You can hear horror stories from all over the industry, and unfortunately any agency leader can tell you that they are far too common. Clients leveraging their influence and the power of their wallets to have agencies submit to abusive behaviour, mistreated staff, and some basic human principles sacrificed in the name of revenue. These are horror stories. If they give you the chills and bring you cold sweat, it’s normal.
Chances are you are among the chunky percentage of people who never had to deal with these shenanigans. But if you are reading this, something tells me that you’re coming here for help. It’s true that your client is paying the bill, you might say, but does that entitle them to treat me like crap? Is the client always right after all?
I believe there’s a point when you need to stop and think about what your options are. If you are being bullied by one of your clients, keep reading and you’ll find a range of options to help you out.
A matter of ego
Some time ago I stumbled upon the story that sparked the whole idea for this piece. The story was published on The Guardian over 6 years ago, but it still rings very much true and very much timely. It detailed how common it is to deal with bully clients in PR, being the middlemen and all.
It may be that sometimes clients don’t even realise that what they are doing is harmful. They push back every single idea or change, simply because they believe their budget grants them power over people. The truth is that the most toxic clients pay, so they feel entitled.
Often, however, it’s not as much a matter of money as it is a matter of ego. These clients will have no interest in your systems, they will often ignore your expertise, and sometimes even break their own deadlines without the minimum explanation or apology. What’s even more degrading however is that they will treat you like you should be grateful. Like they are a godsend, the all-mighty and powerful who will enable your agency to get through the month. Sure, you need the money. Your boss needs the money. But are you absolutely certain you can’t find it anywhere else?
Image credit: Zara Picken
Top tips to avoid being bullied by your client
How do you deal with such a gigantic ego? The answer most of the times is quite simple: you don’t. Getting angry and defensive can only make the situation worse, and there will be times in which the best option for you will be to leave the room.
Clearly it’s easy to recommend not to screw up in the first place, and that should be the first and most important thing you can focus on. Your client is hiring your agency’s services for a reason, and they should not regret that. Don’t give them a reason to get angry at you. This, of course, in an ideal scenario where you have all the control.
Sometimes, you just don’t have that degree of control. Sometimes the client is just being difficult, or full-on abusive. In that case, the best option you have is to remain professional and stay calm. As mentioned, getting irate will not make things better – if anything they’ll soon be worse. The best way to deal with an angry person is to maintain eye contact, listen to their issue and let them know that you are sharing their concerns. Don’t look angry, remain calm and understanding, and if you are lucky, the abuse will stop there.
Keep your cool and don't show any sign of anger. Remain professional and you'll have the upper hand
Some people genuinely enjoy exercising power over others, but most will adapt their tone when they see a genuinely good person on the other side. Don’t be submissive – show confidence, yet professionalism. It’s the best thing you can do to salvage the relationship, and the best thing you can do to yourself.
In the unlikely (yet still possible) event that your client is one of the most absolutely intolerable arseholes you’ve ever met, you will have a few options to handle the situation as well. First off, let them rant, but don’t tolerate any one-sided conversation that is longer than a few minutes. If you see they’re being unreasonable, things aren’t going to change just because you’re sitting there in their same room. You won’t be able to reason with them. Your best bet is to call someone from your team for support.
You could have a word with your line manager, for example. If the client is playing games with you, they should understand or at least listen to your concerns. Sadly, there are many stories out there about agencies that put profits and revenue over staff. Some managers or executives may well be willing to sacrifice some staff to abuse, if that means not losing a client. If that is the case, you know where the door is. You don’t want to be part of a culture that values money over people.
Header image: Friend + Johnson (Louise Billyard)
Former agency professional Russell Weigandt once wrote a piece about this very topic. There are always some red flags that will help you identify the bully client, but as soon as you do, you should start collecting written evidence. It’s not like your manager doesn’t believe or trust your story, but they will be in a much better place if you have any sort of written evidence (or otherwise) to show them. Additionally, you should start any client-agency relationship by setting firm boundaries, prioritising your workload and finding ways to make sure that the client will have very little wiggle room to exercise their power over you – especially if you see the red flags up front.
Maybe having a line manager sneak into a call and listen in silence may help exposing this troublesome situation. Some clients will deliberately find pleasure in trying to set you off and anger you, but you shouldn’t let them.Your mental health and personal integrity is worth more than bending over backwards for a bully. You should always remember that.
And if they ever threaten you to “speak with your manager” to report your poor performance, don’t let that get to you. Chances are they’ll have to run through a number of approvals before they can escalate this. Be proactive and reach out to your manager first, saying that some problems may come their way. Your manager will appreciate and, most importantly, they’ll find ways to let the client blow off their steam before it all gets out of hand.
How to handle an abusive client
As you can see, as long as you keep calm and reflect on your situation, there will be solutions to your struggle. Hopefully the agency and business will find a way to get around the issue, and sometimes let go of a client altogether – especially if they value their staff. If you or your team are currently dealing with an abusive client, rest assured that it is not the right way to do business. Some clients can be lovely, understanding and incredibly appreciative of your time and expertise. Those are the ones you should be going for. Never settle for anything less than that.
If you are working with long-term business relationships, there is one last piece of advice that you could heed: set a trial period. You can make it 6 months, which is usually quite standard, or anything less than that. Working long-term with a client means that you’ll have to be business partners for (hopefully) a very long time. If they don’t work with your team after all (it happens), or if they are some of the most terrible people walking around this planet, you want to have an exit strategy or at least ways to adjust the relationship further down the line.
No amount of money is worth risking your mental health. Don’t ever forget that.