Client from Hell: Resist becoming a monster when dealing with one.
October 24, 2013
In a 2005 concert recording of U2’s lovely ballad, Miss Sarajevo Bono prefaces the number by offering a prayer to victims of a then-recent terrorist bombing in London. The prayer (paraphrasing) is that “we don’t become a monster to slay a monster.” What he was suggesting, I think, is that the US and UK resist warfare to deal with the terrorists.
I think about that prayer. Granted, not in the noble context Bono gave it but in an everyday sort of way. It’s a big idea for a prayer and I don’t mean to belittle it but sometimes I think about those words in terms of relating to difficult people or circumstances, sort of like praying for your enemies.
On that note, I’d like to reflect on one the most difficult clients I have ever encountered. I won’t name them. They are dead to me now. For the sake of this piece think of them as the worst client you have ever faced. See if you can relate…
To creating endless versions of copy only to be rejected, redirected and even insulted for ineptitude.
To egregious meeting times that are completely indifferent to your schedule or any reasonable schedule.
To having quality people burned up, sometimes quitting or (almost a mercy) being asked off the business.
To compromising one’s principles in a futile attempt to meet so many impossible demands.
To helplessly watching as an entire team loses all hope that anything they do will ever get bought, let alone made.
To the realization that even if something were produced it would only be CRAP.
To getting to the point where even black humor has lost its power.
To enduring brutal closed-door meetings about a failing relationship and inevitably bleaker outcomes.
And yes, because it matters: to not getting paid.
God forbid if this sounds familiar. Your client has become a foe. They will fire you. Their passive aggression can have no other outcome. Yet, other than put up with abuse and keep on keeping on, what does an agency do in the meantime? What can it do?
For most of us resigning business –no matter the circumstances- will have negative repercussions on the numbers, on staffing, on perceptions in the marketplace. The client is a bird in the hand even if it is a vulture. Deeper down, perhaps, resignation is an admission of failure. Whatever the reason, letting business go never seems like an option. In all my years, I have never been part of an agency that has resigned a client… even the one I allude to above.
So the prayer for the “meantime” is that we don’t become a monster.
That means holding on to one’s culture and, if at all possible, one’s people. It means resisting punishing those who had the thankless task of tending to the beast. We don’t point fingers. We won’t lash out at our fellows or take ugliness home to our families. In short, we do not become the monster.