How do I have hard conversations when things go sideways?

people at desk with laptop

While working with an agency partner, you will encounter challenges or issues that may affect the relationship and project outcomes.The worst thing that can happen is a few missteps leading to tangled feet, missed deadlines, and overall distrust. When things go sideways, it’s normal to panic — you’ve invested a lot of money into this partnership and redirecting can be very difficult. Let me try to explain some things you might encounter and how to steer the relationship back on track.

1. When words get lost: Poor communication or miscommunication can lead to misunderstandings, delays, and frustration to say the least. This can begin with a couple of un-replied-to messages and spin out into full radio silence.

If you feel the channels of conversation are becoming murky, it’s time to sit down and sort things out. Get face-to-face time on the calendar with the important heads of the project. Share your worries candidly, throw in some actionable items and together, Use “I” statements – “I have noticed we are losing steam on this, what is the issue here?” Chart a way to keep those lines of communication crisp and clear. The worst case scenario here is usually a result of underlying issues. Digging those out and addressing them is a great way to avoid them in the future.

2. Missed Deadlines or Delays: If the agency is consistently missing deadlines or causes project delays, it can disrupt your project timeline, impact your business goals, and stretch the budget out of control. While some delays are expected with any project, this shouldn’t be a regular occurrence if the channels of communication are open. If the delays persist there could be an underlying issue.

To address missed deadlines, you’ll have to look at the expected output vs, actual output. What is the agency able to do? Is this delay coming from lack of competence or general misunderstanding? If the agency has gotten this far, they’ve proved they are able to accomplish successful campaigns. Consider talking to them about the difference between this campaign and one they’ve been successful in. Where are the bottlenecks? What can be improved?

Ideally it’s just a matter of an unclear understanding of the timeline. To remedy, simply create a shared calendar with explicit due dates and schedule check-ins after those dates where the agency is expected to report their progress.

Not ideally, this is coming from a lack of capability in which case you’ll have to ask the agency what their realistic timeline looks like and decide if the relationship is still working. Before pointing fingers, organization isn’t contributing to missed deadlines. Factors like approvals, feedback, and material delivery can often hinder agencies’ progress.

3. Quality or Performance Issues: If you identify consistent quality issues or performance shortcomings in the agency’s deliverables, it’s essential to highlight it, but with a nurturing touch. There’s always a balance when broaching this topic, because you don’t want to establish a precedent of distrust if there doesn’t need to be one. At the same time, you do need to be stern and specific enough that it changes the behaviors.

First, talk to the project manager at the agency. Keep in mind, it’s also important to develop and maintain relationships with the senior team at the agency, too. Hopefully you never need to, but occasionally you may need to escalate issues if they seem to be bigger than the ones your project manager can address.

Bring specific feedback and examples of the areas that need improvement. Focus on constructive criticism and work together to establish a plan for addressing the issues. Clearly communicate your expectations and agree on measurable benchmarks to assess improvements. Constructive feedback, coupled with open dialogue, can often reorient focus, ensuring subsequent deliveries meet or even exceed expectations.

4. Lack of Proactive Ideas or Innovation: Innovation is the magic ingredient that turns good projects into great ones. If the agency fails to bring innovative ideas or proactively contribute to your project’s success, it may mean they’re not trying hard enough. With many people working on a project, there should be a different approach or suggestion recommended at some point.

To ignite fresh ideas and perspectives, organize an environment where you engage in a joint brainstorm. This can open the door for the agency to come up and express ideas they might have been stifling for lack of confidence. Celebrate the agency’s creative successes and then discuss areas where you feel more innovation could be infused. Invite the creativity into the project and express your desire to have it included in the overall scope of the project.

Be careful to not overextend this invitation. If there are specific items you want to keep true to the original idea, make that known so the agency doesn’t get carried away on the creativity train.

5. Budget Management: Money discussions, while sometimes uncomfortable, are undeniably vital. At the end of the day, this is a business arrangement and you want to make sure the time you’re paying for is being used efficiently. You might spot this issue when a task, which you can accomplish with ease, seems to take the agency an unusually long time. In this case, it could be that the agency has assigned someone too junior to handle the work, or that they haven’t defined the objectives and process adequately. Keep in mind though, that you may be an expert in a specific area and your expectations may be too high (I know, I know, but keep it in mind).

So how do we have the money talk? Request a breakdown of costs, expenses, and resource allocation to better understand how the budget is being managed. Discuss any discrepancies or unexpected expenses and seek clarification. If necessary, work together to establish a budget management plan that ensures transparency, accountability, and aligns with your financial goals. Make sure the scope has not gotten out of control and be sure to reel in party of the project that feel non-essential.

Tying it all together:

The partnership with an agency is just that — a partnership. There has to be concerted effort on both sides to make it work. While challenges are inevitable, they also present an opportunity to fortify the partnership. Approaching every bump with openness, understanding, and a collaborative spirit ensures that both parties navigate the path to success hand in hand. See below for a helpful checklist to reference as you go into hard conversations.

When having professional conversations to address these issues:

Remain calm and objective: Approach the conversation with a calm and composed demeanor. Focus on the facts and specific issues rather than personal attacks. This helps to maintain a professional atmosphere conducive to problem-solving.

Use “I” statements: Express your concerns using “I” statements to avoid sounding accusatory. For example, say, “I’ve noticed a pattern of missed deadlines” instead of “You always miss deadlines.”

Be specific and provide examples: Clearly articulate the issues you have observed, providing specific examples or instances to support your points. This helps the agency understand the problem areas and facilitates a more productive discussion.

Listen actively: Give the agency time to express their perspective and insights — without interruption. Disrupting the feedback session signals a lack of respect. Active listening promotes understanding and can identify potential solutions or areas for compromise.

Collaborate on solutions: Approach the conversation as a collaborative problem-solving exercise. Work together to find solutions, brainstorm ideas, and establish action steps that address the issues at hand. Be open to suggestions from the agency and be willing to consider alternative approaches.

Document agreements: Once you have reached agreements and identified action steps to address the issue, document them in writing, such as in an email or project update. Keep the SMART framework in mind. This ensures clarity and serves as a reference point for both parties.

Remember, the goal of these conversations is to improve the partnership and resolve any issues constructively. By fostering open communication and addressing concerns proactively, you can work together with your agency partner to overcome challenges and achieve your project goals.

Access Your Free Guide Now
Complete this form and we’ll share “The Partnership Payoff,” our 43-page guide with you immediately.

Get in Touch

We're looking for like minded people to work with us. Say hello and stay in touch with Peter on LinkedIn.