my biggest client is a jerk

A reader writes:

I own a small advertising firm with one big client. The new exec we work with at that company is a bully, micromanaging our work and using abusive language when dealing with us. We had a wonderful relationship with previous managers – this is the first time this has happened.

I know they are short staffed and she is the only one they have to work with us, so more than likely, complaining to higher-ups will result in us being dropped for another company in this highly competitive industry. I can’t let that happen – too many people’s jobs depend on it. But my attempts to find common ground and communicate with her have only led to more belittling language. I’m at the end of my rope – and scared. Any suggestions?

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • How to avoid panicking people when we summon them to HR
  • Is my masters degree hurting my job search?
  • Offer was withdrawn and then reinstated
  • Is being introduced to the team a good sign at a job interview?

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. Karen D*

    Och, I’d love to know what happened long-term with the one-client ad agency.

    If this were a situation going on right now, as opposed to an older letter, I’d strongly agree with the advice to diversify –but there’s a downside to that as well, and that’s the reality that once the abusive account manager realizes that effort is underway, she’s likely to move heaven and earth to change agencies now.

    In fact, I think I remember thinking that at the time – it sounded to me like the client wanted to be the dominant client for whatever agency it worked with.

    1. Observer*

      The problem is that with people like that you can’t really win. So, your only protection is to not be too dependent on them. And, to be honest, if the the company handles things well, the client doesn’t need to know that this is happening.

      1. Karen D*

        Hmm. Depends, I guess, but if one client is that dominant they’re likely to know whether their contractor is taking on other work.

        1. Koko*

          I suppose it depends on the business. We used to work with a consulting agency and I never had any idea how many other clients they had. They’d mention them here and there in passing when it was relevant to our conversation about something we were doing, but I couldn’t have told you if there were 5 other clients or 50 and I was only hearing about the 5 who were relevant.

        2. TallahasseeTulip*

          I work for an agency that has around 30 clients. Each employee works on 3-6 of them. We had a really demanding client, and when they were on the phone with an employee one day, the employee said she had to go because she had a call with another client. That client responded, “You have other clients?” They had no idea that the people who worked on their account had other accounts.

    2. designbot*

      In the big picture that’s what I’d advise as well. Even if jerk client is still the biggest client you have, assemble enough little clients that jerk client can’t take your whole agency down. For example if they are $8million a year in billings, try to get several $2million a year clients and a whole bunch of $500k accounts. They’re still definitely your biggest client, but they’re not your sole support anymore. Then you can start to rotate people in and out of duty with them so that they don’t get too burned out.
      That brings me to another point, which is make sure to treat employees that have direct contact with jerk client amazingly. Praise them, offer them comp time if possible, basically do what you can to make everything else about their jobs great. If jerk client is the price they have to pay for a job make sure it’s the only drawback to being there.

      1. Bea*

        The problem with these things isn’t that they’ll “bring the company down” but they will bring you to your knees in terms of exactly how many positions within your company you’ll need. So without This Big Account, you may have to cut X amount of jobs because the workload and money isn’t there any longer, despite the multiple midsized accounts to fall back on.

        This happened recently to my firm. Our biggest account didn’t leave and they’re not jerkbags but they hit the skids, they stopped ordering as much. So we had to scale our operations back drastically, jobs have been lost. We have good sized accounts that will keep us going until we can fill that gap but we don’t have the liquid now to fund a few jobs, which has been horrible to deal with for all of us needless to say.

        1. designbot*

          It definitely won’t fix everything, but it’s a start. And being able to rotate folks on and off of jerk duty helps a LOT. You can put up with a lot of things if you know it’s temporary and your boss has your back. But when there’s no job in the firm that gets you away from the jerks, your only choice is to leave.

          1. Bea*

            I absolutely agree that management has to have your back but having your back isn’t always going to be straight up “we’re cutting this account off.” Sadly it comes down to a business decision of where that line is. I agree rotating everything is a good choice as well but then you get those clients who attach to their representative and do not like change, aaaaaaargh

  2. Ophelia Bumblesmoop*

    I’d love an update on the letter about the job offer being rescinded and reinstated. What was the cause? Was the offer accepted and how did it work out?

  3. Elle Dee*

    I had a coworker years ago who functioned as an HR analog in our tiny office who loved calling meetings without telling people why and it still makes me angry when I think about it. The LW has a rationale for not telling people, but I know my coworker just enjoyed making us all squirm. I remember one all-office meeting in particular where it seemed like there was going to be a big shake up (it was last minute and absolutely mandatory and some other suggestive details) and the consensus split about whether it was going to be a positive or negative thing, but actually we were just getting new parking passes. Ugh, she was practically cackling.

