Why web design and marketing agencies get fired by their clients

December 3, 2020

If you’re in any kind of business that provides services to clients, you’ve probably experienced a client one day announcing to you, out of the blue, that they’ve decided to move to another provider. It happens, for all sorts of reasons. But many times (probably most times), if the agency is willing to admit it, it’s the fault of the agency, not the client.

In my experience, it’s not usually a major screw-up that leads to an agency getting fired; it’s a lot of little things that add up over time.

The relationship between marketing agencies and their clients is rather like a marriage. You meet, you fall in love, you get married. Then you enjoy a honeymoon period. Over a longer period of time, you get into a pattern of relating to one another. And this is where the rubber meets the road. You will either live together happily ever after, or you will slowly but surely be heading along the road to a divorce.

Here are some things I’ve learned (mostly through painful experience) about the agency-client relationship.

First, you need to be sure at the outset that you are a good fit to work together. Just like in a marriage, people can have different expectations. Often it comes down to the question of “who does what?”. Just what does the client expect you to do, and what do you expect your role to be? (They can be quite different unless you make it clear at the outset).

For example, the client might think, because you are in the web industry, that he can call you whenever he has a problem with his emails, or even if his computer won’t start. These small things can cause tensions to start to build up.

This leads to an even more fundamental issue in the agency-client relationship (as in a marriage) – who is really in the driver’s seat? Is it the client or the agency? You’d better get this one sorted out at the beginning, or you’re headed for trouble and eventual divorce.

Many clients expect their agencies to be “order takers”. In other words, the client is in control and the agency takes orders. If you’re an agency, this is generally bad news. It leads to what we generally refer to as “scope creep” i.e. additional little extra jobs that the client expects you to do for free.

So, right at the outset, the terms need to be clear. Who is driving the relationship, and are both parties agreed? What exactly is the agency’s role and responsibility – and what is not the agency’s role. All these things need to be clarified – and it’s the agency’s job to do this. In the vast majority of cases, though, they are not. And that’s why tensions gradually build and lead to a break up.

From an agency’s viewpoint, it’s better to be in the driver’s seat, where the client sees you as a trusted advisor, rather than simply an order taker. But this position also comes with responsibilities. The client will expect to see results from the trust placed in the agency. And there’s a very subtle problem that occurs (just as in a marriage) where the agency can start to take the client for granted.

If an agency is getting a nice monthly retainer from the client, it’s very easy to settle back after a while and let their efforts slip. Over time, the client will start to notice. Then one day, out of the blue, the client will announce, “We’ve decided to go with another company, please send us your final invoice”.

Often the client will try to soften the blow by saying, “it’s not you, it’s us, we’ve decided to go in a different direction.” But the reality is, the agency should have seen the warning signs well ahead of time.

One final point for all service providers to ponder: If the work you are doing does not ultimately lead to an increase in bottom line profit for the client, you’re probably going to get the axe sooner or later. Think about that each time you invoice your client.

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