Client audit: What to do when clients start second-guessing your agency

Client audit: What to do when clients start second-guessing your agency
Written by: Karl Sakas

An agency owner reached out for help. She had struggled to deliver results for one of her clients, and the client was now talking to another agency. Worse, her client wanted to get her work audited by the competitor—they asked the other agency to review what my client’s agency had done!

I’ve been in two similar situations as an agency PM. It’s a terrible feeling—as if you’re getting audited by the government. On top of that, it’s hard to justify billing for the time you need to invest to support the audit, which can become endless.

In both situations, the other agency confirmed my agency had done the right thing. I felt vindicated, but the two client relationships were ultimately broken. When there’s so little trust, even the assurance that “they did the right thing” isn’t enough to restore the relationship to where it once was.

What to do when a client asks for an audit

Clients traditionally will do an “agency review” when they want to hire a new agency. But a mid-engagement audit is worse—your client hasn’t directly said they’re going to fire you, but things are heading in that direction. You may feel powerless.

Find out their underlying concern

Take a step back and find out; what is the larger concern your client seems to have? Why have they stopped seeing you as the Trusted Advisor?

I talk a lot about Warmth & Competence; doing work well and making clients feel special. Frame the situation in this model and figure out what went wrong.

Be diplomatic about the other firm

Take the moral high road—be diplomatic. You can frame it something like this:

We came across <OtherAgency> a few months ago as an emerging <ClientVertical> agency. Their advice seems to focus on <ThingsWeDisagreeWith>; my sense is they have some good tactics for short-term wins but not necessarily a long-term growth strategy for clients.

You’re always welcome to get feedback on our work, but asking <OtherAgency> to review our proposal does appear to have a direct conflict of interest—we and they do similar things, so they have a strong incentive to say their plan is better.

My client mentioned she’d sent an upsell proposal, and her client was going to ask the other agency for feedback on the proposal. I advised against trying to rebut each point the other agency made. (Also, mark your proposals as “Confidential and Proprietary.”)

If you love them, let them go

My client asked if there was a way she could negotiate an extra few months to turn things around. She’d already negotiated an extension and things weren’t going as smoothly as expected. At that point, you aren’t going to keep getting more extensions.

If your client wants to try the other agency—out of a desire for variety, or something else—you ultimately can’t stop them. Clients have choices… but so do you.

I recommend sticking to the moral high road and showing you want what’s best for your client. Something like:

If you want to try the introductory trial with <OtherAgency>, you’re certainly welcome to—you need to do what you feel is best for <ClientCompany>.

I suggest we schedule a call to regroup in two months to review progress, to see if you’re getting what you want. If you are, it probably makes sense to continue with <OtherAgency>. If you aren’t, we’re happy to reevaluate.

Plan to lose them permanently

In my experience, the “we want to take a break” clients almost never come back. But part of being a Trusted Advisor means letting clients make their own mistakes.

Once your client sees someone else as a viable option—and is concerned about their experience with you—it’s difficult for you to eliminate the other agency from the equation without damaging your own credibility. Prepare to move on, and think about what you learn from the experience by doing a debrief.

Question: What do you do when a client says they want another agency to double-check your agency’s work?

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