Time To Fire Your Client? Five Steps to Take When Contemplating A Break-Up

When should a PR agency choose to 'Fire' a client?

At our best, PR people are diplomats as well as communications experts; core to good client service, we are taught, is honing your listening skills. Listen “between the lines” to uncover your client’s real needs, listen even when you disagree with what they’re saying.

After all, the client is always right.

Well, not always, but it’s a good rule of thumb to follow. But what happens when clients go from being challenging to abusive? At what point do you decide the morale of your staff is more important than client revenue?

Several years ago, in what was certainly the worst client meeting of my career, I watched a senior client do the following:

– Accuse us of lying about having secured a “Today” show segment

– Hurl a press kit comp across the table at us

– Dismiss “agency types” as “all the same” and only in it to “steal his money.”

It wasn’t the first time we’d had difficulty with this client, but the hostility in this meeting made it clear the relationship was broken. We reported back to our then-CEO, the savviest manager of client relations I knew. She had a healthy respect for client revenue, to be sure, but in this case her actions were swift. No one, she said, treats my staff like that.

With that, she picked up the phone and resigned the business.

So how do you know when it’s time to end the relationship? Unless there is a clear case of impropriety or ethics abuses, firing a client is complicated. Depending on your agency, it might not even be your call to make alone. No matter what your ultimate say in the matter, consider this as you frame your argument for or against calling it quits:

1. Sprinkle a grain of salt. It’s your job to listen to your account staff objectively. Separate fact from emotion when they complain about the client. Dive in personally to assess the tone and content of agency-client exchanges.

2. Switch it up. Sometimes a dysfunctional relationship is just a function of bad chemistry. Team burnout can happen under the best of circumstances; see if a staff rotation can help alleviate some of the tension.

3. Intervene. Address the issues head-on with the client, ideally in person. Keep the conversation fact-based, bring concrete examples and address the client’s actions – not their personality.  Approach the conversation from a partnership mindset.

4. Weigh the costs. If you’ve worked through steps 1, 2 and 3 and it’s clear the relationship is beyond repair, it’s time to consider operational implications of resigning the account. Are there staff flight risks if you don’t fire the client? How much will it cost in recruiting fees to replace them?

5. Make a plan. If you’ve decided to end the relationship, quietly activate your new business team. Map a prospecting strategy:  there’s revenue to be replaced and you’ve got category expertise to leverage.

Ultimately, you must trust your instincts as a leader. Ask yourself: am I as devoted to my staff as I am to my clients? That question alone may illuminate the right path to take.

About the Author

Stephanie Smirnov is President of DeVries Public Relations, a leading consumer PR firm based in NYC whose clients include P&G, E&J Gallo, Pepperidge Farm and Boston Beer Company. Follow Stephanie on Twitter or visit her personal blog PR Mama.


7 comments on “Time To Fire Your Client? Five Steps to Take When Contemplating A Break-Up

  1. Beyond hostility or unprofessionalism, there are times it just doesn’t work, doesn’t meet expectations. Maybe a personnel change will do the trick, maybe it is about a sit-down w/ the client to reassess the goals and objectives. But yes when it’s time to move on, you do have to have a plan and solid exit strategy for both you and the client, something as fair and equitable as possible. FWIW.

    • I agree, Davina. You’re right to point out that sometimes, it is simply time to say goodbye. Which raises a new thought in my mind, one I’d love to see our host Andrew explore 🙂 — what do you do when a long-time client tells you they want to do an agency review? To defend the business or not to defend?

      • Hmm.. A review or defense can be an opportunity. Sure you could lose the business and possibly a referral, but if things are going this badly that’s likely to happen anyway. Review could point out some issues on the agency side, things that are correctible that can then be put into practice with other clients. For a client, maybe they see what else is out there, how others really work, gain a better understanding of the process. Like you I’m curious what others think about this.

      • This is a tough one since every situation is different. On one hand, I absolutely think you want to defend at all costs regardless of the situation. On second thought, if this is a client that has treated the agency poorly, I would decline the request and recommend the two sides amicably part ways. But again, it’s hard to give a definitive answer unless you know all of the facts first. Just my two cents.

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