When and how to fire a client humanely: The ultimate in crisis communications

by | Aug 6, 2020 | Analysis, Public Relations

PR professionals have had to deal with a lot of new challenges over the past few months. They’ve had to learn how to handle internal dialogue during a pandemic, and adapt to how COVID-19 has changed the way we communicate. But while these new issues form some of the biggest challenges facing PR and comms in 2020, it’s worth remembering that some things never change.

Firing clients is never easy, and it remains a major test of your crisis communication skills. There are, however, some key principles that can help to fire clients in a way that is respectful, polite, and (most importantly) protects your relationship (and reputation) for the future.

In this article, we’ll show you how to do that.

When and how to fire a client humanely: The ultimate in crisis communications

Not the preferred firing technique (Source Pikist.com; reuse allowed)

Have some standards

Clearly, the best way to avoid the headache of firing clients is to never have to do this. That might sound flippant, and we understand that it can be tempting to take on clients that you have doubts about (especially during periods of crisis), but this approach is not a good long-term strategy. Sure, you can always end the relationship, but doing this repeatedly is not good for your reputation: in other words, if you hire and fire too much, expect that soon quality clients avoid you like the plague.

Set expectations quickly

Once you’ve done your due diligence, and decided that a client is a good fit for your organization, you should set down the terms of your relationship. This should include managing expectations from the start with clearly defined deliverables, your preferred preferred communication channels, and clear boundaries regarding the limits of the service you provide. A major source of friction in client / agency relationships is that clients often expect a full-service publicist, when what they have contracted is a straight PR agency.

You should carefully explain what you do and what you don’t. This should appear not only in your contract with the client, but also in your introductory communications.

When and how to fire a client humanely: The ultimate in crisis communications

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Do a cost/benefit analysis on keeping them or letting them go

If you find yourself in the unenviable position of contemplating firing a client, take the time to think this decision through carefully before pulling the trigger. In a dynamic industry like PR, it’s easy to let short-term frustrations cloud your long-term strategic goals. You should therefore conduct a cost/benefit analysis on the client in order to establish without a doubt that this is truly the best course of action.

In many instances, when conducting this analysis you will realize that it is not a particular client who is causing you headaches, but rather certain ways in which they are acting. Before taking the nuclear option and sacking them, it’s worth bringing your frustrations to their attention in a clear, open, and transparent way. While some clients don’t have the maturity to participate in this kind of adult communication, it’s worth a shot. There is at least the potential to defuse the source of friction in your relationship and live happily ever after with no firing necessary.

Have a “no jerks” policy—and mean it

Even if you have decided, after conducting a cost / benefit analysis, to fire a client, it’s natural to be hesitant to actually do the deed. PR professionals, and others who have been in the industry for years, may feel that firing clients will tarnish their reputation, leaving them with less work in the future.

In reality, if done correctly, firing clients can have the opposite effect. Ultimately, clients are looking for an agent who is professional and respectful, but also knows their own mind and industry. Use the process of leaving a client as an opportunity to clearly spell out your values, expectations, and professionalism. Word will get around.

As Paige Arnof-Fenn of Mavens & Moguls explained recently, doing this can send “a signal to my team that the money was not worth an unappreciative client who was a jerk and treated us poorly. We replaced the income and more within a month with a much better client. Optics matter and culture counts, (and) as the leader you have to set the tone for your group. When we say we have a no-jerks policy we really mean it.”

When the time comes, be professional, polite, and straightforward

When it comes to the big moment, think through what you will say. If you’ve followed the steps above, it’s likely that your client already knows that you are frustrated, and they know why. If they still haven’t changed their behavior, then the message in which you let them go should re-iterate this failure.

The exact phrasing of this message depends on how the relationship with the client has progressed (and exactly how it has failed). However, you should take the same approach with this message that (hopefully) you do with all your communications: avoid the temptation to get personal, and stay professional, polite, and clear.

Planning for success

The most important thing to remember when it comes to firing clients is this: it doesn’t mean you are failing.

Firing clients is a predictable part of any freelance or agency gig. As we’ve explained, you should plan ahead and figure out how you’re going to handle it before the need arises, and then do it without anger. Every successful freelancer, whether a writer, PR agent, or even a celebrity, needs to occasionally fire clients. Do it right, and it can be an opportunity to showcase your professionalism.

Brian Skewes
Brian Skewes is a technologist into deconstruction. Through the process of two decades of self-employment, he has synthesized more inadvertent real-world lessons related to building, running, and preserving a small company than he can recall.