What to do when your clients don’t like their account manager

Written by: Karl Sakas

A client reached out—several of his agency’s clients had complained about one of his account managers. He was worried he’d lose the clients based on her behavior.

He was right to be worried—your clients will probably give you the benefit of the doubt on deliverables, but a deteriorating relationship can kill the revenue in a single phone call or email.

Let’s look at how I helped my client and his frustrating-the-clients account manager, so you can solve a similar problem at your agency.

Agencies Dictate the Account Manager… Until Things Deteriorate

In general, my view is that clients should not dictate who’s assigned to their account—it’s the agency’s decision. This gets into part of the power dynamic, of who’s the expert in the relationship.
However, if there are personality conflicts, quality issues, or other concerns that the agency can’t address, it’s appropriate to assign the account to another member of the agency’s team—because otherwise you’re going to lose the client.

Even if they don’t fire you, the unhappy client will never recommend the agency to other clients—which is a key benefit when a client loves your work, and which makes your sales process a lot easier.

Gathering Data & Diagnosing the Problem

I had previously advised my client to do a client service survey—to ask his agency’s clients how his agency was doing.

Gathering the Data

The results were largely positive about the results clients saw—his agency was indeed building their businesses—but several people mentioned concerns about a specific account manager. In short, she kept pissing them off.

To help me get perspective, I asked him to share what each client said.

One client had written: “She wasn’t really understanding it or sympathetic.”

Another client said they were frustrated that she kept “burying them” in requests for additional information. They felt like they were sending her things constantly, but the requests never ended—and they needed to get back to running their business.

Another client described her requests—some of which conflicted with each other—as “death by papercut.”

My Diagnosis

It sounds like his clients felt she lacked Warmth, in the Warmth & Competence customer retention model. They felt she didn’t understand the impact of her requests, or taking the time to get to know their business.

On top of that—based on the questions my client showed me that she’d sent—it sounds like she also had some Competence problems, too. From my experience, her questions weren’t bad requests—but her failure to batch them was frustrating the agency’s clients.

Why wasn’t she batching her requests? She didn’t know enough about the work to plan ahead, so she was constantly in reactive mode when the agency’s Subject Matter Experts requested things. This reactiveness cascaded to the clients, when she made her fire drills become the clients’ fire drills.

On top of that, her poor project management skills meant she was constantly behind, which meant she didn’t stop to think about how her requests were coming across to clients.

High Warmth can make up for low Competence, but when a client is seeing low Warmth and low Competence, it doesn’t go well.

In some cases, the clients were being unreasonable—they expected the agency to do everything without client input, which isn’t likely. Yet the agency could have addressed this by asking about time expectations in a pre-kickoff survey.

Ultimately, the account manager didn’t mean to be incompetent or to lack empathy, but that didn’t matter—she was putting client revenue at risk.

The Solution

This is a mix of immediate and long-term changes—all of which combine to save the client relationships and keep the owner from getting sucked into every client problem.

Fixing Competence

Competence tends to improve over time. Unfortunately, this meant my client’s Director of Strategy had to provide more QA oversight for now. This was a higher workload for him, but it would help solve many of the Competence problems. I also recommended they create a specific curriculum for things she needed to learn.

Fixing Warmth

Empathy is less automatic—but easier to add mechanically. I recommended my client call out the problem, assign the account manager to read my Warmth & Competence article, do a self-assessment about her current behaviors, and outline a plan (with agency management input) on how she’s going to fix things. This includes doing “ride alongs,” where they join some of her client phone calls, so they can coach her afterwards.

Initial Results

It’s still early, but it appears the account manager is taking things to heart. The agency hasn’t lost any of the clients—and the clients were glad to hear the agency owner had a plan to fix things.

Sometimes, the promise of a solution is as powerful as the solution itself. Of course, they’ll need to successfully implement the solution to keep the clients long-term.

Some clients may never be happy—but if clients have high future potential (in my Client Ranking Matrix), I think it’s worth trying.

I also recommended my client improve his employee-coaching skills, since running an agency depends on having a high-performing team. We’ll work on that via our ongoing coaching relationship.

Tips for Your Agency When Clients Don’t Like Their Account Manager

The exact solution will vary, but here are some high-level points to consider if you’ve heard complaints about one of your employees—or if you suspect something’s at-risk.

  1. Start by acknowledging your client’s frustration and letting them feel heard. After you listen, ask their ideal outcome—and then adjust your plan from there. Don’t assume—for instance, clients may not automatically want a refund.
  2. Ask your employee for their take on things. Clients may not understand what’s going on, or may have unreasonable expectations. See if the employee understands that clients perceive a problem.
  3. Create a program to change your employee’s behavior. Enlist them in the process—this won’t work without their engagement. You may need to create a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP).
  4. Walk the employee through the client-cited situations, to see how they’d handle them differently in the future. It’s entirely possible they’ll have most solutions themselves; you can advise them when their solutions weren’t in line with your values.
  5. Listen for cases where your employee doesn’t seem to understand the values you want her to follow as a representative of your agency. As the saying goes, “If people keep asking you what time it is, build them a clock.” If you can let them know the framework to consider, they can make better future decisions without your being involved—and know when they do need to escalate to get your help.
  6. Consider doing some role-playing exercises, to act on scenarios you’ve seen. Better for them to flub them there than with a live client.
  7. Tell clients what you’re doing. You don’t need to get into specifics, but they should know you’re taking this seriously and you value the relationship.

Recognize that although this is time-consuming (and frustrating) now, it’s an investment in keeping your best clients and improving employees’ performance. The investment tends to pay off.

Question: What would you do if a client complained about one of your employees?

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