When Clients Attack!

You are floating in the still blue waters.  The sun is shining and everything is going smoothly.  The work has launched and everyone is happy.  Then, like a bad Jaws sequel, a rogue client comes out of nowhere, teeth gnashing, stirring up sand and scaring the fish away.  Relentless and unstoppable this type of client is a rare occurrence – which is why I compare it to a great white shark attack.  When they appear they can wipe out all the accomplishments you have made throughout a project, the final product you have delivered,  and the relationship you have nurtured over the course of months with someone else.  The client that was lurking in the darkness now has a direct line to you – and the floodgates are opened.  What you aren’t prepared for is the way this client operates.  Someone who has no knowledge of the scope of their project (that they could look at any time before it launched), insinuates you’re incompetent, calls or emails every fifteen minutes and has zero communication or professional skills.

The sparkling surface belies the potential bloodbath underneath.

What a situation like this does is put your peaceful existence at risk, is a serious threat to morale, and siphons your energy from servicing other clients.  Do you throw your staff into shark infested waters or do you keep on sailing?  Your first reaction would probably be – dunk them in the shark tank, suck it up, this is part of agency life, it puts hair on your chest!  Well, you know and I know, that’s what you tell your colleagues, your leadership, and your staff.

I’m sharing this story because there is a choice.  Small agencies are often the victims of these senseless attacks because the perception is that we’re small, we need the business or association with the client brand, and therefor we’re willing to be abused at the hands of a client who likes to threaten, throw their weight around and believes that acting out of control is the best way to get what they want.  However, let’s get practical here.  If you do the math and support a client like this you may eke out half your rent on a monthly basis and forget about turning a profit since they will be so high maintenance they will expect (and get) more than they paid for.  It’s just not worth it.

You may say what if they’re a big client, big opportunity, big money?  Then it’s worth looking into and staff your most thick-skinned people on it – make sure they can take some extra vacation days, they’re going to need it.  This comes with a warning: taking this type of client on will change the dynamic of your agency culture, guaranteed.

It is important to understand that you may need to be drastic in order to protect your ecosystem and that means the agency taboo of firing a client. If you have done your job, delivered what you were asked to, you do not have to take on the dysfunction of an unhealthy relationship.  Saying no thank you is completely within your right and it’s OK.  It doesn’t mean you’re terrible at your job (or as a person), that your agency “will never work in this town again!”, that you just missed out on the best thing that’s happened to you.   It’s not arrogant to say, sorry we’re not interested in this kind of client/agency relationship.  You have to do what’s right for you, your staff and your other clients so that you can happily sail off into the sunset.