This is no.1 of a four-part series examining when to part ways with a client, including examples of when we were successful in working with a client to change a toxic dynamic and times when we were not. The series was developed as a part of the reflection in creating our internal training program called Consulting Academy, which trains our colleagues to become consultants using Harvard Business School’s Case Study methodology. One of the modules focuses on nurturing client relationships: what it takes to develop and maintain them, detecting when they are deteriorating, how to address issues constructively, and ultimately repair the relationship so that it’s stronger than ever—or end the relationship responsibly and with grace.
When To Part Ways With A Client
Among communication agency leaders, there is one topic that breeds controversy and makes people uncomfortable: when to part ways with a client.
There are obvious, clear signs that the relationship needs to end—such as when compelled to by current events, when the client is doing something shady or outright illegal (though some agencies stick with clients even then).
What separates true leaders is the ability to recognise when the relationship has shifted to be unpleasant and even toxic, and to take action—however uncomfortable. I’ve explored this previously from the point of view of why the ‘please-the-client-at-all-costs’ attitude held by many agencies is harmful and not in the best interests of clients and agencies alike. But I’ve yet to examine the behaviour and share examples of how Ballou handles this, and it’s overdue.
There are a few clear signs that indicate a relationship is going sour:
- Language shifting from consultative to transactional
- Being treated as a vendor (that is, replaceable) vs. a partner
- Passive-aggressive behaviour
There’s been a much-needed increase in awareness of toxic behaviour over the past ten years, and yet it hasn't fully transitioned to the workplace. We talk about not accepting this behaviour in our personal life, from our family, friends, dating partners, and strangers. But it has a tendency to become too uncomfortable to address when money's changing hands, in a workplace dynamic.
Central to Ballou’s culture and identity is how quickly we address these matters when they arise. I’m not being cavalier about this—firing a client is one of the hardest things for any service provider to do. At Ballou, we are not afraid of a robust debate with our clients, but there’s a tipping point at which dialogue becomes abusive. I'm continually shocked and also touched by what team members will take on behalf of the agency, but it is management’s job to make sure they don’t have to do so, to protect them.
In Part 2, I’ll share an example of when a client relationship shifted to the point where we had to choose them, or us.