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  • Writer's pictureTim Prizeman

Dealing with nightmare clients - article in

Having run a business for approaching three decades, I was asked by the website to pen an article on dealing with nightmare clients.

I am pleased to say I haven't had one that is a real nightmare for quite some time... and all my current ones are wonderful.

Over the years I have had a few nightmare clients that caused sleepless nights for me and the team. In hindsight, with some I was too slow to help them find another agency... but these things you learn as you go along.

If you are pondering what to do with a nightmare client, I hope these thoughts help...

Here is the article:

Having run a public relations agency for nearly 30 years I am delighted to say that the overwhelming number of my clients have been delightful. I think I have been fortunate, although inevitably a few have been more challenging, and a handful have been a complete nightmare. This was especially true in my early years.

Some of the challenges I've encountered over the years include hounding calls to team members including over weekends, unrealistic deadlines, a constant flood of requests, non-payment and bouncing checks, toxic people, and mission-creep leading to rampant over-servicing. Other agencies also report abusive behaviour towards junior team members, although I can’t recall experiencing examples of this.

No matter what you may think at the time about the financial importance of hanging onto a toxic client, especially if your business is going through a rocky time, nightmare clients are energy vampires that sap you, drive out your staff, and divert energy from looking after your good clients and driving sales activity.

If you encounter a nightmare client, and they are easy to identify as you lose sleep from worrying about them, first think specifically why the client is a nightmare for your business.

· What are they doing specifically that causes the problem?

· What is their impact on you, your staff and the business?

· Is the nightmare the specific person you are dealing with or their firm’s whole culture?

· Can the situation realistically be turned around?

· Also, what can you learn from the episode to avoid it next time?

The worst case, but the easiest to identify and act on, is where a client is abusive, aggressive, demeaning or otherwise making the life of your team and you a misery. Here you need to act immediately and speak with the most senior person possible at the client to say what has happened, why it’s not acceptable, and that you won’t be dealing with that person any longer.

The sad reality is when management has a choice between an agency and an internal person, generally the agency will be the loser. Depart nonetheless.

Departing will both send a powerful message t

o your staff and be a big relief to all of them. Do it with good grace if you can: inevitably the toxic person at the client will cause further problems and eventually go. Leave the door open for the future if you can.

Mission creep is very common for many types of service business, particularly where you agree to do one thing, and then get run ragged with constant additional requests.

Here it might be that the client isn't a nightmare, and you have simply failed to establish boundaries and expectations. For instance, a client might ask you to do things thinking they are short and simple tasks, whereas you know they take several hours. If a small business, they may have no other advisors to turn to. Less innocently, they might simply be trying it on!

Have a clear agreement upfront on what you are providing and, where the client is overdemanding, don’t be afraid to say "we are happy to do that, it is an extra item and here is the price". Maybe the demands will stop, maybe you will get more income… or maybe the client will serve notice (which is unlikely if they are happy with you). Either way. Any of these is a good result if the client is currently running you ragged.

Unrealistic deadlines is another problem. If people are paying Goldman Sachs prices then then they should expect a Goldman Sachs service. The problem comes with those who want a Goldman Sachs service at Poundland prices. I also occasionally find people, generally middle managers, who seem to think PR agencies are staffed with large numbers of people twiddling their thumbs waiting to be given big tasks at short notice.

Clearly you and your team will have commitments to other clients and you must not that let your good clients get a poor service as a result of the disorganised or over-demanding clients.

Set clear boundaries and service levels, ideally in standard terms you send right at the start of the relationship. Clarity around this helps with such commons problems as demands out of the blue for something immediately. You can be clear with them about the work their request will involve, and why it needs to be scheduled or incur rush charges. As the owner, you must set expectations and boundaries at the start and keep things on track.

This also needs to be clearly communicated to your team, who will have a strong service ethos and be ready to jump to deal with client requests. Make sure they know how to deal with time-consuming requests (not least as some clients will start going directly to them if they know you will w

ant to charge for it!).

My big learning over the years is that, no matter how much the client is paying, nightmare clients are not worth it and they will grind you and your business down. Either nip the problem in the bud or get rid of them fast. Also, I often find the people who pay you the least are often the most demanding. These should be the easiest of all to say “goodbye” to.

You can use the time and energy you save to find a nice client that you and the team find is a joy to work with!

Tim Prizeman, director, RB Public Relations (

Tim Prizeman has been a public relations agency owner for +25 years, winning four awards and writing a book on the subject along the way

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