Bridget Cusick is a communication consultant whose career has encompassed corporate PR and advertising and political/advocacy communications. She’s currently based in Minneapolis — and does not have any nightmare clients.
The Nightmare Client
Or: Sometimes It’s Not Me, It’s You — And What You Can Do To Prevent the Pain
By Bridget Cusick Earlier this week, a sometime professional associate of mine blogged — somewhat remorsefully, somewhat angrily — about this New York Times piece “The Problem With Public Relations”: essentially a questionably successful restaurateur ranting about how much he hates PR people. (I say “questionably successful” because it is revealed in comments, by someone who did about two clicks’-worth of digging, that the restaurant whose opening the author writes about is currently closed.) Alas, I instantly recognized the person who wrote this piece. He is a nightmare client. To summarize his rant: “I hired these PR people. They had the audacity to charge me for their work! On top of that, they claimed it was a problem that the date of our opening was never set AND — get this! — they wanted to know about the food before promoting it! I’ve worked with other PR people, and they’ve also sucked. PR people drive me crazy.” Now, there is some doubt, based on his telling of this tale of woe, that the firms he hired were entirely up to snuff in a number of respects. Nonetheless, upon reading the diatribe and most of the comments following it, I felt compelled to add a comment of my own: “Let’s see… No opening date and bad food. Yep, it was the PR firms’ fault.” Sarcastic and flippant, yes. But the point is also true. Those of us who work in communication consulting spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve our craft and provide clients with a better offering by staying up-to-date on the latest developments in our industry. Unfortunately, one critically important thing most of us do not devote much time to is selecting our clients. Yes: selecting our clients. Consultant-client relationships, like any relationships, are two-way streets. Too often, especially for solo practitioners, we rush into relationships because, well, we’re excited to work with new clients, we’re honored to be asked, and — of course — economic realities dictate that we need clients! While we expect potential clients to critically evaluate whether or not we’re the right fit for them (though not all do — another topic for another day), we too seldom think about whether we are setting ourselves up for success, or something less, by entering into a relationship. Potential clients provide plenty of signals about what kind of clients they’ll be. Some signals are warning signs. Yet, some of these even can be mitigated with education — e.g., the potential client may have misconceptions about what you can do for them, which can be cleared up by clearly defining the services you offer and what can be gained from employing them. Of course, it’s important that we as practitioners do not promise things we don’t really believe we can deliver. Unfortunately, some among us do this — leading to all sorts of problems, not least among them a less-than-stellar reputation for the industry. Again, another topic for another day. But other signs are just plain red flags — because just as there are bad practitioners, there absolutely are bad clients. Anyone who’s been in this business for more than two or three years has probably met them; I certainly have (and I’ve been doing this a lot longer than two or three years). No matter how much I have tried to build a relationship with these clients, open the lines of communication, adjust to their schedules, set realistic expectations, and manage for other key components of success, it was all for naught — because these clients simply weren’t willing to hold up their end of the bargain. It takes two to tango. So, what are the top warning signs that you might be dealing with a nightmare client?
- Failure to take responsibility for their own necessary contributions to the success of their endeavor. You and I as practitioners are not miracle workers. We’re strategists, communicators and connectors. If a client’s product is crap, or poorly thought out, I can’t make people think and say it’s not crap or not poorly thought out. (That being said — I should have made sure I knew whether or not the client’s product was crap before signing on to work with them.)
- Lack of mutual respect — often characterized by an attitude that can be summarized thusly: “I know everything; I’m just too busy and important to DO everything — so I’ve hired lesser beings like you to do this communication stuff for me. I’m not sure it’s even worthwhile, but people tell me I should do it.” Now, this again should be evident upfront — though probably not stated quite as obviously as I just did. Nonetheless, look and listen for signs that people don’t have respect for what you do — and stay away unless you are able, before entering into any work, to legitimately bring them around to the idea that what you do has value and that you bring skills to the table.
- Failure to communicate expectations… or, simply, failure to communicate. You as a practitioner can’t do your job without client input. Sometimes it’s information you need from them; sometimes it’s time — for input on proposed plans, for interviews, etc. If they’re not willing to give this to you, then you cannot meet deadlines and you cannot deliver on your ideas. I have been in situations where I prod for feedback or input, sometimes for weeks on end, deadline looming, only to finally get feedback or input the day before a deadline — and then be asked why we missed the deadline. It’s irrational and unfair — and it happens more than I care to think about. Unfortunately, this is one of those bad behaviors you can’t really control for upfront — but you owe it to yourself as well as your potential client to be honest about the kind of time you’ll need from them and why.
In my experience, these are the three basic buckets into which bad client behavior fits. I firmly believe just about any other relationship issues can be fixed. I further believe that addressing with potential clients upfront what YOUR expectations and needs are can mitigate some of these issues. If not, looking for the signs can at least show the relationship might not be productive for either of you and that you both might be better off moving on. The trick is to watch for signs and not ignore them just to get business in the door. Ignoring these issues and their signs can lead to damage to your reputation and to your morale — and in the long run, neither is worth it.