This is the end: strategies for agency-client separation

Nothing lasts forever. Not even the most productive, creatively rich, or lucrative client engagement. For some, moving on to new opportunities is an exciting prospect. For others, it could mean painful financial decisions and an uncertain future. With one source putting client/agency turnover at 33 percent per year, even the coziest relationship seems uncertain.

Loss is painful. Don’t make it even worse by forgetting to be as positive and collaborative as possible as client and agency go their separate ways. Blink away the tears, put down the Nerf bats, and keep these parting strategies clearly in mind.

Don’t torch the bridge

It should go without saying, but when frustration and disappointment is peaking, it’s all too easy to say the wrong thing, drag your feet, or generally make the other party miserable. Just remember that everything you do will reflect on your brand as much as the work you did at the beginning of the relationship. “It’s an oddly small industry, despite how big we think it is,” says Parks Blackwell, VP of new business and marketing at iProspect. “Word gets around quickly.”

Before constructing nightmare scenarios about the tedious and unfulfilling work it will take to end the relationship, keep in mind that some transitions will be short and sweet, at the client’s request. The president and co-founder of a Midwestern agency, who preferred not to share her name, points out that often a client will be looking to make a fresh start and leave the old designs behind, which will speed transition. “Often they don’t ask for the artwork, because they want something different from their marketing: a new look, a new feel, a new voice,” she says.

Remember the shared agenda

It may seem counter-intuitive to think that agency and client still have a shared agenda as the relationship is ending, but in fact there is one: to exit the relationship as cleanly as possible.

Just like any other phase of a client project, it is important to establish milestones and goals for the handover. “It’s hard in a transition to ensure that everyone is working toward the same goal if it hasn’t been communicated,” Blackwell says. “Sit down with all involved parties and decide what you will consider ‘success’, what you will walk away feeling positive about.”

Stay detail-oriented

Passions may be inflamed and feelings hurt, so giving your team a concrete understanding of what will happen and when it will happen is important. If nothing else, having a clear client transition plan may buy time to articulate a broader strategy to replace the lost business. “It’s very easy for items to be lost, for things to fall out of focus or get brushed under the rug,” Blackwell says. “Use the same work streams you followed for client service on client transition.”

Remaining focused on detail also means remaining true to the scope of your agreement. If a client has no contractual right to freebies, present a professional proposal for any time spent searching through archives and delivering files. “Sometimes a [former] client will call and say ‘I would really like to get this piece of art from you,’ and then it’s a matter of submitting an estimate,” says the Midwestern agency president.

Ask the tough questions

Pain isn’t the only way to spur change, but it can be very effective. Rather than insulating themselves from the harsh reality of a client defection, agency leaders should take the opportunity to critically examine shortcomings and inefficiencies.

Similarly, clients can be upfront about the real reasons for moving the business, even if they plan to remain totally firm in their decision. “It’s difficult to get that transparency from a client, but some of my best conversations have been with clients that have been departed or business that we haven’t won,” Blackwell says.

Consider whether your agency is delivering the level of value and commitment implied by your rates. “Over the years, price becomes one of the main reasons for a transition. You have to put a value on the talent and abilities at the agency, and that talent comes with a cost,” says the Midwestern agency president. “You have to maintain the value of what you’re selling, and create something that warrants the hourly price tag.”

Telling the family

Our agency experts recommend honestly relaying to employees what the client sees in its new relationship. That starts with finding out what the new professionals are doing in your place, and honestly evaluating whether your own firm would match their intensity. “The new agency is probably really hungry, so learn what you can about how they’re behaving that will shape what you do in the future,” Blackwell says.

Resist the urge to split professionals between outgoing and new business. “It’s really important for an agency to remain focused on a piece of business, whether you are retained long-term or not. That’s your credibility and accountability,” Blackwell says. “We don’t move those resources until the business is fully transitioned, because it makes it really difficult for a team to focus and accomplish what they need to do if they’re bringing on a new client.”

Employees deserve the truth, but they also deserve to be congratulated rather than made to feel responsible for the loss of business. “We were with one client that transitioned for nineteen years, another we were with for ten,” says the Midwestern agency president. “You have to be a cheerleader for your team and point out that we did a great job for them, and that everyone put their heart, soul, and passion into the projects, but unfortunately it’s time for the customer to move on.”

Above all, remember that goodbyes are not necessarily farewells. A clean transition today could well lead to a reconnecting inquiry some time in the future. “We’ve found that when we handle these situations as delicately as possible, we cross paths with clients later in the world,” Blackwell says.

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.