This is no.4 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 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.
Addressing The Friction & The Importance of Truth Telling
Where I see a lot of agencies go wrong is when they don't tell their clients the truth.
And I get it—it’s uncomfortable. But being honest is necessary because it sets both parties up for success going forward. Over time, telling the truth, and making a practice of boundary-setting with clients, becomes more intuitive.
We had an experience with a client contact who, from the moment of hiring, communicated through aggressive, bullying behaviour. On this occasion, the Ballou account manager immediately made him aware of his behaviour and the impact it was having on her team; she was able to tell him fairly and succinctly that this would not be tolerated, and gave him clear examples of instances when they had been unable to do their jobs because of the tension he had created. The client apologised; evidently, he was unaware of his behaviour and the effect it was having because he was more focused on, ironically, making an impression and wanting to be respected.
Giving him that feedback, and having it received well, is a huge part of the relationship we want to have with our clients and makes all the difference to both of us being able to do our jobs well.
The reality is that nobody wins any of these conflicts. Everyone leaves badly bruised—but our team knows that we have their collective back, and that feeds directly into our culture. And of course, the point of building this into our culture is that the benefits compound; you end up a healthier agency, with happier people doing better work with the clients who align with your values. That is the bedrock of longevity and scalability—so if your aspirations for your business are long-term, It’s necessary to make uncomfortable changes in the short term.