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When Good Clients Turn Bad
How to clean up messy client relationships.
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 by Pierce Mattie
Pierce Mattie Public Relations

Pierce MattieRecently, when meeting with fellow business owners in the service industry, we got into an in depth discussion about managing client relationships. 

We were discussing how to repair a client relationship, specifically those where things have gone wrong, for example, clients whose expectations are unrealistic, clients who are abusive towards the staff and those clients who, for whatever reason, have become dissatisfied with their service.

The Wall Street Journal had run an article on entrepreneurs a few years back where I was quoted as saying, "My New Year's resolution as a business owner is to only work with people, places and things I really care about and that respect my team, work and over-all business ethics."

If you have done all your work working with your clients and have defined what you can achieve and there are still insurmountable problems, then it is time to re-evaluate whether that client is appropriate to have.

Advice from the start:

  • Choose clients carefully.

  • Define the working relationship and set client expectations.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate and communicate some more.

  • Live up to your own standards. Give what you expect. Set the example.

At one point we had a client call the office and demand that I get on a conference call. The brand was new to the market, had very little distribution and the consumer awareness was simply not there. The owner had worked with two other PR firms before us (our biggest competitors) for about two years who both did not secure the regional and national glossy press that the client was looking for. We were given about 3 months to change her entire media platform and correct the damage that the other PR firms had done during the course of two years.

While we had secured 18 confirmed hits in the top national glossy publications in 90 days, the client was not satisfied, instead looking for placement in Oprah and The Today Show. Although we had never promised these items and were very clear on the types of coverage that could be expected, the client had decided what appropriate placements they wanted.

I began to look deeper into her PR reports which indicated that she was in InStyle, Allure, Good Housekeeping and WWD that month. The report further revealed that there were pending stories in over 15 high-circulation publications. Then I had a revelation that no matter how well we performed or how wonderful her press was, this was a client that would never be happy with our services. I made the decision to terminate our relationship, wishing the client all the best.

When clients sign on we give them a "What You Can Expect" document and have them sign it. It educates them on the timeline of pitching long leads and the simple fact that your press usually reflects your distribution. I highly recommend that all PR firms do the same.

If your client:

1. Sees you as disposable and not a valued business partner
2. Makes unworkable demands on your team
3. Does not pay you the market value of your services
4. Is late in making their payments
5. Has expectations that are unrealistic

Then it is time to re-evaluate whether they are appropriate for your client roster. If not, be decisive and professional and release them from their contract. There are many wonderful clients who will be the perfect fit for your agency, but helping to communicate expectations from the beginning may help you further down the road if the client relationship goes bad. 

Pierce Mattie is the CEO of Pierce Mattie Public Relations, providing creative and strategic ways to leverage new and emerging media, with an agency based on respect, teamwork and the highest ethical standards.

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