Three questions to ask before accepting a controversial client

Have you ever been found yourself  presented with the opportunity to work for a client who might be controversial.

Recently, my company was asked to work for an organization that many would consider controversial. We struggled with whether we should accept the assignment and, ultimately chose to decline it.

Even though we encounter this type of situation many times in business, it is all too easy to become mired in the specifics of a situation and to lose sight of your longer term objectives.

So, as we deal with these kinds of issues, I’ve written down three questions that I think will always guide us to the right outcome. I’d like to share them with you and get your feedback on this approach and what you do in your own company when confronted with this type of situation.

Business should not be value-free; But it’s complicated

As the CEO of a company, I have to be concerned about the impact our roster of clients will have not only on our public image, but also on our self-image and our internal culture. People should spend their time working on things they believe in. They shouldn’t be compelled to work on assignments or for clients they disagree with.

In the 1980s and early nineties, the CEO of the firm I then worked for famously declared that we would not shy away from taking on controversial clients because “just as every person is entitled to a vigorous defence in court, they also deserve a vigorous defence in the court of public opinion.” Well, I disagreed with that position then and I disagree with it now. There are some bad people in life and they don’t deserve a vigorous defence – at least not from me.

But that’s easy. The “clearly bad” are at one extreme. But we don’t live life in the extremes. We live them in the mushy middle, in shades of gray.

We can’t expect everyone to agree with us or believe in the things we agree in. But we also can’t shy away from supporting a cause or belief that not everyone supports. If we did that, we’d lose ourselves in the depths of political correctness and we’d never do anything.

How do you decide whether to take on a client that may be controversial?

First, avoid the trap of believing that you have to make the decision on your own. I lead a company. But I also work as a team member in that company. The route to the right decision about accepting a potentially controversial client lies first in remembering that we all have a stake in this decision and involving more people than myself in the decision.

Once past this hurdle, I have three questions that will get you to the right outcome for our organization:

1) Do we support the objectives of the potential client as well as the way they go about attempting to achieve them?

The world is full of business opportunities. Why not look for those whose objectives and methods we applaud? Conventional management wisdom advises against grabbing every business opportunity which presents itself but which is off strategy. Similarly, why not focus on bringing in business from organizations and companies that you can easily support. In our case, ff can’t say with pride that we work for a client, we will walk away from the opportunity to work for them.

2) How will this affect the culture of your company?

The answer to the first question cannot be fully provided without reference to the entire organization. Are there people within your company who feel strongly about the potential client? Will it create division and alienation?

This doesn’t mean that anyone individual (including the CEO)  should have a veto. Don’t be afraid to have a vigorous internal discussion. It can lead to an understanding and respect of the different perspectives held by people. Reasonable people should be able to understand another’s point of view and respect that point of view.

Ultimately this is the issue on which management must make a call. Can the normal and healthy differences in opinion be accommodated or is this a situation in which the cultural cost will be too high? If the latter, take a pass on the potential client.

3) How will this be perceived by the external world?

This question comes last because, if you’ve answered the preceding two, you will be ready to weather the disapproval of those who disagree with your decision. And there will always be those that disagree. That’s the great thing about an open and liberal society. We hold different views and we are free to express them.

My objective is not to stop people from criticizing us. My objective is that we appear reasonable and reasoned in our defense of our decision. And if we do that, it will loop back into our internal culture

Bottom line

While we can’t eliminate controversy from attaching it to our businesses (unless we are prepared to be so nondescript and bland that we leave no footprint), by answering these three simple questions we can be true to our essential nature, build a stronger culture, and be ready to respond to comments from the outside world.

How do you handle this kind of situation?

I’d welcome your views on this. What practices do you follow in your company to manage potentially controversial situations?

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  • Another interesting post.
    In the past I have actually relished in the opportunity to work with clients that I didn’t necessarily agree with (or in one case fundamentally opposed). I loved the opportunity to test my communication gusto. It’s one thing to pitch a product / services / person when you believe in it/them, quite another when you don’t.

    Having said that, I agree with your discussion points. Especially about the culture of your company. There are always opportunities to work with “controversial” clients that are synergistic with your company believes

    Love the good guy bad guy hat motif (unless of course the client was the beef industry)

    • David, I’ve been put in a position in which I’ve worked with a client whose objectives and methods I didn’t agree with. I never felt that these situations worked because the client sensed that my advice wasn’t coming from a supportive place. It’s tough when a client asks, “Who’s side are you on?” I feel that I can give tough, honest advice if I start out firmly on their side. Ultimately, it’s better to be a trusted counsellor. And that only comes when I can indeed put a genuine claim on that trust.

      • thats true. thinking back on it, those clients were usually short lived. I doubt i would put my self in that situation again. Maybe i can chalk those experience up to the vim and vigour of youth (slash big ego)

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  • Joe! I wish I’d read this before we recorded IPR this week. Between this excellent advice and my railing one that awful Economist article, we have ourselves a show!

    • Gini, Yes. Let’s discuss it next week. I’d be very interested in how you decide whether to accept a client.

  • Shart

    First, love this post. Second, I have directly worked for or represented controversial businesses/missions for most of my career. The key for me is whether or not I believe in that organization’s primary purpose. At the time of my working in those situations, the organization’s mission did not conflict with my personal beliefs or values, although they certainly conflicted with lots of advocacy groups, mainstream media, etc. That’s the key question for me – can I sleep well at night know how my mind, skills and time are used during the day.

    • You put it perfectly. ” Can I sleep well at night?” That is the perfect indicator of whether I should be working for a client. If I believe in them, I’ll sleep well regardless of how tough the going.

  • I think the process you’ve gone through here is a solid one, I’ll add a couple of other filters that I’ve used.

    1. I talk it over with my wife. Sometimes I can try to talk myself into what a great opportunity this is and she’s good at bringing me back down to earth. Similarly if I try to explain it to my Mother it helps clarify it for me too. Putting the decision into terms that she can help me with ofter peels off any illusions I may be under.

    2. Do I want more clients like this? If I do a good job and get referrals from this client, do I want more of that?

    Hope that helps, this is a tough one and I’ve done it wrong as often as I’ve done it right.


    • Brad: “Talk it over with my wife.” You are so right.

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