PR agencies work hard to serve their current clients and find new clients. They usually dread the thought of a client firing them. PR agencies can learn how to work with difficult clients, but sometimes they must turn the tables and fire a client.
Terminating a client hurts an agency’s income, at least in the short term, but the decision may be beneficial over the long run. Financial problems are probably some of the most common reasons for firing clients. Clients may send payments chronically late, continually ask agencies to cover out-of-pocket expenses or simply become insolvent.
Even if clients pay well, they can disrupt other client relationships, prompt talented agency professionals to resign in frustration and damage the agency’s reputation. Clients have been known to berate PR agency personnel, demand unreasonable accomplishments, and lie to PR agency executives.
When Bad Clients are Not Worth the Trouble
Sometimes a paying client can be so difficult and time-consuming that they’re not worth the misery. Ending the bad relationship improves morale of the agency’s staff and frees time for other clients.
If handled badly, terminating a client partnership can lead to a public relations problem or damage the agency’s relationships with other clients. Replacing lost income might be difficult and the agency might need to lay off people. The client may demand a refund or badmouth the agency.
Veteran PR agency leaders give these recommendations to avoid those lamentable situations.
Give them warning. Informally, discuss with the client’s decision-maker (maybe over lunch) your concerns about the problems – financial, behavioral or expectations. Give them time to rectify the problems. If there is no improvement, discuss the continued concerns or send them a polite letter.
Think over firing. Never make a decision to fire a client in the heat of the moment, warns Jennifer Faulkner, head of content for Proposify. Sleep on it, go for a walk, or discuss the issue with senior members of your team. Consider writing a termination letter that bluntly reveals your feeling – but don’t send it. You might discover the next day the letter was too harsh and unprofessional.
Write them. Send a disengagement letter that is professional, simple and straightforward, yet polite, advises Adriana Marie, owner of PR and events agency AMCONYC, in a PR Couture post. Maintaining cool professionalism can be challenging when you feel like strangling them, but don’t write “You’re wasting my time.” Put the situation in the clearest terms possible, and include a monthly report to show your completed work, media mentions obtained and pending.
Or call them. Some communications executives say terminating the relationship in a written message removes emotion from communications, allows straightforward reasoning, and makes it clear to all parties why the decision was made. Other PR experts recommend a phone call. A phone call shows warmth and is more personal than an email, advises Karl Sakas of Sakas and Company. Follow up the conversation with an email reiterating what you stated, he adds.
Help them transition. Recommend another agency or consultant who might be a better fit for their needs. Offer them a transition period and offer to share files and access during the transition period. Finish current projects if possible.
“You want to make the transition as easy as possible for your soon-to-be-former client, while holding your ground. Help in any way you can, and ask your team to continue to treat the former client professionally,” Sakas says.
Be firm. Backtracking on a decision to terminate the relationship shows lack of courage and can hurt employee retention. “When a client has done something wrong or is simply not a good fit, it is best to remain respectful, but firm, and not to equivocate,” Steven Le Vine of grapevine pr + consulting told Forbes.
Bottom Line: While a last resort, firing a bad client can improve morale and free up time for more worthy clients. While PR experts disagree if a phone call or email is the best approach, they agree that properly terminating a client calls for clear reasons, calm thinking and a transition period.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.