Like death and taxes, one thing that you can rely on as an entrepreneur is that at some point in time, your biggest client will walk out the door. It could happen for many reasons, some reasonable and expected -- like when a client's new C-suite team chooses to bring in its own talent instead of inheriting the old team's vendors -- and others that blindside you. I once lost a client because the chief executive asked for a personal favor (in this case, a horseback riding lesson for his child). When it didn't go as expected, my company was summarily fired from his account that very same day. Blindsided indeed.
Regardless of the reason, losing a major client can be an anxiety-producing event for both entrepreneur and staff alike, and managing the fallout can be tricky, if not downright terrifying. So, what to do when it happens to you?
1. Don't leave all your eggs in one basket.
The most anxiety I've ever felt was when one client became too important to my company. As obvious as this may sound, a client's size can actually creep up on you. If you let it grow unchecked, you may find yourself looking up from your work six months later, only to realize that this one client is all that is keeping the lights on.
As a client grows, it's crucial to resist letting that client become your singular focus. In addition to working extraordinarily hard to maintain and grow that particular business, you must also make it a priority to cultivate other clients, even when business is good. Otherwise, should that client leave, all your resources will go along with it. And rebuilding the sandcastle can be painful.
So as counterintuitive as it may seem, you should devote meaningful time to business development during a client's growth -- and make sure that your staff has the bandwidth to accommodate other work.
2. Keep a straight face, and fake it 'til you make it.
As a business owner, the toughest thing I've had to learn has been my poker face. Simply put, maintaining a neutral appearance when I dislike or disagree with someone does not come naturally to me; it is something I have learned over time with varying degrees of success.
Similarly, the single most important skill that an entrepreneur learns may be how to present an air of confidence and strength to her staff when their largest client walks out the door.
We are, after all, herd animals; when we sense even the slightest whiff of fear from a leader, it can sweep through the company like wildfire. Maintaining confidence and authority is absolutely essential to keeping morale high and valued staff in place -- even if you're faking it.
3. Nurture your staff. You need them as much as they need you.
When a client leaves, I take the time to meet with each employee who was on the team to reassure them that their job is secure, and to outline the specific plans that I have in place to redirect their energies. In many companies, the loss of a client can lead to layoffs. But the mark of a good leader and successful entrepreneur is one's ability to keep good employees around, even in a less-than-stellar economic climate.
A good employee is the product of time in the saddle. If you're able to commit to your employees through good times and bad, they will undoubtedly do the same for you. And doing so will improve both company morale and your bottom line.
4. A blessing in disguise.
Sometimes losing a client can quickly become a positive, freeing you up to take on a larger competitor, alleviating creative stagnation in your staff, providing the impetus to cull the herd, or giving you the kick you in the ass you need to remember point number one.
Having a client walk out the door is a natural part of business ownership and will likely happen many times over the course of your company's life cycle. The silver lining is that losing a client allows you to be better prepared to face future losses and hardships, and will strengthen your ties to valuable employees. And I am a firm believer that what doesn't break you makes you stronger.