Early in my public relations career I was confronted with one of those clients everyone in this business wants to avoid. For 18 months, he made my life hell. I don’t blame him. I blame me.

This guy, I’ll call him Charlie, was an unethical operator, someone who spent all of his time playing angles that would help him advance his career at the expense of those around him. His staff was utterly cowed and fearful and he expected those of us at his agency to be intimidated too.

Charlie wanted us to fulfill his every whim no matter how outlandish or unreasonable. He also failed to pay his bills despite our non-stop efforts to collect. We’d call or visit and Charlie would promise to catch up but never did.

My boss, who had serious personal problems, was aware of all this but shrugged it off, choosing to ignore Charlie’s bad behavior, which further emboldened him. Despite this, we were pretty successful working on Charlie’s business, but every day I went to work with a sense of dread.

Toward the end of my time at this agency, one Friday morning Charlie called me and demanded I messenger my personal credit card to him, the one I used for company business. I went to my boss and got the usual shrug, so I foolishly sent my card to Charlie. It was returned the following week without explanation.

I soon learned Charlie had used my credit card to entertain two dozen of his friends at an expensive restaurant. I was reimbursed, but of course to accounting it looked like I was the one who’d done the entertaining, which was Charlie’s perverse goal.

Along with Charlie’s months of unpaid bills, that was the last straw. As luck would have it, another agency was eager to have me sign on as an account manager so I jumped at the opportunity. I lowered the lifeboat at exactly the right time because I later learned the executive vice president responsible for the office dropped the hammer on my former boss for allowing Charlie to get away with murder. Had I remained there, I’m sure my career would have suffered considerable damage.

In retrospect, I was naive and easily manipulated. For those confronted by misbehaving clients, here’s what I would have done differently:

  1. Set firm boundaries and guard them. When Charlie’s bad behavior began, I should have had a sit-down with him to explain I was there to execute a PR program, not to be his indentured servant. If that meant I was off the account, so be it.
  2. When Charlie went into serious arrears on his bills, I should have recommended suspension of service to my boss. If he failed to do it, I could have brought the problem to the attention of the right agency management.
  3. Never cave-in to unreasonable and possibly illegal client demands. “No, Charlie, I’m not sending you my credit card” (or no, I’m not calling the escort service, or no, I’m not going to pay you kickbacks).
  4. Asked to be reassigned. Your dignity and professional reputation are far more valuable than any client’s business.
  5. Fire the client. In hindsight, Charlie created far more problems than his business was ever worth.

Good client relationships are partnerships based on mutual respect. Make sure your clients understand that.

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