Commentary

'It's Not Me, It's You. You're Fired'

When you're a small agency just starting out, you need every client you can get. Scratch that -- almost every client you can get.

There are those clients that you can eliminate right from the start: they need everything yesterday, on spec for now, but the payoff is guaranteed once their [insert whatever next-best thing here] takes off. If you get those demands before you start, run for the hills, folks.

But back to my point. There comes a time when you can afford -- monetarily and mentally -- to break up with your client. Your agency has grown and your client roster is no longer dictated by cash flow, or the lack thereof. There are many reasons to call it quits, but I have never given marching orders to a client for one single reason. It's always been a multitude of factors that have built up over time until the point of no return.

Breaking up is never easy to do, in any type of relationship. This column was spurred by a recent experience within my agency, and I wanted to share a few reasons why you should consider breaking up with a client if the relationship isn't what you had hoped for.

Reason #4: "Mind your copy for a shilling, sir?"

In this business, it pays to be frugal, but you also get what you pay for. Some clients refuse to give in to the fact that we don't live within the pages of a Dickens novel. If you've proven your worth over the years to your client, and they still complain about rates, insist on markdowns, and belabor your honest billing, send them packing. It's time for them to find out if there really is an agency out there that can service all of their needs for what they expect to pay, which is very little.

Reason #3: "I'm just not that into you."

Face up to it: it's a bad strategic fit. Years ago, they loved your pitch, your vision, your ideas. None of it has come to fruition. Time and time again, you have attempted to steer them toward that vision, only to find that the client is simply looking for a Band-Aid for their current problem(s). Symptoms of bad strategic fit include: a client who exhibits indecisiveness, anxiety, little strategic insight; an agency that repeatedly finds itself fighting for consistency, flailing through endless days of fire-drill work.

Reason #2: "I'll Huff and I'll Puff"

Your client is a bully. Granted, both of you can have a disagreement over strategic direction and tactics, but a constant reminder that it's "my way or the highway" always results in a poor working relationship. Such an attitude by the client stifles creativity and limits your agency's effectiveness: you're relegated to being an order-taker. In such a case, there is usually no collaboration and the agency ends up hurting its reputation (after all, it's not your work anymore -- just the client's order). Precedence is key here: if you start out simply following direct orders and never assert your direction, you'll have a hard time turning the tide forever after.

Reason #1: "I Need it This Way ...

Regardless of how many times you've discussed the direction, and never mind the plans, if a client constantly disregards what you have to offer, cut them loose. "I need it this way" is yet another way of cutting you out of the picture. It does the brand no good, and you've placed your talent, marketing skills, and your reputation in the hands of your client.

You're Fired. Really.

Think about how many fires you put out daily. Do you constantly have to turn out hasty projects on a moment's notice, without proper planning or thought? Does your output have any consistency, or is your body of work for this client a panic-based mishmash?

So why prolong the pain any longer? Tell them to get lost (nicely, of course).

There are, of course, traits from every one of these reasons in almost every client, but if you have one client (hopefully, just one) that fits all of these reasons -- or even three out of four -- it's probably time to give them their walking papers.

As with matters of the heart, breaking up with a client can be painful. It hurts to cut loose a routine that's become second-nature -- even when it's not good for you. But if you can't tell a client "You're fired," and don't want to hurt their feelings, you can simply tell them: "You're just not ready for a relationship right now."

Have you had a nightmare client that you've had to fire? What did it take to get to that point?

Tags: commentary, pr
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3 comments about "'It's Not Me, It's You. You're Fired' ".
  1. Alysha Walker from Cohn & Wolfe , March 18, 2011 at 11:09 a.m.

    What a great post. Most of us in the agency business can relate to these scenarios on some level. I'd love to read a follow up on how exactly to fire a client (tactfully).

  2. Susan Von Seggern from SvS PR , March 18, 2011 at 1:19 p.m.

    I just had to fire a client yesterday! And I can't even remember the last time that happened. He was a bully, never listened, and had vastly out-sized ideas about the project's media value. Yup, they had to go. My billings might momentarily go down, but the relief of not having to put up with that kind of bs made it totally worth it. Sometimes you just have to fire the client. Thanks for the great column Vanessa!

  3. John Vickary from l'Attitude Business Development , March 19, 2011 at 7:07 p.m.

    I too have had the opportunity to "fire" clients on a number of occasions over the years, and the overwhelming sense of relief more than compensates for the temporary loss on billings revenue

    There have been occasions when a has resolved the issue

    Alysha, don't worry too much about finding a tactful way - it the relationship's dead, it's DEAD.

    I've found that a "frank and open exchange of views" is the best approach, and it sometimes results in the client realising just what a "pain in the ice-hole" they have been, mended their ways and gone on to be my best clients.

    Conversely, others have not been so open-minded and use the opportunity to prove just what a pain in the ice-hole I always found them to be.

    And here's a tip on how to respond to the threat that the former client will tell all their contact - "please do. If they're anything like you, I don't them as clients either" It's true, and you will feel really good saying it!

    JV @ l'Attitude! in Cairns