Breaking up is hard to do: how to end client relationships

In nearly twenty years of PR consultancy, I have seen many relationships end - some of which could have been saved if handled sensitively.

Managing the end of a client relationship takes skill and grace, argues Stu Campbell-Carran
Managing the end of a client relationship takes skill and grace, argues Stu Campbell-Carran

I have also witnessed agency heads totally mismanage these situations ending in fractious notice periods, stressed teams and, sadly, even in legal proceedings at times.

The end of a client relationship doesn’t need to be emotionally charged or overly awkward.

If handled with care, grace and humility on both sides, it can end on a positive and constructive note.

If you’re facing the end of a client relationship, honesty and grace is the most important policy.

Handle the delivery of the – potentially unwelcome or unexpected – news with dignity.

Be considerate and appreciate the impact from a split on the client’s business, as well as on yours.

If you’re the one terminating the working agreement, factor in timing.

You should be aware of key developments within the client organisation and avoid pressure points such as annual results or a new product launch.

Demonstrate flexibility: contractual agreements often clash with reality and the agreed notice period might no be long enough to find a replacement.

Be accommodating - consider working a longer notice period and help the client navigate the pitch process.

After all, an incumbent agency is probably best placed to understand the client’s needs and identify a strong agency shortlist to pitch for the business.

The media are your currency as a PR professional - so ensure any transitional period is thoughtfully managed and seamless to avoid harming the reputation of both sides in the process.

Even in the digital age, some things are better done in person. Avoid the easy route and do not send an email.

Emails are clinical and can appear impersonal. Pick up the phone and speak, or arrange to meet in person.

Yes, this might be uncomfortable, but in the end your honesty and straightforwardness will be appreciated.

In turn, this will create a basis to help manage emotions during the process of change, which is often an uncomfortable and awkward experience for everyone involved.

Keep your head high and remain polite. Be sure to thank your outgoing client for their past commitment and any referrals.

Reiterate how much you valued working with their business - even if the experience was overly challenging.

You never know when you might cross paths again in the future with the client or its team, so it is always best to end on a positive, amicable note.

Never argue or become condescending - listen attentively and do everything in your power to remain calm as your business relationship changes.

Finally, don’t neglect your team’s sanity and health: Retaining a negative relationship on the client roster might only be good for the bottom line and nothing else; because no team thrives on servicing a client that they do not admire or enjoy.

Too many agencies cling to clients for far too long in the fear that they will not be able to replace the income.

Good management planning is essential here and I would recommend the use of a client satisfaction barometer.

Work to end a relationship on a high, in the knowledge that you’ve done your best possible job and handle the process with integrity and pride.

Stu Campbell-Carran is managing partner of Mash PR

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