“We have to talk.”
Your heart sinks a little, and you brace yourself for what comes next: the breakup speech.
Sometimes “the talk” is a way to let you down gently. Sometimes your (former) other half skips the niceties and goes straight for the jugular: you’ve done this or that wrong, you just don’t listen or you’re not delivering the results you promised.
This isn’t a complicated lovers quarrel; no, this is the breakup between an agency and a client. When a client initiates the breakup, it’s up to the agency to woo the client back or know when to let go.
Melanie Davidson, president of digital agency Fruition, provides some couples’ counseling to help agencies turn a nasty breakup into an amicable split, or reignite the passion.
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A phone call is a good sign, even if the client has called to terminate services with your agency.
“If they are willing to call, there is a high probability that the relationship can be saved,” says Davidson. “Otherwise they would send a termination notice via email or mail.”
Take this opportunity to truly listen to the client’s reasons for ending the relationship. A poor quarterly performance, for example, could have initiated a knee-jerk reaction to stop service before the agency has a chance to turn things around.
Before saying anything, allow the client to outline his or her issues so you can formulate direct, authentic questions.
Questions get to the root of the issue and help determine if the relationship is salvageable. First, however, reiterate that the client’s business goals are the agency’s business goals, and assure the client that the business is important to the agency.
Then, Davidson adds, "Ask questions that will help steer the conversation toward improvement, not termination."
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Don’t start whispering sweet nothings and blindly promising that things will get better, that’s just putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound, and it comes off as desperate, and no one likes a desperate agency.
What’s worse than groveling, though, is getting defensive. It’s easy to get angry when you think your agency has done its best, but defending your work, or, worse yet, calling the client a liar, during the first conversation will shut down communication and eliminate any chance of reconciliation.
“Showing up in person not only shows they are important, but is also much more effective all around,” says Davidson.
A face-to-face meeting allows both parties to speak freely and frankly without hiding behind a computer or phone. It also gives everyone time to cool off and think more clearly about the situation.
Regroup with your agency’s team beforehand to discuss the initial conversation and come up with solutions based on the client’s concerns that can be brought to the table.
The meeting itself should begin with the positives, i.e. what the agency has done for the client that has brought measurable success. This is where the agency and the client can discuss the goals of the business and how the efforts have sought to reach them.
It is possible that a client misunderstood the speed at which to expect results or wasn’t aware of all efforts undertaken by the agency.
Miscommunication is one of the leading culprits of a bad agency-client relationship. Of course, if you discover your agency was actually at fault, own it.
Don’t try to find excuses or place the blame elsewhere for a mistake; instead, come up with ways to fix the issue and prevent it from ever occurring again.
Coming to this meeting prepared with a plan that seeks to solve the client’s issues may present you with a second chance to make the relationship work.
Other times, even a meeting can’t make things right, and that’s OK. Not every client partnership will be the right fit for an agency. When this happens, be as helpful and proactive as possible in order to make the split amicable (yes, even if you’re being dumped).
Help the client transition its portfolio to another agency or to its in-house team, compiling all the work and data you’ve prepared over the course of the relationship.
Offer to train those taking over the client’s account to make the transition as smooth as possible, and do it all with a genuine smile.
These gestures speak volumes about the professionalism your agency exhibits, and those clients may look back and remember you as the one agency that got away.