Call Me (Not Just) Maybe

Repman readers have
patiently read my many missives about misbehaving clients. Since turnabout is
fair play, I've asked Syd Steinhardt, a former agency colleague and current
client-side type, to share his story of the agency from hell. Enjoy!

Screaming  executive

It is the scourge of every PR agency
pro: the client from hell. 

This occupational hazard can be any
one of the following: the inexperienced manager whose insecurity compels him to
insert himself to such a degree that he impedes progress on the account; the
corporate bureaucrat who thinks that he knows everything, but really knows
nothing, about PR; or the onetime agency person who acts out his pent-up hostility
to former clients by abusing his outside PR firm.

Having been an agency guy myself for
12 years before going in house five years ago, I have seen them all. To help
manage such clients, I offer the following tips to make your life easier.

Communicate. Contact your client every day to let
him know that you are engaged with his account. It doesn’t have to be a long
conversation or an extended email exchange. If you don’t have a reason to call
or write – think of one! You’re supposed to be a bottomless well of creative

Be respectful. Don’t insult your client’s
intelligence by serving up a sloppy pastiche of half-baked notions and
incomprehensible jargon, and call it a PR plan. Style is important, too; a
mishmash of fonts indicates a cut-and-paste job, while spelling and grammatical
errors add to the insult.

Understand.  If you don’t get your client, his needs, his
audience or his strategic objectives, keep talking to him until you do. Understanding
also means not padding your media list with journalists whom you know are not
appropriate. It is all right not to pitch the New York Times and Wall Street
Journal, for example, if your client’s story doesn’t fit. There are occasions where
a placement in a well-regarded trade publication would serve your client better.
By the way, clients can tell when a media list is nothing more than an unedited
Cision or Vocus search.

Listen. If your client requests something, do
it. If you think that the request is unreasonable, say so. Suggest
alternatives. Keep the dialogue going. The constant back and forth can yield goodwill
and good results. Ignoring your client creates frustration and resentment, and
can ultimately cost you the account.

Act professionally. You should be friendly with
your client, but not his friend. I’ve had account reps talk to me as if we were
at a frat house kegger. Don’t drop the f-bomb and all of its permutations with
impunity, thinking that such behavior is ingratiating. It is not. Nor is badmouthing
co-workers (yours and his), other clients, or members of the media.

Be transparent. Clients don’t like surprises,
such as unexplained expenses, sudden disappearances and replacements of account
team members, or evasive answers to simple questions about account activities.
Such surprises erode trust.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t
take your client for granted. If you work with him, you can learn from each
other. That is not only good business, but it is what a true partnership should
be. And a partner, by definition, is not a client from hell.

Steinhardt is public relations director of the NYU School of Continuing and
Professional Studies. A former Peppercommer, Syd stresses that none of the bad
examples depicted in this blog applies to Peppercom.

4 thoughts on “Call Me (Not Just) Maybe

  1. You raise some interesting issues here, Timallik.
    Though I wrote that “you should be friendly with your client, but not his friend,” I agree that compassion can have a place in a professional relationship.
    I would, however, caution both sides to maintain that professional distance. Everyone should do his best to leave his personal problems at the door when he comes to work in the morning.

  2. Good suggestions, Syd. I agree with you on all of them. I think compassion and respect are vital. A so-called “client from hell” is obviously under enormous pressure of kind, whether professional, personal, or a combination of both. I think it’s best to try to figure out what’s going on with them and then conduct a PR “serenity prayer” – figuring out exactly how you can help them and doing your best to ease their pain, while letting go of the stuff you have no control over. No matter what, trash talk about clients is unacceptable. It feeds negativity, feeds on itself, and just brings everyone down.

  3. Thank you, Ed, for your kind words.
    I think that PR pros should try to put themselves in the other person’s shoes once in a while. Some clients are content to let the agency take charge. To them, the agency is just another vendor. Others want to collaborate with the agency. They see themselves as active partners.
    Understanding these mindsets, as well as their variations, is good business. It can help the agency to manage the client, and to tell his or her story, that much better.

  4. Simple, and brilliant, and easy guidelines to follow. I think a lot of agency people (and in-house PR teams, too) could benefit from this common-sense advice.