definitely covers some, if not all, of the issues you described. I’m hoping that this recent series of articles on agency discovery and client relationships assists both agencies and their potential clients to define and work towards their goals together, in pursuit of rewarding and profitable relationships.

      Thanks

      Jamie

    2. I think that there are quite a few articles on how to spot a bad (or good) SEO agency. This article is important because relationships and business partnerships are between two parties. And so often the customer’s behavior is not addressed.

      Robert

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