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

May 31, 2018

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

Erin Sagin is the Global SMB Solutions Go To Market Lead at Google.