How to say no to emotionally draining clients

Public relations agency byron bay
We can make anything look good. But should we?

Client relationships are intimate. And so getting stuck with a client that isn't the right fit is, as Odette Barry puts it, horrific. Here, she explains why and how she's learnt how to say 'no'.

Originally published in Mumbrella.

We can make anything look good. That’s how we roll, right? Here in the depths of PR and digital marketing agency land, we can polish products, sharpen services and master messaging so that mediocre services become high-end, and questionable thought leaders emerge as supreme experts in their field.

But should we?

We’re a small agency, built from the ground up, our foundations firmly formed on sleepless nights and fast-paced days. At least, that’s how it was when we felt the need to say ‘yes’ to every offer of work that came our way.

Then we did it – we learnt how to say no.

Sounds simple enough, but that one little word can leave even the biggest agency folks tongue-tied, as Russell Hopson, group managing director for M&C Saatchi, shared recently.

He explained that, despite his best efforts to “put it in the most polite terms possible”, a decision to decline work from two separate clients recently resulted in conversations that were either “testy or sad”. Why? Because, as Hopson says, “we dared to cross the line and say, ‘no, thank you’”.

It’s a tough conversation for anyone, especially those of us in our formative years who feel obliged to say “hell, yes, thank you” in an effort to keep the money coming in, build the portfolio, forge contacts, and just. keep. moving.

Truth: that life isn’t good for anyone.

In the world of small  business, we’re wed to our clients. Our remit extends well beyond supporting them in their PR or social media marketing; we’re honoured to guide them through their own startup journey, troubleshooting anything that crops up along the way.

It’s an intimate relationship that sees us speak to them weekly, if not daily, and to make that viable in the long-term, it’s got to be a good fit.

Because working with anyone who isn’t the right fit, who doesn’t share your values is, in a word, horrific.

It’s emotionally draining. It’s financially risky. It’s damaging to your team, who you have to protect from the burden of that relationship. It’s damaging to the client because they’re working with a team who isn’t wholeheartedly invested. And, ultimately, it leads to nothing more than poor outcomes and broken souls.

Believe me, I’ve been there, a few times actually. And my number one lesson is to trust your gut feeling when that shiny new offer comes knocking – because it typically knows what your head hasn’t caught up with yet. Trust it. Listen to it. Act on it.

These days, my gut’s telling me to prioritise the things that matter most to our team: going to the beach every morning, being available for our families when they need us, and not killing ourselves to achieve the kind of results that are, in fact, unachievable.

When new clients approach us, I’m realistic and upfront. I explain that lifestyle, family, and good health are our non-negotiables. If their values don’t align, I step back and politely decline.

Again, I know, that’s easier said than done. And, in all honesty, your ability to do it depends on just how close you are to the bone with cash flow. But we want to work with people who not only understand our priorities, but value them in their own lives too. Because when that happens, when a shared ethos emerges, that’s how we know we’re on the brink of magic.

You can choose to take the time to explain that to people, or not at all, it’s your call. I’m currently striving to be fully transparent in everything I do, so I’ll tell it to them straight and soften the blow with suggestions on how they could improve their product or service before bringing it to market. Where possible, I refer people to further training, education or mentoring in the hope of helping them become better equipped for the journey that lies ahead.Because I want to be a good human, too.

And, to me, that means establishing relationships filled with authenticity and transparency, passion and purpose.

Odette Barry