Best Practices: How To Handle Difficult Clients

Tips For Vetting A New Prospect And Deciding When To Walk Away

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Agency-client relationships are a lot like marriages. A blend of trust, communication and legal documents add up to some good times and some bumpy ones, and not always until death do they part. But just like a marriage, if the relationship does fail, it's rarely just one side's fault.

While clients are more likely to do the walking, agencies sometimes "fire" clients as well. Most people likely remember Cramer-Krasselt's resigning of Panera Bread and the internal memo leak last year, although Panera said later it called a review and C-K declined to participate.

C-K declined an invitation to offer best practices for this story. Still, handling a difficult client can be -- well, difficult. A few other agencies offered their advice.

'Date' the client before committing
Kate Jeffers, partner and managing director at Venables Bell & Partners, said her agency has turned down "of lot of business on some really famous brands" because the agency didn't see what it needed in a partner on the other side of the table. And that's the key -- partnership. Ms. Jeffers describes it as, "Someone who gets that this is a human business and that respect and collaboration yield the best output. Someone who wants to be challenged and to be told the truth, even when it's awkward or inconvenient."

Think about the relationship all the time
If a marketer opens a review of an account, it's almost always already too late. Agency heads and account managers need to consistently review the relationship and quickly address any issues or concerns before it gets to that point.

Dan Khabie, CEO of J. Walter Thompson's Mirum and founder of Digitaria, said he was checking on one of the global 500 accounts at the agency and noticed some problems. He discovered people were unhappy on both sides. He invited the client to come in to map out the relationship. That involved getting feedback from both groups – defining the work and figuring out culture, turnover, mutual respect and any other relationship issue he could think of – and literally writing everything down.

At the end of the meeting, the two sides came up with several specific action items. Mr. Khabie recently checked in again and the CEO told him they're 80% there, and still 20% to go, but at least all parties know where they are going.

"If you sense something is wrong, something is wrong," Mr. Khabie said. "Clients don't leave because of the account, they leave because of the relationship."

The integrity of the agency and its employees have to come first
In a difficult client situation, there are likely to be disagreements, blame and hurt feelings. That's when it's time to speak up, especially if your employees are the ones suffering. However, while letting them know the treatment is unacceptable, it's also important find out what's really going on.

"Relationships are important, but so is the integrity of the shop. Often it's about listening more, asking harder questions, and getting to the core of the real issue. Then focus everyone's attention on getting to great work that answers that issue," said David Corns, head of account management at Venables Bell.

Sometimes the best decision is walking away
Digitaria had a large client that it decided to part ways with. Both sides couldn't agree on basic account items and both teams felt disconnected and taken advantage of. Mr. Khabie said the shop even tried what he calls "agency therapy," where client and agency sat together to clear the air and stay together.

But it just didn't work. So they shook hands and parted amicably. Six months later, the client called and said "I'm really sorry about what happened." Mr. Khabie responded, "I'm really sorry too." The time away had helped them to see they were both accountable. The funny thing is – and this has happened into him at other agencies – is that the two are now talking again about how they can work together, but under different terms.

CORRECTION: Digitaria was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.

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