On Firing a Client

This is a guest post from Heather Whaling of Geben Communication.

I fired a client last week. If this is some sort of “rite of passage” that every SoloPR person experiences at some point in her career, I guess I’m officially a member of the club.

While I’m a new SoloPR person — on my own since December —  I have eight-plus years of agency experience. In all that time, I’ve never had a relationship go this bad, this fast. It was quite a learning experience for me.

Without rehashing all the ugly details, this client didn’t follow through on some things on his end, which put me in a very compromising situation with a highly influential reporter/blogger and a number of other people. At the same time, he told me he wasn’t going to be able to pay me for work already performed. When I told him that I couldn’t continue working for him on this or any other project until took care of the issues with the blogger and while these bills were outstanding, he sent me nasty emails — totally out of line and untrue.

How would you have responded? Even though the concept of firing a client may sound a little crazy, I don’t want to align myself with people like that. To me, it’s not worth it. I think WHO you work with speaks volumes. Sarah Evans once wrote that business owners need to trust their gut when deciding if a partnership or client is the right fit. I couldn’t agree more.

In fact, this was one of the most valuable lessons I learned at my last job, director of PR for Costa DeVault. Linda Costa founded her company nearly 25 years ago, and today it’s one of the top PR/marketing firms in Florida. She’s an incredibly savvy businesswoman. Working for Linda for four years taught me a lot about running a business, not the least of which is the importance of treating people the right way. Linda wouldn’t stand for clients who didn’t treat her employees with the respect they deserve. Nor would Linda do business with every potential client that came calling. Now, as a business owner myself, I can subscribe to that same approach.

This whole experience has made me realize a number of things, but most importantly, that one of the benefits of owning my own company is the ability to pick and choose the clients I work with.

As SoloPR people, we don’t have to put up with clients who are disrespectful or falling short on their end of the bargain. Being solo gives us the flexibility to work with people, causes and clients that we truly believe in. It’s easily one of the best things about working for myself. While this week has been challenging, it’s also been an excellent learning experience about the types of clients I want to align myself with.

I’d love to your perspective: How do you handle clients and prospects that don’t align with your personal approach to business?

Heather Whaling is an award-winning, seasoned communicator, fusing strategic thinking, strong writing skills and creativity to deliver public relations, social media and marketing results. She launched Geben Communication to work more closely with nonprofit organizations and small businesses. Additionally, Heather co-moderates #pr20chat, a weekly exploration of social media’s influence on public relations. Connect with her on her blogTwitter or via email at heather [at] gebencommunication.com.

 
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  • Heather, good for you! There will always be a few people out there that will try to take advantage because they think *you* need them. As for the blogger/reporter situation, I bet (just like in most cases), he didn't understand the frail nature of those types of relationships. Not making excuses for him, of course, but I have been there and I think often companies just think they run the show when it comes to PR…boy, are they mistaken.

  • You're absolutely right. It's all about trusting your gut, and unfortunately, some relationships that start off promising sour quickly. And when your name and reputation are on the line, I think it's even more important to sever ties quickly. Unfortunately, it's my favorite part of being a business owner, but it's always better for business in the long run.

  • I agree with your approach completely. When I first started freelancing I had what looked to be like the perfect gig…quickly found out the company did not want to pay me for consulting and wanted me to work for basically nothing. I told him he should probably find someone else to work on his project. If I'm going to do freelance work for myself, outside my regular, over-40-hours/week job, I only want to work on projects and with people I find worthwhile. Good for you for doing this and maybe, if we continue on in this way, it will spread.

  • deannaferrari

    Thanks for sharing this story, Heather and for being very classy about it! You show a lot of integrity and for being on your own for this short of time, I'm very impressed with how you handled it. I can't say I've been in your shoes before being I'm still a fairly new PR pro, but what I am learning at my company is the business side of PR which is a very important aspect that should never be overlooked – regardless if you are in the position of making decisions like yours.