    1. SusanIvanova*

      I’ve got this image of the coworker being that kid in school delightedly going “oooh, you’re in *trouble*” when someone got called to the principal’s office.

  4. Job Huntress*

    whoa – maybe I’m naive or just too new to the workforce, but offers can be rescinded after they’re signed?? I’ve only heard about offers being rescinded before signing. Does signing an offer/ a job contract not confer any protection? I guess when I think about it, if you can be fired at-will there’s no reason you can’t be rescinded at-will, but…wow. Would hate to sign an offer, give notice at one company, and then have the offer rescinded!

    Like others, I’d be interested in an update on that one.

    1. Bea*

      It will depend on your region because I know that job contracts are different in other countries.

      There’s no job protection ever, unless there’s literally a contract signed between employer and employee that states a specific term.

      When I signed my job offer, it was spelled out that it’s not a promise of employment for any specific time period. Positions come and go so fluidly some places, depending on so many variables, contracting someone as an employee for a specific time period would make the hiring process even more tedious.

      To be fair, once an offer is extended and accepted, I find that it would be a very rare time when they’d rescind it. I mean something nasty had to usually go down at the company, like suddenly you get that notice that says “we’re actually entering bankruptcy so…” or something along those lines.

      1. Karen D*

        I had a job offer rescinded …. sort of … but it was a giant cluster.

        Basically they had been trying to fill two positions, A and B (same level, same salary range). They had extended an offer for A position to Wakeen (someone they badly wanted to hire) and an offer for B position to Jane, whom they were comfortable with and who was in the process of evaluating/negotiating.

        Right after getting the offer, Wakeen went completely incommunicado. The hiring manager (“Sherman”) was an impatient dude, and after about a week (and having heard through the grapevine that I was looking) he impulsively called me up and offered me the A or possibly B position. (At that point they’d pretty much written Wakeen off but I was a slightly better fit for B so they were mulling shifting Jane to A).

        Since Sherman was familiar with me and vice versa, in the course of that initial phone call we came to an agreement and I accepted the job … a few days later he called me back up and said in a rather rueful voice “…Did you already turn in your notice at (my current job)?” He and Jane had come to terms, and she had accepted Job B. … and then Wakeen called, explained his very good reason for falling off the face of the earth, and accepted their initial offer for Job A.

        My heart just sank. I had indeed put in my notice, which was promptly accepted – I was actually a little downcast that my current job didn’t even try to keep me (it later came out that layoffs were imminent there for the first time ever).

        Fortunately, Sherman had a little leeway. They’d been looking at a bottleneck in a satellite office and mulling a new position made up of duties scraped from two other workers, so he just went ahead and made that happen — and then called me back the same day and offered me that job instead. On its face it wasn’t as good a job as A or B (I basically became the junior staffer to the two employees who were shedding duties to make the new position) and I kinda felt cheated AND trapped, but I accepted anyway. Turned out to be one of the best leaps of faith I’ve ever made in my life … but boy, that was a hairy few days there.

      2. Goosefeathers*

        My cousin had an offer rescinded. She went through several rounds of interviews and was offered the position, which she accepted. She came in on her first day and went to HR to start filling out the paperwork. At that point, HR realized she didn’t graduate from college (she was one semester short when a major life event happened and she had to leave school and immediately go to work). She’d been working in the exact role at another organization for five years, but this place apparently required a degree. She’d never lied about it and did not list a degree in her resume. It just had never come up in the hiring process. So HR rescinded the offer on her FIRST DAY and she was screwed.

        1. The Strand*

          That’s awful. Did they even attempt to make it right, considering it was their mistake, and she’d always been upfront with them?

    2. Anonymous 40*

      Yep, they can. It’s a function of at-will employment – if they can fire you at any time for any reason that’s not illegal, they have even less obligation to someone who isn’t even an employee yet. Fortunately it doesn’t happen often, but it can happen.

    3. nofelix*

      Yes this can happen. The best you can do it keep your eyes open for red flags, and in an ideal world get things like relocation bonuses so at least you’re not out of pocket if they pull something like that.

    4. JulieBulie*

      I had a friend who accepted an offer and quit her job – but the company that had hired her ended up not getting the contract they were expecting. Not only was my friend’s offer rescinded, but the company had to let a few people go. This is everyone’s nightmare.

