Internal comms key when client relationships end

There comes a time in some agency-client relationships when one of the parties realizes things just aren't working out, and parting ways would be best for everyone involved. Often, how an agency handles the break-up internally is as important to its well-being as its external actions.

There comes a time in some agency-client relationships when one of the parties realizes things just aren't working out, and parting ways would be best for everyone involved. Often, how an agency handles the break-up internally is as important to its well-being as its external actions.

When a firm opts to resign a contract, for example, what's done and said within the agency usually depends upon the reasons behind the decision. Those could range from a piece of business no longer being profitable, to it becoming a liability in terms of staff retention.

Whatever the rationale, PR pros say there a number of steps that need to be taken in order to ensure employees understand why the situation occurred and what the agency plans to do going forward.

Julie Winskie, chief client officer at Porter Novelli, says once the decision has been made to part ways with a client, the first thing agency management needs to do is speak to the core team that was working on the account.

"Make sure they are hearing a singular message and that nothing gets lost in translation," she says. "That meeting must involve either the CEO or the next appropriate high-ranking member of the firm. It has to come from the top."

From there, Winskie suggests widening the sphere of discussion through the rest of the agency. She believes, however, a firm should proceed with caution if it decides to spread the conversation across its global units.

"That can take the effect of over-communicating it and giving the inference that it's something that it's not," she says, adding that firms must be careful, too, about what they put in print regarding a resigned contract.

"We take the view that anything we put down in print internally has the potential to be lifted externally," notes Winskie. "You want to be sensitive in those kinds of communications, as well."

Douglas Spong, managing partner at Carmichael Lynch Spong, says when a firm resigns a contract, there are three things it needs to have figured out in advance: the resignation's financial implications; how it will translate in work force correction; and how it will affect the agency's long-term goals.

"Those are the things employees will ask and want answers [for]," Spong notes.

The loss of a client can also represent an opportunity to streamline staff. If a workforce correction is needed, Spong says firms should not immediately consider only those employees involved with the terminated account.

"Don't automatically prune people from the core team," he advises. "Take advantage of the opportunity to [recruit] some people who may not be your strongest performers. You have to explain your actions to the staff, though: If you pruned some people, you have to explain why."

Spong adds that a firm should use these occasions to reinforce and reiterate its values to staff.

"Make clear that you have certain standards and expectations of clients and your people," he says. "How your people are treated, what kind of clients you want to represent, the quality, creativity, and originality of the work you want to produce, and the mutual respect and relationship you expect out of a client."

Key points:

When a firm parts ways with a client, management should let the core account team know why it did so

Firms should determine in advance how an account resignation will affect long-term goals

Account resignations offer an opportunity to reinforce agency values and expectations

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