What to Do When You Don‘t Trust Your Client

As a marketing agency professional, you know that trust is the cornerstone of any successful client relationship. But what do you do when that trust starts to erode? How do you handle a client you no longer trust?

Unfortunately, it‘s a common issue. In a survey by agency management software company Deltek, 58% of agencies reported that "clients not valuing the work they do" was a top challenge. Another 40% cited "clients not paying on time" as a major pain point. These financial and relationship strains can quickly sow seeds of distrust.

If you find yourself in a position of not trusting a client, it probably stems from one of three main areas: the work itself, your working relationship, or financial matters. Let‘s explore each of these trust-killers in more depth and discuss strategies to overcome them.

1. Not Trusting the Client About the Work

One of the most common reasons agencies lose faith in their clients is around the work itself. Maybe the client provides vague or constantly changing direction. Maybe they‘re overly critical without offering constructive feedback. Or maybe they expect you to be a mind-reader, expressing dissatisfaction when you don‘t deliver on unexpressed expectations.

These issues can be incredibly frustrating for agencies. It‘s hard to do your best work when you don‘t feel like your client is an engaged, bought-in partner.

However, it‘s important to recognize that clients may have their own reasons for being uncommunicative or providing unclear feedback. They may be dealing with internal pressures and politics that you‘re unaware of. Or they may simply not know how to articulate what they want.

As the agency, it‘s on you to extract the actionable input you need. Some strategies to try:

  • Ask clarifying questions. Don‘t be afraid to admit when you need more information. Probe deeper to get to the heart of what the client wants.
  • Reflect what you heard. Paraphrase your understanding of the client‘s feedback to ensure you‘re both on the same page.
  • Present options. If the client seems unsure of what they want, present a few alternatives and talk through the pros and cons of each.
  • Seek input from all stakeholders. Make sure you‘re getting feedback from everyone on the client side who needs to weigh in, not just your day-to-day contact.
  • Establish clear processes. Set expectations early about timelines, deliverables, and feedback protocols. Put it in writing and get the client to sign off.

By taking initiative to improve communication around the work itself, you can often head off the trust issues that arise from ambiguity and mismatched expectations.

2. Not Trusting the Client About the Relationship

Sometimes trust breaks down because of interpersonal dynamics. Maybe key stakeholders on the client side simply don‘t seem to like or respect you. Maybe you have different communication or work styles that are causing friction. Or maybe the client is simply disengaged and unresponsive for reasons that have nothing to do with you.

Strained client-agency relationships can be a major source of stress and distrust. It‘s hard to do great work together when there‘s obvious tension or even animosity brewing beneath the surface.

If you sense the client relationship is on shaky ground, consider these measures:

  • Address issues directly. Have an honest, non-confrontational discussion with the client about where you feel the relationship is breaking down. Approach it from a place of wanting to improve the partnership.
  • Adapt your communication style. If you sense the client prefers a certain communication method (e.g. email vs. phone) or frequency of contact, do your best to accommodate their preferences.
  • Leverage different team members. If the client seems to click better with certain individuals on your team, lean on them to lead more of the communication and relationship-building.
  • Look for small wins. Aim for some quick, easy project successes to build positive momentum and earn more of the client‘s confidence.
  • Know when to walk away. If you‘ve tried everything and the relationship still feels toxic, it may be time to move on. A chronically strained partnership rarely leads to great work in the end.

Client-agency relationships require care and feeding like any other partnership. Proactively investing in building rapport, seeking to understand your client‘s unique needs and work style, and adapting your approach accordingly can go a long way in restoring trust.

3. Not Trusting the Client About Money

Money disputes are another common cause of eroded trust between agencies and clients. Unpaid bills, arguments over out-of-scope work, and relentless price-haggling can quickly turn a once positive relationship sour.

In the Deltek survey, 47% of agencies said that client payment issues have a tangible impact on their business operations. Late and non-payments can interrupt cash flow, delay projects, and put unnecessary stress on the agency.

While some clients will inevitably be more price-conscious than others, a pattern of financial friction is a major red flag for the relationship. If you‘re consistently having trouble collecting payment or pushing back on scope creep, consider these steps:

  • Set expectations early. Be crystal clear about your pricing, payment terms, and what is included in the scope of work. Get it in a signed contract.
  • Invoice regularly. Don‘t let months go by without billing the client. Invoice promptly and consistently based on the agreed-upon schedule.
  • Automate reminders. Set up automatic reminders for upcoming and past due invoices. This formalizes the process and spares you the awkwardness of having to hound them yourself.
  • Stop work if needed. If a client is severely delinquent on payment, don‘t be afraid to pause all work until their account is settled. Continuing to work for free devalues your services.
  • Offer a payment plan. If the client is struggling to pay a large invoice, consider allowing them to break it into smaller installments. A little flexibility can sometimes save the relationship.
  • Evaluate the long-term value. Is this a massive client whose business you can‘t afford to lose? Or a small client who perpetually pays late and requires more effort than they‘re worth? Always weigh short-term cash flow needs against long-term profitability.

