When a Client Becomes Somebody You Used to Know

At some point in your public relations career, it is likely that a client will fire you. There are times that the firing is mostly amicable and can be due to budget cutbacks or the client deciding to bring the work in-house. At other times, it can be a gut-wrenching surprise that leaves you temporarily wallowing in self-pity and questioning your value as a professional.

Don’t You Want Me?

Truthfully, being fired rarely comes out of the blue. There may be signs that trouble is on the horizon, such as:

  • An increase in meetings, phone calls and emails. Your client may begin asking for increased communications that are not tied to an increase in work or project complexity. The client is asking more questions and wanting to see more results, even when your work has been excellent.
  • You are being asked for lists, documents and work product that you were not previously providing. Often clients start to gather more information in preparation for a transition. They may ask you for things they never thought twice about, so the requests seem out of character.
  • Your client is disconnected and/or dismissive in meetings with you. A client’s attitude can be a sign that they are ending the relationship. If they are no longer engaging, leave meetings early or not show up at all, it could be a sign that they are going through the motions.
  • It has become difficult to get responses. If your normally responsive client stops answering your communications or fails to follow up, it could be due to organizational stress or other projects, but it may also be a red flag.
  • There are a lot of organizational changes. If departments are merging, key executives are leaving or there are several personnel changes, it could be a sign of changes to come.
  • The company is being acquired or sold. This is often a longer-term change. When a company changes ownership, changes usually take a year. Often new leadership will want to put their own teams in place and that includes their public relations counsel.
  • You feel uneasy. Your gut will often tell you what your head won’t acknowledge. If you have a feeling of unease or dread contact from your client, it could be a sign.

Not all red flags are definitive, but all are worth investigating. There are times that red flags point to internal discord or may be a sign of issues that you can proactively address. However, we can also miss the red flags that spell out the end, or stubbornly push them out of view as we doggedly fight to hold on. We may be financially motivated to hang on until we can replace the client, or determined to avoid having a firing on our professional record. It is far better to confront it head on and have a Plan B in motion.

Heartbreaker

The client sends you an email or schedules a meeting to tell you, “Bye, bye, bye.” Some may put the business out to RFP and invite you to bid. No matter how the news is delivered, you are officially fired and your pride often hurts more than your heart.

Losing a client, even amicably, stinks. Cry a river if you need to but then pick yourself up and remember that it is one client. Even if you were fired because you did a bad job, you will recover. Learn from the loss by asking the following questions:

  • Was the client the right fit for you?
  • Did you clearly communicate goals and results in a way that the client understood?
  • Did you nurture relationships deeper in the organization?
  • Were you forced to work in an area of weakness? How can you avoid this in the future?
  • Did the work fulfill you?

As you analyze the client, you may realize that you were not being fulfilled or perhaps the client was never a good fit. Use what you learned to improve how you target and work with clients in the future.

Someone Like You

Exit the client relationship gracefully, but when it is over, close the chapter. Don’t instastalk them or read their news to see if they have found someone new. There is no need to allow them to occupy space in your head, or news feed, let them go. Turn your focus to the present and filling the open space with a great new client.

It is over and done and time to say, “forget you.” Some clients may even come back a year or two later and want to try again. This too can be a red flag, and the reason many communication pros have an unspoken policy of “never ever getting back together again.” A client that frequently changes PR pros, and returns to one that they fired in the past can be difficult from the start. Thank them and politely decline the return engagement. If you are feeling so inclined you may even refer them to someone else who can help meet their needs.

Tears Dry on Their Own

In the moment, losing a client can feel like a crushing blow to your business. You will survive it. In fact, you and your business will be stronger because of it. Quickly, get past the hurt and spring into action.

  • Let your network know that you have a project ending and have a few hours open. This is a great way to uncover needs within your natural network.
  • Ask your current clients if they know others that need help with PR, Social Media or Communications. Be specific about your needs, i.e. “Do you know any early stage technology companies that could benefit from the professional expertise and support I gave you to get investors?”
  • Enjoy the free hours and explore a passion or hobby. This could be a good time to write that book, start a podcast or take up salsa dancing!

No one purposely wants to lose a client, but you can be “Stronger” from the experience. One loss does not define your solo career or the value that you provide. Keep it in perspective and you will recover.

We’d love to hear from you? What is your advice for surviving a client loss?

  • Good article. But, “No one purposely wants to lose a client…” Disagree. Having a client quit happens. Quitting a client is also sometimes quite necessary.
    More on this at in my new book, “Savvy Tech PR” in two chapters starting on pages 275 and 287. Available at Google Books, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.