There is so much talk about firing employees, but there often comes a time in a marketing agency’s career when you have to fire a client.
It’s a tough call. There’s revenue involved, the rapport that has been built over months or years will be lost, man hours lost, perhaps even self-confidence lost. But in every business relationship, there comes a hard fork in the journey when you have to stop and consider if that relationship is going to be worthwhile in the long run.
The decision to fire a client is one of those moments. Because all clients are not made equal.
Some clients just get it. They will respect your time and respect what you do. They will support you in doing the best job for them. They will also know boundaries. If there is a contract, they will keep to its terms and not try to make you do extra work for nothing. Servicing such clients is always a pleasure because you can work wholeheartedly towards a common goal and everybody is fully invested in the best outcome.
But ROI (return on investment) isn’t always quick and easy to prove, and usually this is the root cause that makes clients break agreements, become demanding and finally force the partnership to fail.
In every business, ROI is the name of the game – unless it’s a non-profit, of course. Now, ROI can take time, especially in the marketing sector, because that is just the nature of the beast. If you’re in digital marketing, for example, Google will not do you special favors just because you’re doing such an amazing job with SEO for a client. You’ll have to wait 6-12 months before your hard work pays off and you can organically climb to a high search rank position. Other times, the returns come instantaneously and there is solid data on how well a certain marketing drive has worked.
Alas, many clients don’t understand that. And this basic misunderstanding can sow seeds of distrust in the relationship and create a situation where everybody is better off not working together.
In my career in advertising and relational marketing, I have had to fire a handful of clients. I have never done it lightly, and I have made very sure that I followed a correct set of protocols, so I knew for certain that this was the right thing to do.
For any marketing agency-owner out there who’s grappling with the decision of whether or not to fire a client, I am sharing my personal ground rules on this matter. Hopefully, they will help you come to a mutually beneficial decision:
# 1: Can You Afford The Loss?
For start-up companies, this is prime consideration for the short term. Do the math and see if you can afford to let this client go. If not, you just have to suck it up and hang in there until such time that you can stay solvent without their business.
That said, don’t slack on the account or scrimp on the job because you have put a red flag against their name. As a young company you cannot afford the disrepute of reneging on the terms of a contract. Plus, it sets a precedence of bad work ethics for your own team who will work with you on other accounts in the future.
# 2: Did You Exaggerate Your Role?
New agencies are hungry for new clients, and to secure one they may overstate what – or how much – they can do for a client. Winning the account is crucial, so it is an understandable oversell.
But unless you have been absolutely transparent and clear about everything you can do for that particular client, your promises will come to bite you when it’s time for delivery.
# 3: Does The Client Refuse To Be Educated?
It is quite natural that many clients do not understand the minutia of marketing. Especially in the digital space where strategies and winning formulas are changing constantly, and what worked well yesterday may be an obsolete practice today.
Some clients are willing to be educated on this, so they can manage their expectations accordingly. At Mastodon Media, my own company, we train our staff to take time to educate our clients and make sure they’re on board and on the same page every step of the way.
But some clients want to see ROI from the minute they sign on the dotted line. They harass your team, asking why they’re not ranking on top of a Google search page within a couple of weeks, and build ridiculous pressure points that make it hard for your team to find time to do the job they have been hired to do.
It is absolutely essential that you factor in education as part of the relationship you build with a new client. If that has been done well, and yet you’re spending more time fielding phone calls and emails from them instead of actually doing your work, then no… This client probably has to go.
# 4: Does The Client Micromanage?
Your client is great at whatever it is they do. Your marketing agency is great at what it does. But unless the client is ready to believe that, micromanagement can become a serious issue. It proves the client does not trust you. And it frustrates and demoralizes your team who are now being forced to do things the client’s way instead of the right way.
Maintain complete and absolute transparency to win client confidence and do not hide uncomfortable data or gloss over any shortfall in a project expectation. When a client knows you are above reproach, they may want to step back and trust that you’re fully invested in doing the best for them. However, if their micromanagement becomes such a problem that you’re working against your own best judgement, fire the client without second thoughts. You’re harming your own reputation in the market this way.
# 5: Does The Client Make Extra Work For You?
Extra work happens when a client oversteps stipulations in the agreement and asks you to do what you’re not paid to do. They also make extra work when they do not supply material in a timely fashion, and you have to spend hours upon hours to force them to keep to a timetable.
While some runaround is expected and you have to add bonus services here and there, a client who does this routinely may not remain a profitable account over time. If that is the case, snip…
# 6: Will The Client Ever Pay?
If the client is slow-paying, or no-paying, and no amount of reminders have worked, then the writing’s on the wall with that one.
But whatever the cause may seem to be, when it comes to firing a client, make very sure that you have fully investigated the possibility of you and your team being at fault first. This is a perfect opportunity to do an internal review of your company as a whole and fix shortcomings wherever they may exist, so you don’t lose another client in the future for the same mistake.