While talking about money is rarely comfortable, setting clear expectations and boundaries around finances is crucial for maintaining trust and respect in the agency-client partnership. Don‘t avoid these conversations out of politeness – it will only breed resentment in the long run.

How to Build Trust From Day 1

While the above tips can help address trust issues when they arise, it‘s always better to proactively cultivate trust from the very beginning of a client engagement. Here are a few ways to start the relationship off on the right foot:

  • Understand their business. Do your due diligence to really understand the client‘s industry, competitors, and unique challenges. This will demonstrate your commitment to being a true strategic partner, not just a transactional vendor.
  • Have a detailed kickoff meeting. Take the time to discuss the project scope, success metrics, communication protocols, and anything else that will set expectations on both sides.
  • Be transparent. Openly communicate your processes, timelines, team structure, and pricing. Invite the client to ask questions and provide input. The less mystery there is around how you work, the more the client will trust you.
  • Deliver on your promises. This should go without saying, but always aim to deliver work on time, on budget, and to the agreed-upon specifications. Consistency breeds trust.
  • Be proactive in your communication. Don‘t wait for the client to chase you down for updates. Send regular progress reports and immediately notify them of any potential roadblocks or delays.
  • Own your mistakes. No agency is perfect. If you do drop the ball on something, acknowledge it, apologize, and present a plan to make it right. Clients will often forgive an occasional error if you handle it with transparency and accountability.

Building trust isn‘t a one-time box to check. It requires ongoing effort and nurturing throughout the life of the client relationship. But making trust-building a priority from day one will create a solid foundation to weather the inevitable ups and downs of the partnership.

Know When to Call It Quits

While many client trust issues can be improved with some combination of the strategies outlined above, there may come a time when the relationship is simply too broken to repair. If you‘ve exhausted all reasonable efforts to address the issues and the client is still behaving in a way that erodes trust, it may be time to part ways.

Some indications that it‘s time to end a client relationship include:

  • Abusive or unethical behavior. If a client is verbally abusive, makes inappropriate demands, or asks you to do something unethical, end the relationship immediately. No amount of money is worth sacrificing your team‘s well-being or compromising your values.
  • Repeatedly failing to pay. One or two late payments may be forgivable. But a client who habitually fails to pay for months on end, despite repeated attempts to collect, is not one you want to keep.
  • Extreme scope creep. If a client keeps piling on extra work without additional compensation, and refuses to have a productive conversation about adjusting the budget or timeline, it may be time to walk away. You can‘t sustainably deliver quality work if you‘re being squeezed on all sides.
  • Fundamentally mismatched expectations. Sometimes, despite your best efforts to communicate and align, you and the client simply want different things out of the engagement. If you‘ve tried to bridge the gap but keep butting heads, it may be best to call it quits.

Ending a client relationship is never easy, but sometimes it‘s necessary for the health and sanity of your agency. Have an honest internal discussion about whether the partnership is still viable. If not, aim to end things as amicably as possible and learn from the experience for future client engagements.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, trust is a two-way street. Yes, clients need to be able to trust their agencies to do great work, provide strategic guidance, and steward their budgets responsibly. But agencies also need to be able to trust that their clients will provide clear direction, engage in open communication, and hold up their end of the financial bargain.

When trust erodes on either side, it can contaminate every aspect of the relationship and work product. That‘s why proactively building and maintaining trust needs to be a top priority in any client engagement.

If you find yourself in a situation where you no longer trust a client, take heart in knowing there are concrete steps you can take to address the underlying issues – whether they stem from the work itself, interpersonal dynamics, or financial disputes. By approaching the situation with empathy, transparency, and a solutions-oriented mindset, you can often steer the relationship back on track.

However, also know that not every client relationship can or should be saved. If you‘ve given it your all and the trust is still broken beyond repair, don‘t be afraid to walk away. Holding onto toxic client relationships will only drain your team‘s morale and creativity in the long run.

Fostering trust is hard work, but it‘s work that will pay dividends for your agency over time. Committing to open communication, delivering on your promises, and continuously nurturing client relationships will help you build a roster of loyal partners who trust you implicitly. And that is the ultimate goal for any agency.