Relationship advice

In The Woo by Jeff PeytonLeave a Comment

Jeff: Over the years my clients have typically fallen into two distinct categories: those I would do anything for, anytime, under virtually any circumstance, and another 2% or so who aren’t my clients anymore.

The twittersphere was abuzz last month with commentary on when is a good time to fire a client, and under what circumstances. Large agencies use a variety of metrics to determine when it is appropriate to move on, but they all agree that when a client calls for a “review” the correct response is to just walk away. Doesn’t matter how much money is on the table.  When the client sees a 20-year relationship with a long history of solid success as something that should go out for bid, the relationship in question is, well, in question.

I’ve never been “reviewed.” Not because some c-level tinkerer hasn’t wanted to put his personal thumbprint on the program (that happens to all of us sooner or later). But because any relationship issues between my clients and me are resolved — one way or the other — long before a “review” process ever comes up.

Different folks have different theories on the nature of the consultant/client relationship. My take is pretty simple: It’s a relationship. Or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then it really isn’t. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Insert favorite non-Monopoly euphemism here. A good — if overly dramatic — analogy would be soldiers in a foxhole. Consultants need to be willing to throw themselves on the proverbial grenade for their clients.

I know what you’re thinking. This kind of ideological purity doesn’t work in the real world. Not if you want to get paid. But trust me when I say that just the opposite is true.

The consultant/client arrangement that revolves around a consultant taking the client’s money is simply doomed to fail. Sure, the consultant will get paid for a while. But the longer this arrangement drags on, the more the client finds herself not taking the consultant’s advice, the less the consultant feels inclined to make that client a real priority, the worse it will end for all concerned. Think about it. In this industry, we all know each other’s non-publicized failures at least as well as our shout-it-from-the-mountaintops successes.

The minute I sense that my client is doubting me — the second I catch myself wondering whether I am really willing to throw myself on the grenade — I know there is a problem with the relationship. And the very moment you realize there is an issue is the very moment you need to do something about it.

Here is some basic advice for maintaining a positive relationship with your client.

  • Approach every relationship as a collaboration. While you know everything there is to know about marketing, branding, positioning, etc., you will never know as much about your client’s products or services as your client. It really will take both of you to make this work.
  • There will be misunderstandings. Clients don’t always say what they mean. And they don’t always hear what you say. Despite the best of intentions, this can range from silly errors like 2+2=lavender to inferences of grievous breaches of trust. That’s why we suggest that you…
  • Document EVERYTHING and share. After every meeting or phone call dealing with substantive issues, take a few minutes and type up a “conference report” email for every attendee. It can be as informal as you like, but it needs to convey the message “this is what we heard you say.”

Ok, you’ve done your best. You’ve collaborated. You’ve done everything right. But for whatever reason, your client isn’t quite on the same page. Maybe the client isn’t taking your advice. Maybe the client simply doesn’t view the relationship as anything more than a b0ss-employee thing. In any case, our advise is simple:

Walk away.

It will be better for you — and for your client — to make peace now and part company on friendly terms. Let this client learn about failed relationships on somebody else’s watch. If you’re not damaged by the fallout now, you could be in a position down the road to step back in, and maybe build something with long-lasting success.

Jeff Peyton
Don’t be fooled by Jeff’s accomplishments in communications, crisis and business management. He also wing-walked on an airplane at 700 feet, co-piloted the Goodyear Blimp and swam with sharks – and still managed to obtain paperwork officially declaring him “legally sane.” Really.

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