    5. Artemesia*

      Not only that but I know of two situations where people gave up good jobs to take wonderful new positions that got re-orged away within 6 weeks. So they trashed people’s lives casually. Surely they knew when they were hiring that these jobs were vulnerable to immediate cancellation. One of these jobs was one of two my husband had been offered after being unemployed after following me to a job. Luckily he took the other one and had a happy tenure as an assistant AG and then later commissioner before going into private practice with a firm, but imagine if he had chosen a job after being uprooted and unemployed and then immediately had it cancelled?

      At will is at will. Better cancelled before it starts than a month in.

    6. Lora*

      Worked for a company notorious for mergers and then transferring the merged employees across country. They’d pay relocation, but the relo money was contingent on you staying a year. People were moved from areas where there was a low cost of living to a place where there weren’t many other businesses in the field, in the middle of a recession, wait a year to sell their house and still not have enough cash for a down payment on a new home, save and live in a tiny apartment with their family for a couple of years, finally buy a new house in the high cost of living area, then get laid off the next week. They also laid people off 2 months after they had uprooted their families. I’m sure those people would rather have stayed where they were and not had to go through the stress and hassle of relocating and especially stay in an area where they had a network and there were other companies in the field.

    7. Vanilla Nice*

      I’ve known two people who had job offers rescinded in recent years. Case #1 involved a massive budget shortfall at a government agency. Fortunately, my then-colleague hadn’t given notice yet at her current job because something just felt “off.” Case #2 was much messier and involved a nationally-prominent nonprofit. From the rumor mill, there was a major power struggle between two executives about who had the final authority to make the offer, and unfortunately my friend became collateral damage in that conflict. It still make me think negatively of the organization every time I hear their name in the news (it’s an organization probably everyone on this thread has heard of).

      So yes, I think Alison is right to advise the L.W. to have a follow-up conversation with the hiring manager about what exactly happened.

  5. Bea*

    With my career in dealing with a wide variety of clients and the personalities that come along with them, when the largest ones are the biggest jerks it’s because “they can be” and like that abuse of power. So I always just tell my team that they can pass along any abuse to me directly and I’ll handle these jerks if necessary. I don’t bother speaking with anyone because it’s too much of a vulnerable situation for losing an account. It’s all about strengthening within and allowing people to know “this guy is a PITA and this is our plan of action with his bratty ass.” The plan of action always includes me, as the boss, taking the punches because at the end I have the power to turn around when I’m done and say “You know, this isn’t working, find another vendor.”

    And I have gotten rid of clients over the course of time, it’s all about weighing your options and knowing your own limitations.

    1. Artemesia*

      Bravo — exactly the way to deal with this. If punches must be taken, the boss should be taking them.

      1. Bea*

        I think it boils down to not being “that company” and “that manager” who uses “the front line” of customer service as the ones who are supposed to stand there and take all your bullets. No, you’re there to sort things out, do what you’re trained to do and then if it escalates to a needy a-hole customer, there’s someone who makes waaaaaaaaaaay more money and has authority within their reach.

        Also I know that there are ton of these pieces of trash that when they know they’re talking and working with the top of the heap, they’re suddenly easy to do business with. If I had a dollar for every one who chewed into my CSR and then when I got on the phone was sugar and honey, I’d be upgrading my car soon.

  6. Bend & Snap*

    For the OP with the jerky client, you really need to find a way not to put peoples’ jobs at risk if you lose this client.

    In the meantime, if you’re not willing to tell the client to knock off the bad behavior, you need to tell her she can come to you with concerns but not abuse your staff. They’re going to leave if you ask them to suck it up and don’t have their backs.

    Abusive clients are only tolerable if management acts as a buffer.

  7. Bossy Magoo*

    Re: Jerky Client – this is exactly what happened on Mad Men! SPOILER ALERT!!
    They had to put up with so much crap from Lucky Strike because that was the account that was keeping them in business and when they finally lost the account they had to get resourceful and find creative ways to get new business. Note: I realize that was a fictional TV show and real life doesn’t always work out that way, but I love Mad Men so much I had to jump at the opportunity to bring it up

  8. mr mike*

    The only time in the 24 years working for a Fortune 100 company I can remember being summoned to HR, was to lay me off with two weeks severance and a job-hunting seminar. I was hustled out the door without being allowed to say goodbye to anyone & a promise they would send me my personal property left behind. Was hoping to have a retirement luncheon like so many I had attended, but it was not to be. I never heard from anyone in my former company again…

      1. Mr Mike*

        Yes they did. If I knew ahead of time, I would have taken 24 years worth of personal stuff with me. Came in a box, no note, nothing.

