Why Clients Leave Inbound
Marketing Agencies

Chris Hawkins

Written by Chris Hawkins on Fri, May 26, 2017

At some point in my sales conversations with a prospect, I ask if their company has ever worked with a marketing agency. About ninety percent of the time it’s a “Yes”. And because this is important for our agency to understand, I probe a little deeper.

Me: What did they do for you?

Prospect: They created blogs, eBooks and did some email marketing.

Me: How did it work out?

Prospect: Well, I’ll tell you what happened. At first...

And so these simple few questions invariably open up a flood of memories. The reasons for the break ups, in my experience, boil down to a handful of areas (oddly enough, lack of results is almost never mentioned as a direct reason).

They Didn’t Understand Our Business

I'm just a soul whose intentions are good

Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood

The Animals

This could be an entire blog post by itself and is probably the one I hear most often. It can be the final diagnosis (and client exodus) from all of the other negative symptoms combined that creep into a relationship.

It’s one thing if a client is selling consumer moving services and quite another if it’s artificial intelligence software. To market each of these, however, will require a documented strategy. This “getting to know” the client phase is crucial for success going forward. Evidence of its absence or corner cutting may not make itself known for months, but it emerges eventually.

It’s when a company’s product/solution is complex that misunderstanding becomes obvious quickly, particularly if an agency doesn’t take the time to perform internal and external client interviews, competitive research, lead definitions/analysis and buyer journey development.

Missing these steps is evident in the content created whether it’s truly not understanding what a client does, not identifying their potential buyers’ challenges, or simply being repetitive in their content topics.

Pyramids of GizaAgency Employee Turnover

 I hear this a lot, especially when a client was working with a large agency. There’s one big agency in particular that gets mentioned most often. They employ enough writers and account managers to build the Great Pyramid of Giza, and reading their Glassdoor reviews, the toiling they do seems like the modern equivalent of pyramid building albeit behind a desk.

The complaint is always straightforward: as soon as one writer or account manager got up to speed on our business, they were replaced by someone else who had to start all over again. This disrupted the flow, slowed progress and left us little confidence in them.

If you’re surrendering your inbound marketing to a large agency, expect there to be turnover and consequently, upheaval. It’s the nature of working with quantity over quality.

Bad Cultural Fit

Small companies can be as concerned with cultural fit as they are with an agency’s capabilities. Look at any job posting for a start-up and see how obsessed they are with offering the coolest perks in town: dogs at work, multi-handle kegerators, mechanical bull rides--everyone trying to offer what they feel will keep their employees happier and working longer hours.

Some of these companies also want the same with the agency they end up working with. Not far into a meeting with a start-up prospect last year, the CEO asked “So what does your office look like?”

“Well, it’s on the first floor of a Victorian mansion in downtown Denver,” I said, thinking this would be enough to satisfy his curiosity.  

“So is it really modern?”

Not enough.

“It’s listed as a historic home so it has that feel inside with dark wood paneling and big, heavy doors.” I think I also mentioned we have a treadmill desk.

He persisted with a few more questions trying to get a quasi-virtual reality tour. But I got the feeling my answers weren’t what he was looking for and even if they were, I’m not sure we would have won the business anyway (we didn’t).

Aside from the superficial cultural fit, the most important is personality. And this can take many forms. One local prospect wanted to meet the inbound manager they would be working with should they sign with us. They wanted to make sure they perceived this person as both smart and someone who wasn’t afraid to disagree and push back. These were some of the reasons they were leaving their current agency.

Full moon

Selling Unrealistic Expectations

The beauty of inbound marketing is the ability to measure nearly everything you do. This can also come back to haunt an agency that over promises and under delivers. It all starts with the sales process.

On more than a few occasions I’ve heard prospects talk about what a great pitch they got from an agency’s sales rep only to be completely underwhelmed when the rubber met the road. They’ve even shared proposals with me so I could see what they were talking about.

In one example, the agency “predicted” the number of leads and sales this company would get by doing business with them. Walking on water was the first thing that came to mind. There was no way these numbers were remotely realistic unless you were selling the cure for cancer.

Unfortunately, selling unrealistic expectations drops this boat anchor right back on the agency’s strategy and creative team, setting them up for failure and the agency with a non-renewal.

“Selling unrealistic expectations sets up the agency's strategy and creative team for failure and the agency with a non-renewal.” CLICK TO TWEET intents@1x.png

Off with the Training Wheels

Like a 27-year-old leaving home for the first time, there are times in a relationship when the training wheels should come off. In a client-agency relationship, that can mean the agency has done such a stellar job that the client decides they can strike out on their own.

Riding bike

One of our early inbound clients was like that. When they engaged us, they were relatively new to any form of digital marketing and didn’t have the internal expertise to develop and implement an inbound marketing strategy.

We ended up creating a marketing machine that took their business to the next level. They eventually hired several marketing people internally who were able to keep building on the momentum we started. In the words of their CEO, “You got us on a tricycle and taught us how to ride. Then got us on a two-wheeler and taught us how to ride.”

While this scenario is rare, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to an agency if it happens. A business is constantly evaluating its resources, trying to squeeze as much efficiency as possible out of each one.

If you’ve left an inbound agency and are debating whether to hire another, send me an email (chris@sproutcontent.com), and we can talk through your concerns. Or you can start with our comparison guide.

Pros Cons Hiring Inbound Agency


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