Before moving into tech, I was the co-founder and Managing Director of creative agency Glass & Marker. Running this agency for four years, and focusing on sales and client management, I had to occasionally field difficult client questions.
Confronting difficult client situations head on is never easy, but I’ve found clear and direct communication to be most effective way to make sure expectations are set, and that both parties come away feeling they were treated fairly. That said, being direct is not an excuse to dismiss finesse, manners, and empathy when communicating difficult news to a client.
This article is my take on how to answer a few of the trickiest client questions I’ve had to answer, as the owner of an agency.
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1. Why are you more expensive than other companies?
Clients will often submit requests for proposal/quote to multiple agencies so they can cross-compare on price. They usually know some agencies are better than others going into the process, but when they get a major variation in cost, it can lead them to question budget and lean towards the cheapest option.
Here is how I generally responded to this question:
Great question. There is an incredible amount of variation in the online agency landscape. On one end of the spectrum, you have contractors that are sole proprietors, and on the other end, you have firms like Ogilvy. You can probably find a contractor to do your project for $1,000, and you may find that Ogilvy quotes you $1,000,000 for the same project.
Is Ogilvy’s product really 1,000x better? Probably not. But you take much more risk in getting a subpar product with the $1,000 contractor. The point is, you get what you pay for, and you want to do your best to find the best product for the best price.
There are a lot of great contractors out there, but I can tell you that it is really hard to find them. I know because my agency looks to hire those people, both as employees and as contractors for our firm. We hold ourselves to a very high standard of quality that is demonstrated by our portfolio, and we only hire the best. We also guarantee timely delivery, which is often a problem for contractors.
Ultimately, you want to guarantee that your project is going to come out right the first time. It’s just not worth the risk of having to scrap a $10,000 project because you were trying to save $5,000 off a $15,000 quote from an agency with a better track record. Go with the agency that you know is going to get the job done beyond your expectations.
This response is a pretty strong sales tactic, but I have found it to be very effective. It displays strong confidence both in your knowledge of the market, and in your agency’s work.
Additionally, it works to further educate the client about the vendor landscape, and warn them of common pitfalls that leave clients with botched projects. This has a secondary effect of highlighting project failure as a valid concern, which generally makes clients wary of the lowest bidder.
2. Why can’t we have unlimited revisions?
I think some clients believe unlimited revisions will give them certainty that they will end up with the product they envisioned. In my experience, this is not the case. Also, for obvious reasons, unlimited revision periods put the agency at risk for losing their entire project margin and bankrupting the project.
Here is my polite explanation:
We offer a maximum of two revisions to clients. For most engagements we offer one revision period, but we are happy to make an exception. If a project requires more than two revisions, there is likely a miscommunication of vision between client and agency, which calls for a greater conversation.
Of course, we are dedicated to making sure that our clients are completely satisfied with the end product. If you find it necessary to continue work after two revision periods, we are glad to work on a discounted hourly or day rate.
Honestly, most of our clients are happy with the product either on initial delivery, or after the first revision. During the course of a project, we have several key client sign off points that ensure we’re on the same page the entire time. This way, you will have a strong idea of what the finished product will be, at any given point during the project.
This response focuses on how revision limitations deliver the best client experience, as opposed to a financial client penalty for wanting more work done. Letting the client know that you have their best interest at heart should be apparent in any correspondence.
It’s important to remind them that the agency-client relationship is about trust, and alignment on creative vision for the final deliverable.
3. Why are there contractors working on our projects?
Many agencies will retain contractors as staff, as opposed to full time employees. The benefits of this model are apparent to anyone who has run an agency: a workforce that adapts to your sales pipeline, reduced liability for slow periods, ability to bring in experts/specialists for particular projects, reduced employer taxes, etc.
However, some clients may feel that they are simply being “turned over” to a contractor, when they paid money for the agency. In their mind, they’re thinking, “why didn’t I just hire the contractor directly?” It’s important to clarify the definition of an agency, and reassure them of the safeguards you have in place for quality assurance.
This is an excellent question, and glad to provide some clarification here. Our agency is a collective of talent that is carefully selected and managed by our senior partners. We work with contractors because we want the best person for the project, and oftentimes that means working with someone who has a very specific style and skill set that compliments your brand.
