Creating Successful Relationships Between Clients and Software Development Agencies: Part 3 Avoiding Toxic Client/Agency Partner Relationships

Finding the Right Partner

Proper communication and clear expectation alignment are the primary determinants of success between two organizations looking to design and develop a software application. We discuss both of these in Part 1 and Part 2 of our series on Creating Successful Relationships Between Clients and Software Development Agencies. For the third and final part of our blog series we will discuss how to avoid toxic client and agency partner relationships. 

In the process of doing business together, agencies and clients aim to properly communicate their needs, align expectations, and maintain consistency through the duration of the engagement. When this communication becomes inconsistent, when expectations change, and, ultimately, when one or both parties become frustrated in the status of the engagement this can lead to an unhealthy relationship between organizations. When the budget, timeline, scope, or quality of a project change it is reasonable for one party to become frustrated at the status of the project, express their frustration, and consider cutting the relationship short. Every agency actively seeks to avoid this as it can lead to a loss in revenue, sleepless nights, and a general lack of appreciation for the work that is being completed.

Warning Signs of a Poor Agency Relationship

When looking for warning signs of an agency relationship going south, there are a few primary areas a client should track and monitor as they engage with the agency. Typically we see agencies underperform when: 

  • They do not understand the initial scope. This can happen if an agency does not take the necessary time to understand what the client hopes to accomplish or help them establish a roadmap for how to execute on their vision in varying phases. *This can also happen from a lack of documentation or expertise on a particular type of project. 
  • They do not accurately estimate the budget/timeline that it will take to complete the scope. By not accurately quoting the engagement, there is a high likelihood that the agency could consider future change orders, delays, etc. 
  • The agency is not upfront about utilizing junior labor, contractors,  or offshore employees. 
  • The agency is poor at communicating. If weekly/bi-weekly check-ins are not scheduled to show progress, discuss blockers, and effectively communicate then often projects can be delayed or issues can arise. 
  • Agencies are working on multiple projects simultaneously. Unless specified in the original contract, it is unreasonable to expect that an agency will be exclusively focused on a single client project. Yet, it is the job of the agency to create effective internal process and project management tools and procedures to ensure all client needs are addressed.
  • They have not allocated the right staff/skills to a project. Agencies are only as good as the people within them and if they have Junior or unskilled talent working on a project, these folks may not be as seasoned and able to work as efficiently as another agency with more experienced, talented, or senior staff.

Warning Signs of a Unhealthy Client Relationship

When looking for the warning signs of an unhealthy client relationship, there are a few primary areas an agency should track and monitor as they engage with the client. Typically we see client issues when: 

  • They do not understand their vision, requirements, or overall scope of what they are asking an agency to accomplish. It is reasonable to expect an agency to use their expertise to provide clarity and guidance but if a client does not have a relatively clear understanding of their product, features, and overall vision then an agency will have a hard time translating requirements. 
  • They do not have clear documentation to outline the areas of their project that are more complex and require specified domain expertise. On any new engagement, if the client is not able to unblock the agency and provide domain specific expertise for areas that an agency may not understand, then ultimately this can lead to delays and scope issues for the agency. 
  • The client does not communicate succinctly and efficiently. Either at the beginning or in the middle of an engagement, if a client does not continuously  share their needs, feedback, and other basic project details, the project deliverables can get off track. 
  • When a client is unreasonable in their expectations. The best products take time and resources to build. If a client does not understand the resources and the time it takes to build something, it is not fair for them to hold an agency to an unreasonable timeline or budget. If an agency does not align with their timelines and budget, they can find another partner to complete the project.

Comparing Partners to Choose the Right Vendor

We think it is important for clients to consider getting proposals from a few different agencies to compare communication approach, scope understanding, and other factors. An agency’s expertise, process, and overall quality should stand out in the way they communicate through the business development phase, scoping analysis, and ultimately the project execution. We think that by having these conversations with multiple vendors, the top quality agencies will rise to the top.

Toxic Relationships

In rare occasions there can be individuals within an agency or a business that can be toxic and should be avoided at all cost. Agency/client partnerships do not always go smoothly but the most important factor for success is how conflict is mitigated and navigated if there are inevitable scope changes, delays, etc. In a small percentage of engagements that do not go as smoothly, toxic individuals are willing to go beyond a point of frustration to threaten, belittle, or attack a partner organization and the staff within it. It is rare that misalignment is created by one party alone and when this toxic behavior occurs it is completely unacceptable. No single individual should ever deal with or display verbal abuse within the context of a business engagement. 

Frustration over misalignment of scope, timelines, budget, etc. is reasonable and can be mitigated through realigning expectations and better communication but when this turns into a personal attack it is unacceptable and it is not unreasonable for this to be the catalyst for a complete stop of services and a breaking off of the engagement.


Expanding upon the previous blogs outlining the importance of good communication and expectation alignment, clients and agencies can proactively avoid unhealthy relationships. Both groups should do what is possible to select the right partners, mitigate issues early and consistently, and most important to avoid toxic relationships from the start with clients that are willing to cross the line of frustration into toxicity. 

At Lithios these are the strategies we use to build successful relationships with our clients. In years past we have consistently improved the way we navigate and actively pursue projects that are the right fit for our skills, avoiding engagements that may not be the right fit. We are always improving and always willing to discuss these areas more openly to ensure all of our relationships going forward provide the most value to our clients. If you are ever interested in speaking with us more about these areas, please contact us here.

Kyle Linton Image

Kyle Linton is the VP of Operations at Lithios. He focuses on reducing blockers and creating repeatable processes for the internal teams. In his free time, he partakes in interpretive dance.

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