    @dferrari

  • heatherwhaling

    Deanna, thanks so much. It was a hard decision for me to make, but there have to be some things more important than the bottom line. 🙂

  • heatherwhaling

    Totally agree about making the decisions quickly. It's important to make the *right* decision, but there's no point in needlessly dragging it out. It's better to cut your losses and move on to the next project!

  • heatherwhaling

    You're so right, Beth. Companies don't understand how hard we work to establish strong relationships with media — and how quickly these relationships can be damaged. I know I'm better off long-term focusing my efforts on my other clients and looking for new projects/people to work with that align better with my approach to business.

  • Heather – good for you for standing up for your reputation, your company, and your bottom line. Let me reassure you – this is business, it's not personal. If your reputation with reporters/bloggers is dinged because of a poor client, or if your bills aren't being paid, or if you're being bullied by a client who thinks of you as a vendor, not a partner, it's never good for business.

    When I first started 5 years ago, and before we became a small team, I took on clients that I just *knew* weren't a good fit because I wanted work. Every single time, I got burned. It's tough to turn away work, especially in today's economy. But trust that the clients you want, the work you can do, is there. Open up the space for that work to come your way.

  • Thanks to Heather, and to all the commenters, for sharing your wisdom on this important topic! Whenever I'm considering a new client relationship, I always consider whether I think the company will pay the bills — I do this *before* I even take the time to submit a proposal. Does the client contact seem flighty and/or is the organization not established? Do they balk at signing a contract, and paying an upfront fee? Did they come to me through a referral, and do I know anyone who's worked with them before?

    Of course, this is not foolproof. There's always a chance for misunderstandings, or clients that change the game on you once you get started. You absolutely owe it to yourself to not put up with treatment you don't deserve — it's not worth it, nor is it profitable.

  • heatherwhaling

    Kellye, that's such great advice!! I think I need to put together a “pre-client questionairre” for myself to make sure I don't overlook any of those important details!

  • heatherwhaling

    Love this advice. Thank you so much for sharing. 🙂

  • Welcome to the club, Heather! 🙂 I've fired two clients in my 5 years as solo. One for a a very similar reason. It's tough to do, but I guarantee you won't regret it. When you pick up that next client, you'll be excited that you are no longer wasting your time and energy.

    It's your business and your relationships. Not to mention your integrity. Always listen to your gut and do what's best for all three of them.

    Kudos.

    -Jen

  • heatherwhaling

    Thanks, Jen! 🙂

  • marydemingbarber

    Welcome to the life of the solo pr pro Heather. More importantly, thank you for sharing you story so others know they aren't “alone.” Firing a client is one of the scariest things we do because it's counter-intuitive to growing our business. However, it also makes us stronger and healthier. Great job!

  • heatherwhaling

    Blogging about the experience has been therapeutic for me! 🙂 It's reassuring/comforting to know that so many other SoloPR people who I respect (like you!) have been there, done that! I continue to be amazed at how much we can learn from each other!

  • marydemingbarber

    Thanks. That's why I'm also grateful to Kellye for connecting us all here and on the weekly chat. Someday I hope to meet many of my virtual friend IRL but in the meantime, this kind of sharing/learning is just fine.

  • ShansDailyFinds

    Thanks for this post Heather. I have fired a client before and it's the scariest thing, because you really don't know how they are going to react.

    Shannon

  • I'm sure you did the right thing Heather. In my 6 years as a “solo” I have not had to fire a client, that said, the client relationship is like any other and if you don't have the same business morals and standards sometimes it's best just to walk away. The fact that they probably weren't going to pay you spoke volumes for how much they valued you and your services.

  • Oh good one! Thanks, Heather! I just saw this post and will add it to my compiled list of resources on why and how to fire clients at http://tinyurl.com/firewhyhow.

  • I would consider it to be good business practice to prune off the least beneficial 10% of clients each year. You need to focus on those clients that (a) make your life easier; and (b) spend more on your services.

    As for firing clients, it's good to not have to deal with negative and spent forces. The worst thing to deal with is when they turn into complete arseholes as a result. Pardon my lingo 🙂