• 08Feb

    The only constant is change. And when it comes to client relations, sometimes one of your outgrows the relationship and it comes time to break up. Breaking up is never easy, but when you know the relationship is no longer working, then you have to face facts and tell your client, “I’m sorry, but it’s over.”

    I have had a lot of those moments in the past few weeks. With the coming of the New Year, there are changes in strategy, budget, staff, and what used to be a great working relationship suddenly changes. Here’s a litany of my recent client break-up experiences:

    1. New company direction and budget reset for 2012 – marketing and PR support is no longer a priority.
    2. New marketing executive who decides to bring in his own team.
    3. Economy has reduced the client’s budget to the point where you lose money working for them at a reduced rate.
    4. The client’s demands are starting to take up more of your time, but they won’t  allocate more budget and they are increasingly slow to pay your invoices.

    breaking-upAny of these sound familiar? Working with clients can be a lot like dating. As long as the relationship has mutual benefit then you continue to work together, but if one or the other party becomes disenchanted, well… I actually see it as part of my mission to help my clients outgrow my services. If I am good at my job, the client company’s business will expand to the point where they need more marketing and PR resources, which means it’s time to hire more in-house staff or bring in a bigger firm. I’m always satisfied when that happens because it means I have done my job and they client has evolved to the next level. It’s all part of the business lifecycle.

    Still, breaking up is always hard to do. When it becomes clear that the working relationship is no longer of mutual benefit, it’s time to part company. Sometimes you will find that a client wants too much, or is detracting from more profitable work, or is just too difficult to work with. Pareto’s Principle of 80/20 indicates that 20 percent of your clients probably make up 80 percent of the workload. They also should make up 80 percent of your profits, but not necessarily contribute 80 percent of the headaches.

    When it’s time to say goodbye, it’s always difficult. You don’t want to turn away business, even if it gets in the way of finding something more lucrative. Somehow, the idea of firing a client seems to bad for business, when in reality, getting rid of a bad client is the best thing you can do for your operation.

    So how do you do it? Be professional and be up front. We all like to avoid conflict, and that leads to unclear communications and passive-aggressive behavior that just makes things more difficult. You want to end the relationship in a way that you both have respect for one another, and so you can use that soon-to-be-former client as a reference later on. Here are some tips I’ve borrowed from Nellie Akalp of CorpNet that you should find useful.

    1. Remove emotion from the equation. I know I tend to get pissed off at clients for any number of reasons. Don’t make decisions when you feel angry or hurt; it will be the wrong decision. Instead, assess the client relationship calmly and rationally and weigh the pros and cons before you decide to part ways. If you find your ego being bruised time and again by the same client, then listen to your instincts.

    2. Honor the contract. My contracts have a termination clause – typically from two weeks to 30 days. Be sure you have fulfilled your part of your contract and honored all of your obligations. It’s good business and will help you secure a reference if you need one, and keep you out of trouble. Beside, it’s just the right thing to do.

    3. Schedule a meeting. It’s so easy to send an email or leave a voice mail message. It’s also a cowardly way to avoid confrontation. Schedule a personal meeting or at least a phone call to explain your position, come to a mutual understanding, and discuss any transition. Meeting face-to-face may be uncomfortable but it’s the right thing to do. (You wouldn’t dump your girlfriend with a text message or PostIt would you?)

    4. Be succinct. Don’t rehash all the reasons you are firing the client, or all the good work you have done in the past. What’s the point? Just keep it short and sweet.

    5. Give sufficient notice. Don’t walk out in the middle of a project. Don’t leave the client in a bind by dropping everything. Honor the spirit as well as the specific terms of your contract and provide the best service you can right up to the end. That shows professionalism and a genuine desire to see your client succeed.

    6. Help with a transition. Offer alternative resources. Prepare all the material you need to help the client hand off the work to another resource. Acknowledge your contribution by offering to pass on what you have done and what you have learned so others who follow don’t have to start from scratch.

    Once you recognize the party’s over, leave gracefully. The professionalism of your exit and how you choose to terminate a client relationship says a lot about you, your firm, and your professionalism, and may make the difference in building your brand reputation or making an enemy with unkind words that may follow you to your next gig.

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  • 06Jul

    The Gates of Hell by Auguste RodinOne of the biggest challenges of working with clients is helping them achieve their objectives without investing too much of your ego in the process. Over the years I have worked with clients of all shapes and sizes, both as a consultant and as part of an agency team. Public relations and marketing communications services need to fall somewhere short of “the customer is always right”; perhaps it’s safer to say “the customer is never completely wrong.”

    While there are some who argue that to be a successful executive, you need to have psychopathic tendencies, I do know that successful senior managers have very healthy egos, don’t often take criticism well, and are very wedded to their own ideas. I can’t recall how many times I have had a client come to me with a project already mapped out in his or her head, complete with impossible targets and unrealistic deadlines and the mandate, “Make it so!” Your job is to assess the situation and determine if you can pull the rabbit out of the hat, or reset the scope and expectations of the project so you can pull off a lesser miracle, make the client happy and help him or her achieve his goals, and still look like a hero.

    Of course, agency executives and consultants have egos too. I have been in a number of meetings where the senior executive on the account clashes with the client in a battle of wills over who is right and who has the best approach or idea. I have worked with consultants with the same challenge. Their argument is “you are paying me all this money for my opinion, why won’t you listen to me?” (Of course, one of the reasons consultants become consultants is that they don’t play well with others, especially authority figures, so consulting is preferable to unemployment. But I digress.)

    Trying to win an argument with your client may be good for your ego but it’s bad for business.

    As with most interpersonal relations, you need to learn how to pick you battles. There are so many small things that you can let go, despite the fact it may hurt your professional pride, if it doesn’t’ compromise your professional integrity. Let’s look at some specifics.

    Writing has become a battleground where I am prepared to give ground on a regular basis. One of the biggest complaints within the PR community is that the latest crop of PR professionals are such atrocious writers (note: the age group varies depending on how long you have been in the profession). You can argue about grammar, usage, the use of the serial comma, and whether AP Style is dead. At the end of the day, you want to make sure you made your point, and there are no glaring spelling or grammatical errors. A common problem I see among PR professionals is writing and rewriting a press release or other copy, not because it’s wrong but because the text needs polishing or doesn’t conform to house style. While this may chew up a lot of billable time, in many cases it’s wasted effort. Early in my career, I had a client who referred to this as the “happy/glad” syndrome; there are different ways to express the same idea, so at the end of the day what does it matter? In cases where a client has an emotional commitment to the way a press release or article is written, there is no reason to argue.

    Then there are the ethical issues. I have had clients ask, no tell me to lie to a reporter. Of course, I refused. There also have been instances when a client has lied to me and I, in turn, lied to a reporter. In such cases, it’s my reputation at stake and I will resign the client in a heartbeat. As I explain to all my clients, my integrity with journalists is my bread and butter, despite the fact they write the checks, so if they ask me to do something unscrupulous or dishonest, it’s a deal-breaker.

    And then there’s everything in between. The smart PR professional doesn’t let his ego get in the way of his judgment. If you adopt that as a cardinal rule, you can navigate most client situations to a happy outcome for all, even if they don’t do things your way. Maintain your professionalism and always give your best counsel, but be prepared to compromise when the need arises. The best public relations professionals are excellent diplomats, and in the end, you have to remember that you are just the messenger. What’s the point in getting shot?

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