How to Handle a Client Who Won’t Listen

I wish advertisers always accepted my advice and did what I told them. Alas.

sales tip: sometimes the client won't listen

Photo by pathdoc/pdc

There are some furniture store owners and auto dealers who think they know more about advertising than I do.

Sometimes they’re right. But not often. I once considered telling a funeral director that I’d let him embalm the bodies as long as he let me write the copy.

Didn’t say it. Lost my nerve.

The Client Who Won’t Listen is a topic of much conversation among well-trained advertising salespeople.

You’re held accountable for results — if the advertising doesn’t deliver, you be blamed. But you’re also on commission — if the client doesn’t run with you, you don’t get paid.

How do you handle a client who won’t listen?

As Dan O’Day points out, much depends on how your customers perceive you:

If you want to provide your clients the most for their money, you need to:

1. Educate yourself to the point where you do have genuine expertise in radio advertising.

2. Make that expertise clear to the client at the beginning of and throughout your entire relationship.

As an Account Executive, I told stories about other clients who’d used my advice and got great results. I made a point of talking about the books I’d read, the CD’s I’d listened to, and the seminars I’d attended. 

I sent a monthly email newsletter to my clients that talked about marketing, not about my stations.

I started a blog in 2008 — the one you’re reading now.

In spite of the credentials I built up and trumpeted at every opportunity, I would sometimes find myself sitting across the desk from a business owner who was determined to write his own laundry-list commercial and run it on my competitor if I didn’t like it.

If you run into a situation like that, you have two choices:

1. Refuse the business. Tell the client that you would love to have the business, but cannot accept the order when you don’t think it will accomplish their goals.

2. Give the client the best advice you can, and then take the money.

Here’s the approach I settled on:

  • If the order was a little one, I’d refuse it. I set a minimum dollar figure (my “Evangelista Number“) below which the business wasn’t worth my time. If it was below the Evangelista Line, I was happy to let my competitor suffer.
  • If the dollar figure was substantial, and the only way to get the order was to air the ad my the customer insisted on running, I’d accept it — but only after saying this:

Advertising Sales Tip:
The “Two Responsibilities Gambit”

Mr. (or Ms.) Client, I have two responsibilities. The first one is to my station and my own checking account, and it’s this: if you want to give me your money, I am prepared to take it.

But I also have a responsibility to you to tell you if I think your plan isn’t going to work. And I don’t think it’ll work. If you still want to go ahead and do it, let’s go ahead.

Sometimes the campaign failed and the client ultimately agreed to try it my way. Results, and the customer’s perception of my expertise, generally improved when that happened.

Sometimes the campaign failed and the client just stopped advertising. In that case, I’d shrug and move on to someone else who was willing to listen to me.

Occasionally customer was right and the campaign worked after all. As Joaquin Andujar was fond of saying, you never know.

In a perfect world, you could walk away every time a client wanted to advertise the wrong way.

Unfortunately, the world ain’t perfect.

You have bills to pay, and a budget to hit.  Winning the argument might feel good, but allowing your competition to cash your commission check does not.

Under the right circumstances, the Two Responsibilities Gambit will allow you to cash the check and still sleep at night.

Question: What’s your best strategy for dealing with a client who won’t listen? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


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6 thoughts on “How to Handle a Client Who Won’t Listen

  1. How about a station owner who won’t take advice. Been in this trade since my 16th birthday (started in the mailroom). Worked at WRKO, RKO NATIONAL Sales, WHDH Boston. My boss bought the station 8 years ago – came from the Real Estate business. I advised, I pleaded and finally gave up.

    • Bill, I don’t know if you’re still working for that owner. If so, I’d ask this:

      Is this situation the best option you have? Can you:

      • Get a job with another radio station/group in your market?
      • Get a sales job in another medium medium (TV? Outdoor? Print? Digital?)
      • Sell something else for a living in your market?
      • Go to another market?

      These are all options worth considering – if you have a successful track record in sales, there should be some open doors for you somewhere.

      Former Yankee manager Joe Torre once said this about George Steinbrenner: “If you want to take George’s money, you’ve got to take George’s shit.”

      There’s no law that says you have to remain where you are if you’re not happy anymore. I can’t decide for you if it’s time to go, but it’s unlikely that your boss is going to change, so ask yourself a variation of the old “Ann Landers Question” – will your career be better off with him, or without him?

  2. My advice for people getting paid to generate business for a company they don’t own: Just give the prospect or client your best advice and if they don’t agree, say: “It’s your money, we’ll do it your way.” That’s what I did. What happened after that was out of my control.

    I used to be in the radio business working for the people who owned the stations. When you’re working for someone else with the accompanying revenue budgets, you really don’t have the luxury of refusing to work with someone who isn’t a fit. I went out on my own 5 years ago (not radio) and there are advantages and disadvantages of going it alone. But my favorite thing is that I can refuse to work with some people for any reason. It might be that we have different communication styles. It might be that they know just enough to think they know more than me. Sometimes it’s just because I don’t like them.

    • Jerry, I’m on your side to a point — give the best advice you can and then take the money — as long as a few criteria are met:

      1. You have to make it absolutely clear to the client that you think their idea isn’t going to work. Any ambiguity on that score means you give up the moral high ground.

      2. It has to be enough money to buy off the twinge of guilt you’ll feel every time you hear the ad.

      I will also disagree with you a bit on the dynamics of working for someone else. You always have the option to walk away from a piece of business as long as you have enough in the funnel to hit your budget anyway. Where we lose control of our destiny is when we HAVE to take the order to hit our number.

  3. In a similar fashion, how might u advise when I, as a highly trained, well-educated pediatric specialist, cannot get a ‘Google-self taught misinformed ignoramamus parent’ to immunize their child!?!

    • David, I used to think that if I worked hard enough and was very patient, I could teach my cat to read.

      I have since concluded otherwise.