There is always a senior partner overseeing and working on your project. We don’t simply book a project and outsource it. The contractors that we work with have a track record of successful projects while collaborating with us, often for months or years. We don’t let new contractors work on projects solo; new contractors are always shadowed by a senior partner for their first few projects, to ensure that the work is done to our high standard.
All work, either done by employee or contractor, goes through our internal review process at each project milestone. This is how we ensure that projects are being executed to our standards, and are on schedule. All contractors and employees are directly managed by senior partners on a regular basis.
Many clients questions and concerns are simply from a lack of information or knowledge in asset creation or production. Taking an educational approach to client relationship management often pays off with an improved client experience.
In this case, letting the client know that use of contractors is commonplace for agencies alleviates their concerns. Addressing this question proactively is often best practice, and demonstrates confidence in your business model, and the quality of your contractor work.
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4. Why are we being charged more for scope increase?
Scope increase is never a fun conversation to have with a client, especially for agencies that are working on a fixed project rate. Occasionally, the client is aware that the project has ballooned since the initial assessment of cost and time, and make your job easier by proactively asking how much more the project will cost with the new direction. But this shouldn’t be expected. If you’ve done a good job writing your Statement of Work, with a summary of the pitch or proposal as an exhibit on the contract, you can simply refer to your contract.
If things aren’t as clear cut, here is a good starting point for client communications:
In light of our recent conversation, it looks like the scope of the project has changed since our initial assessment. When we first evaluated the time and costs, we determined that it would take (X) days of labor, with (Y) in materials cost, to get us the result in (Z) deliverables.
During our last call/meeting/email, your team mentioned that you would like to take a slightly different approach in these ways: (1), (2), (3).
We re-assessed the project, and found that the project will now require (A) days of labor, with (B) in materials cost, to get us the result in (C) deliverables.
Of course, we are glad to accommodate the project with the new direction, but we will need to address the project changes in an amendment to our Statement of Work, to account for the changes in time and cost. Our team will do our best to adhere as closely as possible to the original deadline, and we will send you an updated project timeline once we confirm with our calendars.
We know that project scope change can be unexpected, so please feel free to reach out if you have any questions on the nature of the changes, or on the assessment of additional time and cost. Happy to jump on a quick call if that works better for you.
Being extremely detail oriented when it comes to scope change is important. Many times, the client won’t understand that what seems like small changes, are actually significant to the project. By highlighting the exact changes with the “before and after” of the project details, you can give the client a better idea of why the cost has been affected.
5. Why do we have to pay you more to fix work that we’re not happy with?
Even worse than scope increase is when you deliver a project, and the client isn’t happy with it. Poor client experiences are bad for everyone because word of mouth travels faster with negative experience than with the positive ones. The best thing to do with an unsatisfactory deliverable is to fix it. That said, losing all of your profit and going into the red isn’t an option for most agencies.
Here is an example of a client correspondence providing transparency into why there are overage charges for continuing to work on a project:
It is incredibly important to us that you are happy with the final deliverable, and we are committed to doing everything in our power to make sure this happens. We are glad to extend the project, and prioritize your project to make sure these revisions are addressed as soon as possible.
We do our best to avoid additional revisions after a final deliverable, by gaining your approval through our series of client sign off points, but it seems we missed a step here. In the last revision of the project your feedback was (1), (2), (3), and we did (A), (B), (C) to address those edits. Can you help us understand where we might have missed the mark?
Because we want you to have a positive experience, we are happy to continue work on the project at a reduced rate of (X) per (Y). As a smaller agency, our budgets are often tight, and while we would like to offer the work free of cost, we don’t have the financial ability to do that.
This conversation should ideally be done over a call or in person, to make sure that there is no room for further miscommunication. The backbone of this argument relies on establishing clear client sign off points in advance of starting the project, so make sure that is in the Statement of Work.
Again, being extremely detail oriented is important. The more transparency you have with a client, the less likely there will be a meltdown; spell out the feedback they gave and the changes that were made to accommodate their requests.
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Clients and communication
In my experience, most problems in business communications arise from lack of transparency. The aforementioned questions are unlikely to arise on every project, but the answers to these questions should probably be touched upon in initial discussions, or outlined in a Statement of Work.
Although it can be tempting to avoid initial confrontation with clients, especially during the sales process, it’s best to address all potential concerns proactively. When in doubt, use the old adage “treat others how you would like to be treated,” by empathizing with the client and giving them the courtesy that you would expect when working with a vendor.