PR Agency people: How to deal with a weak client

I would love to say that there are no weak clients. Just like I would love to say there are no weak employees. But every once in awhile (and for us, luckily, it HAS been awhile) you come across a client contact who just creates, well, ummm, problems.

We’re already in a profession where “lack of control” is part of the job description. So it’s doubly tough to have that challenge compounded by the need to work around a weak client. It’s like pushing a wet noodle uphill. But yes, Virginia, it can be done.

Read on to find the six types of weak clients and how best to manage with, through and, if necessary, around them.

  • Paper pusher.  Intellectually weak, unable to be a partner in content, strategy, or execution. Doesn’t have a strong voice in the organization. Overwhelmed, scared. Focuses on minutiae.
    • Teach/partner with this person. Co-present. Show them how it all happens and give them explicit information, nicely, on how they can help you do your job even better. And slowly, unobtrusively, get to know everyone else in the organization. Bonus points:  figure out who is next in line for the job.
  • All-you-can-eater. Wants it all on a limited budget, cannot set priorities, asks for favors, gives no reasonable time frames. Lots of random requests. Doesn’t really understand what goes into a strong program.
    • Make this person a partner in setting priorities. Make a list every week, every fortnight, or every month, of what needs to get done and then ask to have the activities ranked in priority order. Have a ranking yourself, in case they cannot. Say over and over, “Since we don’t have an unlimited budget, I assume you want us to focus our attention on the activities with the highest value return.” Say it on every call, on every meeting, until they say it back to you. Bonus points: Learn how to say “no” without puking.
  • Grand duke/duchess. Highly territorial. Takes all your work and presents it as his/hers. Prevents you from having direct contact with anyone else in the organization, often forgets to give you the information you need to do your job well. Does not connect the dots between PR and marketing and/or sales.
  • Threatener. The ultimatum giver. Wants it now, “make it happen.” Thinks compliments are a tool of the weak. Thinks the only way to keep an agency good is to make them think they will lose the business at any time. Keeps a record of any mistakes, major or minor. When in doubt, blames the agency.
    • Give this person as much control/power over the program as you possibly can. Let them write the agenda for every meeting. Submit every decision to them for their input. Do the best job you can, understanding that you will likely lose the business when your agency has had its allotted run. Bonus points: Don’t take it personally.
  • Rival. Wants to prove that he or she is better/smarter/faster than you. Doesn’t understand that you are there to help, support, enable. Worries about who gets credit more than whether the work is done well.
    • Give them all the credit. Immediately. As hard as this may be, you have to get this person to stand down from the competition, and relax. Then you might get the chance to show them how you can add to their glory. Indeed, they probably are pretty good, just feeling vulnerable or insecure themselves.  Bonus points: Submit them for an award.
  • Mean girl/Mean guy. Feels power by ordering people around, making people feel small, getting them to doubt themselves. Plays mind games. Prone to illogical outbursts. Pulls wings off flies. Always too busy to have a real conversation. Expects you to read their minds.
    • See if you can get the person to have a dialogue, face to face, in a neutral place. Ask how you can best support their organization and their career. See if you can peek behind the curtain to see what is driving the bad behavior. If you can, see if they fit into one of the above categories. If you cannot, see if you can get off the account or resign the business. Bonus points: Warn others.

Some clients exhibit more than one of these bad behaviors, and so feel free to turn this into an “a la carte” diagnostic. As in, “well she is mostly an All-You-Can-Eater but turns into a Mean Girl under pressure.”

Fear is at the base of much of this. If there’s one big lesson in all this, it’s that you can and should find a way to help your weak clients stop being afraid, and slowly train them to trust you, and to understand that you have their back and you can help them shine. Then you will have succeeded.

Remember, bad behavior does not always mean bad person. What you may be experiencing is the actions of an ordinarily good person who has been pushed beyond his or her limits. In the past two years, people have been wrung out, slapped around, threatened and harassed a lot by their own organizations. Keep that in mind; you have not walked in the person’s shoes. But you can protect yourself and your agency from the fallout.

Do you recognize any of these people?

PS:  This post is dedicated to all the fantastic clients we have had at BlissPR, and my next post will address what makes them worth walking over hot coals for.  

To reach Abby:

Phone: 212.840.0088
Twitter: @abbycarr
LinkedIn: Abby Carr