Savage law: Our client has fallen out of love with us
I own an agency with just over 20 staff. We’ve been with our biggest client since we started. But in the last year or so, the marketing team there has changed, including the marketing director. We’ve gone from feeling like partners to the hired help. Suddenly it seems like we can’t do anything right. Work gets rejected, invoices are queried. We regularly find ourselves getting briefs right at the last moment, not being able to do our best work, and then being hammered for it. To be frank, I don’t like the new team, and our staff don’t love working for them either. The fees are important for our cash flow, but our margins on the account are low. Now they’ve put the account out to pitch. I’m wondering whether I should just decline to participate and walk away. What do you think?
I never had a client in 30 years who genuinely saw us as a partner. I always knew if we stuffed up twice in a row, we’d be fired (maybe three times at a pinch). I stuff up in my marriage all the time. It prevails. That’s a partnership. Clients see us as suppliers – that’s my view.
Many of you will disagree. We have to become our client’s most valuable, indispensable supplier.
So first, face reality. Your client is about to fire you (or at least wants to if they can find a viable replacement). Any client behaving like this before putting its business out to pitch is looking for change. Imagine an unhappy girlfriend who says to you: “Hey, I am going to check out some new boyfriend options but you can also have a go at persuading me to stick with you, you useless jerk.” You get the picture. Madness. I never repitch in these circumstances. I go to the client and say: “We’d prefer to rebuild a great relationship that works for you and for us. If you want to do that, cancel the pitch and let’s work out how we can fall in love again. But if you don’t, fair enough. We’ll keep delivering during your pitch process and ensure a seamless handover, but we’re not repitching.”
You need courage to do this. But your staff will cheer, your shoulders will lift, your existing clients will see a renewed energy and vigour from your team, and you will replace the income faster than you think and with more profitable work.