Should i stay or should i go?

Relationship with clients can be just as tricky as personal ones, so what do you do when the going gets tough? asks Elizabeth Lockwood

Recently, I received a call from one of my favourite clients, who seemed rather agitated. After much whispering it transpired he had a rather unorthodox request to make of me. He was having a ‘relationship breakdown’ (his words) with one of his creative groups and wanted help to try to salvage the relationship before it became too late.

I starting thinking about the issue he raised, and how our working relationships can often tread the same path as that of personal relationships.

Navigating through the complex alleyways of trust, honesty, egos, miscommunication, broken promises, different expectations, priorities and sacrifices in work is often no different when dealing with those you share desk space with than those you curl up and sleep with at night (unless you share bed with a favourite pet).

Called upon by my client to rescue him and his business from a creative meltdown, I pondered how exactly I could be of help to him in trying to solve the problem. Not having trained in psychology or counselling, I felt ill equipped to be offering this kind of service, but then a quick think back to the hours spent in my 20s listening to friends as they went through similar relationship crises gave me some hope and a plan of action.

All relationships hit sensitive touch points. When working under immense pressure these touch points can become inflamed at the speed of light. Most client/group relationships have already commenced with one partner firmly on the back foot. The seat of power in this working relationship sits firmly with the client, who gets to call the shots nine times out of ten and has to be ‘pleased’ by the group for them to get paid.

Most personal relationships based on this dynamic would have headaches within minutes, yet in that case the subordinate partner could shout, scream and rail to their heart’s content if things went wrong.

Try doing that with your clients and it’s goodbye briefs, hello Big Issue. This is not to say that all client/group relationships start with smouldering resentment – most are based on mutual trust, respect and confidence.

But what happens to those traits when the working relationship hits a rocky patch? How does a creative group handle its client (and vice versa) when things seem to go wrong?

As a client, I often had to have what I euphemistically used to term ‘turnaround’ conversations with some of my creative groups, most often when they were finally asked to stand up, turn around and leave the building for the last time. However, this wasn’t going to help my client.

The cause of the friction was my client feeling continually let down. An important brief given only a cursory thought, full of holes, delayed and presented in a disinterested manner. When asked to rework it, the group was quick to point blame, citing an ‘unclear brief’ and stipulating a second set of ‘design concept’ fees to be charged. Throw in a couple of weeks of to-ing and fro-ing and you see how my client reached a crisis of confidence in this relationship.

When a group faces a difficult client in a disintegrating situation there is an important choice to make, as the consequences have to be lived with – reserve the ego or preserve the cashflow. In my experience, you cannot do both.

If you find yourself in a similar situation and need to decide if your relationship is worth saving, it’s important you embark on the journey to discover the real cause of the problem and how it can be solved, rather than make a snap ego-based – and often costly – decision.

One word of warning: if you want to get the best result, be prepared for some serious hard work. The discovery process is not easy – both parties have to show humility and self-awareness, be open and honest, and re-open communication lines.

Even though the client and their feelings may have to be the key focus, especially if it is a case of having to rebuild trust and belief, there are still ways of claiming your own ground diplomatically and respectfully.

You need to accept the unfair balance in power within the relationship, but put the onus on mutual responsibility for solving the problem. Not only will you reach a conclusion, but your client’s true intentions and if there is hope should be immediately apparent.

A week after the showdown between my client and his group, I am pleased to say that the problem was solved.

By applying the rules outlined above, rules that are rooted in relationship counselling, we were able to understand the problems, talk openly about the way in which their relationship could improve and whether enough damage had been done to make the relationship past repair.

The resolution was to break up, but the process by which this decision was reached enabled a break up with complete respect and integrity, and with a hope of rekindling the relationship one day.

Elizabeth Lockwood is brand director at Infanta Creative and former head of marketing for Land Securities

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