Bad Client Behavior Is on the Rise

The Economy Is Bringing Out the Worst in People

By Published on .

Marc Brownstein Marc Brownstein
Have you noticed lately that some people you have been accustomed to doing business with for years have suddenly had a personality transformation?

I have. So have many of my friends and colleagues in a variety of industries. Tough economic times tend to bring out the dark side in perfectly civilized professionals. In the agency business, I've heard many troubling stories:

  • Individuals (client contacts) you've been accustomed to doing business with for years now behave in erratic ways, making unusual demands of your agency.
  • Sometimes a client is pushing your agency so low on fees that making a profit is out of the question; just keeping the client becomes the rationale.
  • Asking the agency to make unethical decisions.
  • Not paying invoices until your accounting department escalates the situation, and then challenging the invoices.
  • Demanding that you negotiate unreasonably low prices from your vendors -- or else the client will seek its own vendors and get it done directly, even if the quality of execution is at stake.
  • A daily flow of tersely worded emails that convey impatience and disrespect.
  • The CEO overriding the marketing director on creative execution, giving the agency a case of revision whiplash.
  • Taking the agency's advice on strategy and creative, then abruptly doing an about-face and dictating both. Or else.
  • Demanding greater transparency on timesheets, all estimates and invoices.
  • Ignoring standard agency timelines and demanding turnaround at a breathless pace, which often leads to mistakes.
I could go on and on. My agency colleagues around the country have shared these war stories and more. It's all bad form, and, quite frankly, pretty sad. I don't believe professionals on the client side want to behave in that manner. And from what I've experienced and heard from other agency leaders, these clients never did rear such ugly sides before. But it is truly a symptom of lower revenues, lost customers, shrinking market share, irate shareholders, scared senior management and an overall sense of fear -- all of which spreads like an epidemic from customer to client to agency.

If only clients knew that this bad behavior hurts, more than helps, their cause. Agencies that are treated with respect give more than they take. Agencies that enjoy open, honest lines of communication and professional partnerships with their clients produce better work. Deep down, I believe most clients understand that. But when the heat is on from above, best practices go out to the window, and it's every man for himself. That leads to short-term thinking, low morale on the agency side, frustration on the client side and poor results overall.

Make no mistake: I believe that every agency has to go above and beyond for their clients in this economic downturn. It's not only the smart thing to do; it's the right thing. But clients also need to understand the care and feeding of an agency. You get what you give.

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