      1. MillersSpring*

        That’s how layoffs happen. Feels cold, but when the company is dismissing dozens or hundreds of people the same day, no, they’re not going to take you to a group lunch. And since they don’t know how you’ll react, they don’t give you the rest of the day to clear out your computer and desk. They sure won’t let you walk around and say goodbye. Even if someone was 100% professional, it would still bum out the remaining employees and cause worry and questions.

        Take it from someone who’s been laid off more than a handful of times over 25 years. It’s very business like and they have reasons to keep it that way.

        1. Cercis*

          On the other hand, I got laid off and was expected to come back to work for 3 months. I personally had just started maternity leave when I got my lay off notice, so I only had to go back for 2 weeks (I’d saved sick and vacation leave for maternity leave). We were all expecting the layoffs, though, so I’d said my goodbyes and given my personal email address to everyone before I left for leave. But we were expected to continue to work (they “bribed” us with a good severance package if we stayed the full time). We also had to write policy and procedure manuals for the people taking over our jobs.

    1. Bea*

      I am currently in a position where I am experiencing laying off people that I’ve never had to see in front of my face before. I actually had to go round someone up to get the ax awhile back, that was the worst feeling in the entire world on a selfish side of things, when I know losing your job is so much worse.

      I cried in my car when I got the notice from my boss that we had to lay off one of our guys a few months back. I knew it was coming because he gave me a heads up in that “if numbers don’t go up in the next few days, Danny will have to be let go.” So I got that 7AM email and I knew it was the bad news.

      We did not usher him out of the building and he stayed a few days to wrap up the things he was doing. He even came around to each of us and said his goodbyes. I cannot imagine the idea of putting these people who didn’t do anything wrong out on the streets without treating them like humans.

      I guess that’s the difference between working for a family owned business with a couple dozen of us making up the entire company and working for one with hundreds or thousands of individuals who are all looked at as numbers. Then they calculate their risks of “we don’t know if these people are vindictive, we have to walk them to their car.” Since so many people will go back to their desk and start deleting files or corrupting files, etc. It’s so ridiculously sad :(

  9. KR*

    For number five… When I was interviewed my manager had me and the other finalist go to the office to talk with the staff I would be supporting. He didn’t say it but I knew they would be the ones making the decision. I hit it off great with them and before I had even gotten home from the office I had a call saying I had the job. So yes it is a good sign!

  10. Hey Karma, Over here.*

    Big jerk client makes me ask: has anybody read “The Hucksters” lately?
    What are YOU willing to do to keep the client?

  11. DG*

    #2: “The rationale behind that is, in part, so employees don’t have time to prepare a story or compare stories with other employees about disciplinary investigations.”

    If this HR department is really as adversarial as this quote makes them out to be, then I’m not surprised people panic at meeting requests.

    1. JC Denton*


      I’ve got to disagree with Alison’s advice, though. They shouldn’t say it won’t affect the person unless there’s a 100% certainty that it won’t. HR is already seen as an adversarial player by a lot of employees and a sour “interview” experience is almost guaranteed to cement that view for the remainder of the employee’s time with the company. I say play your cards and if revealing the subject ruins the investigation than the investigator, IMO, hasn’t done sufficient due diligence.

  12. Gary Dumais*

    I think it’s important to keep roles (and role expectations) in mind when considering business-client relationships. Recall that clients are paying a business for their service, and so the responsibility to be flexible, polite, professional, etc., falls primarily on the business or service provider. In other words, clients have more leeway when it comes to being demanding, short with others, etc. It’s kind of like a restaurant waiter complaining that a customer isn’t in a friendly mood…it’s expected that a waiter will tolerate and even cater to that. However, on the other hand, it’s out of line for a customer to verbally abuse a waiter.

  13. Statler von Waldorf*

    I’ve seen this situation (contractors with one big client) and it is really, really, not a situation you ever want to find yourself in. Most people are covered by workplace laws regarding overtime and conditions of employment. Contractors are not usually covered by any of those, and I have repeatedly seen big clients take advantage of that fact.

    The only advantage you have as a contractor is control and the ability to say no to bad clients. If any one of your clients can tank your business if you say no to them, you have a really big problem that you need to fix right now. Don’t wait until you are in the situation the LW is in, you need to figure out a way to get more clients now. I learned this one the hard way, and it cost me.

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