When to Say No to a New Client: 10 Red Flags for Agencies


They say, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But when it comes to bad clients, are you in better shape if you avoid the lemons altogether?

We consult for a number of small AdWords agencies. One emerging trend that we have noticed among newer agencies is that they jump at the prospect of bringing on new accounts, regardless of whether or not these clients are a good fit for them. These relationships quickly take a turn for the worse and the agencies find themselves in hot water. In many cases, the time and energy spent obtaining and onboarding these clients’ accounts outweighs the actual price they’ve paid to the agency, and it's bad for client retention in the long run.

Here at WordStream, our agency team does an in-depth account assessment for every prospect who is interested in our paid search services. Not only do we consider whether we can achieve their goals, we also keep an eye out for “red flags” that indicate they may not be successful, long-term clients.

We came to the realization that we needed a formal RFP process the hard way; when we first started offering management services, we encountered our fair share of nightmare accounts. In an attempt to prevent these clients from churning, we poured our hearts and souls into these accounts, only to later realize that our efforts were futile. As a result, we implemented an RFP checklist outlining all requirements for new accounts. If a prospect does not meet these standards, we walk away from the sale, regardless of how lucrative it may be.

Most successful AdWords agencies can sniff out “problem clients” from a mile away. In an effort to help new agencies develop this sixth sense early on, I asked agency experts to share their wisdom on the subject.

ppc agency client onboarding

I was lucky to connect with a number of agency owners, veteran account managers and PPC sales executives who were willing to share their thoughts on the subject. Participants included Aaron Levy, Andrew Miller, Bryant Garvin, Heather Cooan, Julie Bacchini, Kirk Williams, Mark Kennedy, Sakis Rizos and WordStreamers Rich Griffin and Elliott Reid. We devised a list of the top warning signs that you’re getting involved with a nightmare client. Save yourself a headache and think twice before taking on clients that exhibit any of these traits!

Red Flag #1: They have a history of bad behavior in AdWords.

If an account has received multiple warnings for policy violations, or has been fully suspended in the past, it’s likely that it is teetering on the edge of a permanent suspension. One small misstep—a disapproved ad, missing disclaimers on the landing page, etc.—could trigger the account termination, which is nearly impossible to bounce back from. Urge prospective clients to be crystal clear about their account history, so you know exactly where they stand in Google’s eyes. If you’re considering bringing on someone whose account does have a bit of a sordid past, take extra precautions when working in their campaigns. Also, steer clear of working with businesses that advertise restricted products and services, such as gambling, political campaigns, fireworks, etc. While their ads may have gotten through Google bots in the past, the moment you start making mass changes to their accounts, they are likely to get nabbed by the Google Policy police.

Red Flag #2: They don’t trust you.

This was, by far, the most popular response I got from the PPC community on this topic. Since clients are relinquishing control of a sizable portion of their advertising budget to you, it is important that they are confident with your skill set and respectful of your expertise. Kirk Williams, founder of ZATO, encourages new agencies to beware of clients who constantly second guess everything you say about PPC. In these cases, you often have to spend so much time defending your actions that you can’t focus on making optimal decisions for the account.

Red Flag #3: They have a poor reputation online.

If your clients have a slew of negative reviews online, this can severely hinder your paid search advertising efforts.

ppc agency bad reviews

Sure, you may be able to generate interest in the business and traffic to their site, but users may be hesitant to convert, given their reputation. We recommend doing a quick background check on the company prior to signing them to ensure they have a good BBB rating and decent Yelp reviews. If their reputation is abysmal, they’re likely to be a challenging account to work with. In some cases, this may also help you to discern whether the company itself is in good financial standing. We’ve seen some failing companies use PPC as a last-ditch attempt to garner new business. Nine times out of ten, these end up being very short-term clients.

Red Flag #4: They’re opposed to testing new strategies on the account.

Prospective clients are coming to you because they aren’t happy with their current PPC management solution, therefore they should be welcome your proposals to explore new techniques within their accounts (provided that your experiments are within reason). If they are super rigid from the get-go, it may be challenging to win their trust and convince them to be more open to testing in the future. Not only will this cramp your management style, but it could prevent you from achieving success within the account and keeping the client for the long-term. A good client understands that not all tests yield great results, but is still receptive to trying new PPC strategies.

