Dealing With Your Agency’s Nightmare Clients By Tim Prizeman

Hopefully the overwhelming number of your clients will be delightful. But there will always be some challenging ones, and occasionally some real nightmares. Problems you might encounter include abusive and insulting behaviour (whether to you or, more likely, junior team members), hounding calls to team members including over weekends, unrealistic deadlines, a constant flood of requests, non-payment and bouncing checks, toxic people, and mission-creep leading to rampant over-servicing. 

No matter what you may think at the time about the financial importance of hanging onto a toxic client, especially if your business is going through a rocky time, nightmare clients are energy vampires that sap you, drive out your staff, and divert energy from looking after your good clients and driving sales activity. 

Tim Prizeman has been a public relations agency owner for +25 years, winning four awards and writing a book on the subject along the way. If you encounter a nightmare client, and they are easy to identify as you lose sleep from worrying about them, Tim hand over his notes below and advises you to first think specifically why the client is a nightmare for your business. 

  • What are they doing specifically that causes the problem ?
  • What is their impact on you, your staff and the business?
  • Is the nightmare the specific person you are dealing with or their firm’s whole culture?
  • Can the situation realistically be turned around?
  • Also, what can you learn from the episode to avoid it next time?

The worst case, but the easiest to identify and act on, is where a client is abusive, aggressive, demeaning or otherwise making the life of your team and you a misery.  Here you need to act immediately and speak with the most senior person possible at the client to say what has happened, why it’s not acceptable, and that you won’t be dealing with that person any longer.

The sad reality is when management has a choice between an agency and an internal person, generally the agency will be the loser. Depart nonetheless. 

Departing will both send a powerful message to your staff and be a big relief to all of them.  Do it with good grace if you can: inevitably the toxic person at the client will cause further problems and eventually go.  Leave the door open for the future if you can.

Mission creep is very common for many types of service business, particularly where you agree to do one thing, and then get run ragged with constant additional requests.  

Here it might be that the client isn’t a nightmare, and you have simply failed to establish boundaries and expectations. For instance, a client might ask you to do things thinking they are short and simple tasks, whereas you know they take several hours.  If a small business, they may have no other advisors to turn to.  Less innocently, they might simply be trying it on!

Have a clear agreement upfront on what you are providing and, where the client is overdemanding, don’t be afraid to say “we are happy to do that, it is an extra item and here is the price”.  Maybe the demands will stop, maybe you will get more income… or maybe the client will serve notice (which is unlikely if they are happy with you). Either way. Any of these is a good result if the client is currently running you ragged. 

Unrealistic deadlines is another problem. If people are paying Goldman Sachs prices then then they should expect a Goldman Sachs service.  The problem comes with those who want a Goldman Sachs service at Poundland prices. You will also occasionally find people, especially middle managers, who seem to think service agencies are staffed with large numbers of people twiddling their thumbs waiting to be given big tasks at short notice.

Clearly you and your team will have commitments to other clients and you must not that let your good clients get a poor service as a result of the disorganised or over-demanding clients. Set clear boundaries and service levels, ideally in standard terms you send right at the start of the relationship. Clarity around this helps with such commons problems as demands out of the blue for something immediately.  You can be clear with them about the work their request will involve, and why it needs to be scheduled or incur rush charges.  As the owner, you must set expectations and boundaries at the start and keep things on track.

This also needs to be clearly communicated to your team, who will have a strong service ethos and be ready to jump to deal with client requests.  Make sure they know how to deal with time-consuming requests (not least as some clients will start going directly to them if they know you will want to charge for it!).

The big thing to remember is that, no matter how much the client is paying, nightmare clients are not worth it and they will grind you and your business down. Either nip the problem in the bud or get rid of them fast.  Often the people who pay you the least are the most demanding.  These should be the easiest of all to say “goodbye” to. You can use the time and energy you save to find a nice client that you and the team find is a joy to work with!

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