How and when to dump that client

Dumping anyone is never easy, and saying goodbye to an income stream is particularly difficult, especially in these times. However, sometimes it has to be done. So how do you know when it is time to leave a client? We asked PR leaders for their expert advice.

When is the right time to walk away?

When you have tried (and failed) to make it work

Stephen Knight, CEO of virtual agency network Pimento: “In any relationship there are times when it becomes apparent it’s no longer working for either party. The spark may have gone, your partner maybe treating you badly or worse still, they may have found another love without you knowing. Client relationships are much the same, you go into a new one with high expectations on both sides, the initial three months can be torrid and fun and then you settle down into a rhythm, but rather inevitably, stress creeps into the day to day and unless you work hard on it, things can deteriorate over time. 

“The campaigns become less exciting, all execution and no foreplay and the results, shall we say, can be flaccid. In times like this, it’s worth some reappraisal. Maybe take some time away (a tad difficult just now) or get a third-party perspective, this is where agency-relationship counselling can help. If that doesn’t work then going away and then coming together to share experiences is a key part of maintaining a healthy relationship and if you can't, or won't, do that, then your relationship might be over.”

When you get no respect 

Lydia Oakes, managing director and co-founder of B2B marketing agency Bluestripe Group: "As a partner in a fast growing business voluntarily saying goodbye to a client goes against everything you are trying to achieve – and yet there are actually times when the reverse is true. Giving up a client can have a positive impact on your business: if that client has unrealistic expectations; if they are not investing the time and giving you the feedback you need to reach their objectives; or if they are being disrespectful to your team members and negatively affecting morale.

“For all these reasons resigning a client can be the right move as we found out when we were less than 18 months old. It gave the team a boost to know that they were valued and that we recognised their efforts and expertise were not being appreciated. And, it freed up resources for us to focus on attracting new more responsive, respectful, and better paying clients."

When the relationship is damaging

Stuart Skinner, group managing director at PR agency The PHA Group: “Thinking long term is challenging at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic, but the damage done by compromising on respectful, collaborative client partnerships now will long outlive lockdown.

“The most important element of that damage is to employee morale, so it’s imperative to listen and support feedback; occasional friction and disagreement with clients is normal and often healthy but if the relationship deteriorates into a master-slave dynamic and shows no sign of shifting, you know what to do.”

How to say goodbye 

You must be honest 

Stuart Skinner: “You can never leave a lucrative revenue stream behind lightly, but these relationships are often not only the most draining, but also the least profitable when you consider the time and energy invested. Clinging on for dear life sucks up time that could be spent finding a co-operative, engaged client partner – and thankfully these are the massive majority.

“When you choose your moment, it’s best to be clear about your standards and the reasons behind walking away – forget ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ – tell the truth and hope that will help the client realise changes are needed.”

Sometimes you just need to say ‘no!’

Dumping a client is obviously very difficult, but simply saying ‘no’ isn’t easy either. Nevertheless, it has to be done. Harriet Scott, MD of newsgen agency GingerComms, explains how:

“Oh the dilemma! A top paying client is in love with a campaign idea. But you know, in your heart, that the idea just won’t work.

“It’s a tricky conversation to have – especially with so much uncertainty about the future and clients falling by the wayside. Yet it’s a conversation we have week in, week out. In fact, I believe one of our USPs is that we are not afraid to say ‘no’ when we need to.

“Our bread and butter is knowing what stories will work for national media. And we feel supremely confident in pushing back on an idea that won’t work.

“This is what we do. We take a deep breath. We put sales targets to one side mentally. And we say that all important word. Politely, with detail about how we’ve come to this decision, and most often with an alternative idea that would work instead.”

The easy path to take is always to say ‘yes’ to a client, yet the easy path is rarely the right one. And, sadly, occasionally, the right path is the one that takes you away from your client altogether.