Red Flag #5: They’re commitment-phobes.

adwords agency client red flags

Julie Bacchini, founder of Neptune Moon, likens the pre-sale process to dating. Now let me tell you, if I went on a date with someone who spent the entire evening complaining about his myriad of past girlfriends AND who couldn’t commit to date #2, I would certainly not pursue a relationship with him. Agencies encounter similar red flags while courting prospective clients through the sales cycle. Don’t ignore these tell-tale signs. Be on guard if the prospect has worked with numerous agencies in the past and has never been content. In this case, it’s likely that he or she is impatient, temperamental or has unrealistic expectations. If the prospect is reluctant to sign a contract altogether, run for the hills.

Red Flag #6: They refuse to acknowledge that their website is a disaster zone.

We all know this—our PPC efforts are futile if we’re sending searchers to a totally hideous AdWords landing page.

adwords agency websites

We can find the perfect keyword combinations, entice visitors with irresistible ad text, score a click….and then BOOM, the moment they land on the disastrous website, they high-tail it out of there and back to the SERP to click on your competitors’ ads. If your prospect’s website is poor and they’re willing to make adjustments, they could be a great fit (bonus points if you offer web development/design services), but if they are dead set on sticking with their current site, turn down the sale.

Red Flag #7: They can’t define their goals.

A prospective client with no concrete PPC goals? Sound like a goldmine, right?

adwords agency client tips

Wrong—just because they struggle to give you clear goals doesn’t mean they don’t have expectations as to what they hope to see the PPC account yield. Oftentimes, when prospects don’t provide clear thresholds for success, it means that they need a little coaching on paid search. Take the time to explain KPIs to them and help them to understand exactly what you’ll be able to achieve in their account. If you don’t have this alignment from the start, you may lose the client early on because they don’t understand the value you are bringing to their overall advertising campaigns.

Red Flag #8: Their goals are wildly unreasonable.

AdWords agency experts cited this as a problem that they encounter all too frequently. In some cases, prospects are focused on the wrong metrics and, despite our attempts to shift their perspectives, they are unwilling to budge on these requirements. For example, I’ve seen numerous prospects fixate on their Quality Scores, rather than more concrete measures of success like CPA or conversions. Even more frequently, clients want guaranteed results from the get-go. Anyone in the paid search space knows that this is a ludicrous expectation, as major account changes often take months to implement and optimize. If you cannot reset your prospects’ expectations appropriately in these circumstances, they’re probably more trouble than they are worth.

Red Flag #9: They don’t respect your schedule.

No doubt, it is critical for clients to develop good relationships with their account managers. They should be meeting regularly to discuss changes in the business model, upcoming promotions, account trends and more. However, it is a major red flag when prospective clients do not attend pre-scheduled meetings or call and email incessantly with questions about their accounts. If they don’t respect these boundaries during the sales process, there’s a good chance that things will only get worse as you take ownership of their account. Time spent dealing with the client can impede on the time you set aside to work in their account. Bryant Garvin also urges new agencies to be aware of prospective clients that “want to set expectations of ‘quantity’ of communication (especially by phone/video chat) without solid reasons why.”

Red Flag #10: Your gut says no.

I’ll leave you with these words of wisdom from Julie Bacchini, which I found to be really powerful—if the prospective client just doesn’t feel like the right fit for you, have the courage to walk away from the sale. Even though your reasoning may not be super concrete, if you don’t feel excited to work in the account, turn down the sale. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself dreading spending time in it and feeling as though it is distracting you from other clients. Save your energy for accounts that you enjoy working in!

Erin Sagin is a Customer Success Manager at WordStream. In addition to conducting software training and consulting calls for clients, she also helps to maintain our usability testing program. Originally from Western Maryland, Erin majored in International Studies with a concentration in Latin America at Kenyon College. When she’s able to take a break from PPC, you’ll find her practicing her hula-hooping skills or planning her next trip to the Caribbean. You can follow Erin on Twitter and Google+.


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Dave Schneider
Jul 24, 2014

Hey Erin,Interesting article. I agree that poor reputation is a DEFINITE Red Falg.Cheers!Dave at NinjaOutreach

Jul 24, 2014

agreed--and these accounts can be so easily avoided! all you have to do put yourself in a customers' shoes, do a quick google search and voile!  you can walk away from the prospect altogether without even wasting time on sales calls!

