Handle and prevent ‘Swoop & Poop’ by your client’s boss

Written by: Karl Sakas

One of my coaching clients—the owner of a digital PR agency—asked for help:

Do you have tips on dealing with competing client stakeholders? We have some clients where we have a direct contact—plus their boss, occasionally—and we get conflicting messages/priorities from each. Or, for example, our direct contact will list something as a priority to us, then get overridden by their boss in a meeting. It leads to confusion and not knowing who we should be listening to.”

The technical term for the boss’ behavior is Swoop & Poop—that is, the boss ignores the project, shows up at the last minute to share negative feedback, and flies away… leaving the rest of the team to clean up their mess.

Let’s look at how to handle Swoop & Poop at your agency… and how to prevent it next time.

How to handle Swoop & Poop by a client’s boss

What if it’s too late to prevent agency Swoop & Poop… or you found this article via Google because you’re in a meeting and Swoop & Poop is happening right now?

First, I’m sorry—this is no fun. Take a deep breath.

Second, dig into what they’re trying to accomplish. Did something happen—above the boss’ level—that changes the company’s priorities? Did the team lose a key person? Did your day-to-day contact fail to tell their boss about key things along the way? Is something else going on?

Third, reiterate (softly) what was previously approved, and nicely indicate that you’re glad to weigh further changes—but there will be TBD budget and timeline implications. Sometimes, knowing it’ll cost more (or delay the project) is enough to get the boss to back down from their Swoop & Poop.

Fourth, look for alternative ways to meet the boss’ needs. Sometimes, you can avoid making changes altogether when you understand their goals and connect them to what you’ve done—or plan to do next.

How to prevent executive “Swoop & Poop” with prior planning

In general, here’s my advice about helping clients consolidate their feedback to your agency. But due to client hierarchy and political structures, it’s harder when the client boss has gone rogue.

Ultimately, the client’s boss is in charge—their vote “wins.”

However, by helping your contact “manage up,” you can reduce the chances of Swoop & Poop. Here are four options.

Your day-to-day client contact can:

  1. Corral their boss (this works when the boss is nice but overloaded).
  2. Defer to their boss (best when the boss is a control freak).
  3. Include their boss in kickoff and milestone meetings (which is good in general).
  4. Help you get to know their boss (which is also smart in general).

Option 1: Help your contact “corral” their boss

This option involves having your day-to-day contact push back to their boss when s/he has random feedback that contradicts the work thus far. It also includes looping-in the boss earlier in the process, so the boss isn’t surprised later.

This requires a client contact who feels comfortable pushing back, and a boss who sees it as a benefit rather than an insult. That can be rare… so there’s Option 2.

Option 2: Encourage your contact to defer to their boss

Deferring to their boss involves a conversation where you diplomatically tell your contact that if you get approval for something (from either the client or their boss), and someone want to change it later—it will cost them money.

The nice thing is that you can frame this in a “we’re here to help” kind of way. You can use empathetic statements, like, “That sounds frustrating” or “It’s not just you—we have several other clients where the boss has done that, too.”

The less-nice undertone is that your contact is powerless at work and their boss is a micromanager, and they need to accept their unfortunate lot in life. But if you’re empathetic, they’ll remember and then hire your agency at their next company when they quit their current job.

Option 3: Include their boss in kickoff & milestone meetings

Your client’s boss should be at kickoff, unless your client already is the CEO or Executive Director. (In the case of non-profit clients, big-budget projects would ideally have the board chair at kickoff.)

Even if the boss can’t—or won’t—attend, strongly encourage your contact to get their boss to complete the pre-kickoff survey. You want to be sure you know what the boss expects, since that helps reduce the chances of Swoop & Poop later. (Either because you manage their expectations… or you call-out issues at kickoff, to negotiate-out before things start.)

Option 4: Get to know your client’s boss

Regardless, make an ongoing effort to get to know your client’s boss. After all, they have significant power over the work your agency does—it’s important for the boss to know the agency (and vice versa), especially if your day-to-day contact leaves.

Haven’t met their boss yet… and the boss changes? Now’s your chance to reach out to connect with the new person!

When it comes to agency account health, “Have you met your client’s boss?” is a key proxy in my list of indicators for agencies. Get to know their boss now… before it’s too late. You’ll be glad you did.

Question: How does your agency handle—or prevent—Swoop & Poop by a client’s boss?

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