AB Thinks  →  16th March 2021

How to lose a client

Read the industry press, or any agency website, and you’ll get the sense us agencies are all on an endless winning spree. It’s hardly surprising we all put ourselves forward in this light – we want potential clients to see us as desirable, in-demand. Yet anyone who works at an agency, or in any service role for that matter, knows losing clients comes with the territory. And I think that’s ok.

In my decade or so in client services I’ve won (and retained) some incredible clients. I’ve also lost some incredible clients. I’m not ashamed of this. While there will always be ‘the one that got away’, I choose not to beat myself up over relationships that have run their course, or waste energy attributing blame. The reality is, when it comes to client/agency relationships, there are so many things at play. Changes in leadership, commercial performance, budget cuts and bureaucracy all play a part in an agency’s changing fortunes. On top of this, people change. Some clients want to work with their mates, some clients want to make their mark, some clients think they could do the whole thing a lot better if they just did it themselves. And that is all totally ok.

Rather than clinging onto relationships that are no longer a good fit, I’m a firm believer in parting ways on good terms.

Don’t get me wrong, ‘retention’ is a big part of my job. We work hard to deliver the best possible service and build those ‘true, longstanding partnerships’ people in my position tend to harp on about. I regularly audit our accounts. I speak to clients to find out what we can do to make their experience of AB better, and their own lives easier. Our client satisfaction scores are great and continuing to improve – something I track with a degree of obsession I rarely let others in on.

But a certain level of client turnover is a positive. It gives us space to explore new opportunities while we grow organically, with clients who are all-in.

Granted, it’s much easier to feel this way when the forecast is looking healthy. But I know from experience that trying to hold on to a relationship that’s wrong for your business, or just accepting any work that’s going, can be a costly and outright depressing affair. If you have a vision and you know what you’re looking for in a client, I genuinely believe holding out for true love (or at least a ‘good fit’) is the best commercial decision you can make.

So here are my tips for losing a client.

#1 Stay human
One of my old clients decided to take social media in house. This made sense to them, as they wanted someone ‘on-the-ground’ and couldn’t afford that someone to be outsourced. They sent our agency a giant cake with the words ‘It’s not you, it’s us’ iced onto it. A really classy move I’ve always admired.

Just because you’re no longer sharing a weekly status report, doesn’t mean all the time you’ve spent getting to know each other should amount to nothing. Stay in touch, stay human and if they don’t come back as a client, they may well become a friend.

#2 Keep the door open
In the past, I’ve seen teams add past clients to cold sales lists with broad targets set for outreach. While I agree with the sentiment – many clients return once they have new budgets, for example – I favour a more personal approach. Where possible, the account manager previously responsible for the client should be accountable for keeping the door open, and trusted and supported to make the right moves at the most appropriate times.

#3 Make it easy
In the agency world, there’s often talk of creating ‘barriers to exit’ – making it hard for clients to leave. While I wholeheartedly agree with this as a business development tactic, there are some things that are simply beyond our control. A good client services person knows the difference. Most of the time, clients don’t want to make these difficult decisions and really struggle with passing on the bad news. In those instances, I believe we should do whatever we can to make the handover easy.

#4 Real world forecasting
This one’s a biggy. We often have an emotional response to a potential client loss because we feel we rely on that income. It’s always surprised me that many agencies’ forecasting models don’t account for any loss of booked income. We’re all determined to show a neat growth chart – this drives us to think in wholly linear terms. We add, never subtract! But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t take things for granted.

I recommend making space for the unexpected in every budget. This could be looking at how much of your ‘booked and won’ business you’ve lost in previous years, or agreeing on a model based on your knowledge of your clients. And no, this isn’t unambitious. You can always layer bolder new business targets on top!

Whether you’re an agency person or a client, I’d love to hear your experiences. Share them in the comments below, or on Twitter – @abthinks.