Mae Polczynski
Jul 24, 2014

This is a great list! It took me two years of qualifying calls and signing several rotten clients to recognize these red flags. Here's a list of a few others that might help new agencies spot difficult clients: http://www.clixmarketing.com/blog/2013/07/11/spotting-the-succubus-client-how-to-identify-rotten-potential-clients-and-politely-turn-them-away/

Jul 24, 2014

Hi Mae-- Nice list!  Thank you for sharing :)

Dids Reeve
Jul 25, 2014

This is a really useful list with some important points - thanks Erin.Perhaps a topic for another entry would be for how, in practical terms, to turn those clients down - diplomatically and without awkwardness for either party?Especially after having spent some time getting to know the potential client and their business, how do you walk away without giving wrong signals about not needing work or not wanting to touch their business with a barge pole?! 

Jul 25, 2014

hi dids--that is a great idea!  i'll definitely try to put together a follow up to address this issue.  thanks for your comment!

Jul 25, 2014

The truth of the matter is that many will obviously find it difficult to say no to a client especially when money is in the equation. But why go ahead with a deal even the personality involved has a bad record. I for instance had to turn down to advertising opportunities simply because what I think they intended to promote on my blog was deceit. I found this post shared on Kingged.com

Jul 28, 2014

Emmanuel, I agree--it's tough to say no to a client prospective client, especially when a good chunk of money is on the line. Hoping to outline recommendations for that one in my next post!  Thanks for commenting :)

Michael Climer
Jul 27, 2014

The entire time I was reading this post I was nodding my head and smiling as all of the points are so true! It can sometimes be hard to walk away from prospects that are not the right fit as  running a business is so often focused on generating new leads.The one thing that helps me to walk away from prospects is knowing that taking the time to choose the clients that are a riught fit will cause far less hassle, stress, and problems in life and in the long run make mor emoney with clients that are the right fit rather than wasting time, energy and resources on clients that ar enot a good fit.One way to get a feel for prosepects that I didn't see mentioned was to view the users on the account and see how many different companies have had access over the last year. This can be quiet telling! 

Jul 28, 2014

Hi Michael, I'm glad to hear that the post reasonated with you!  I definitely agree with your additional tip--agency hopping is definitely NOT a good sign!  Thanks for joining the discussion!

Ben Childs
Jul 29, 2014

I used to fall over myself to keep every single client, but sometimes the juice isn't worth the squeeze. I think the first client that I "let go" was, in my mind, when I realized that I had actually made it as a working, viable agency. 

Greg T.
Jul 30, 2014

Erin,Great post.  I've been in this situation on both ends, and your points are well taken.  It's so important to create the right expectations and clear goals with both parties.  Otherwise you're setting yourself up for failure.  I recently engaged with a paid search company that offers a software with a labor option for adwords campaigns.  Its called ppcpath, and everything seems to be going well so far because everything is pretty automated.  Do you know of any red flags I should look out for with paid search software companies? Thanks,GT

Jul 31, 2014

A lot of these apply to SEO as well as PPC. Specifically #3-- poor reputation. Removing bad organic reviews is probably over 10x harder than ranking a site, since you have to rank 10 sites on the first page instead of 1. Great tips!

Oct 02, 2014

I’m going to print this. It is very nice.

Liam Holmes
Aug 25, 2016

I have dealt with some toxic frogs in the past.

These red flags are things I have encountered in the past.
Some others, and related ones include-

Companies that do not want to use their credit card for Adwords.
No email signatures in communications
Voicemail always goes to automatic message.
Not using the website domain when sending emails
Customers that want to be unhappy as a tactic to get more than they pay for.
Not wanting to tell you about their company
Customers trying to tell you what the approach should be.
Changing the website back and forth often
Not telling you of changes.
Everything is always urgent.
Not dealing directly with the MD or the marketing director.
Third parties with no knowledge of Adwords- and using a few online blogs to disagree on the approach. (e.g. entering into Google- is remarketing bad?)
No web developer to make changes- if it is a decent size advertising budget.
Unclear photos of products.
Anything health related that does not have any official recommendations (e.diet).
Signs of later payment each month
Companies that run contests for reviews.
Companies that provide inconsistent numbers for the same arguments.
Companies that have dual objectives. (e.g. CPA- but they still want to be number one ad position on all keywords).

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