What to Do When a Client Breaks Up With You
“You probably saw this coming,” she said.
“Not really,” I said.
While I often have a sixth sense and can feel when something isn't right in my relationship with one of my clients, it still takes me by surprise when I eventually get the call that lets me know our relationship is coming to an end. I’ve been a professional service provider for the last 25 years, and I’ve been fired, let go, put on hiatus, given "the news" and received the dreaded 30-day notice hundreds of times. And yet, each time stings like the first: As those of us who have clients know, even the best business relationships eventually end, and hearing that final goodbye always hurts.
Why are we so poorly prepared for accepting this inevitability? Perhaps it’s because we hold on to the rosy exceptions, like the story of Al Golin. The veteran communications maven, who passed away last week, picked up the phone more than 60 years ago and called Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, offering advice on how to build the hamburger chain into a globally recognized brand. Kroc was grateful, and Golin’s firm remains McDonald’s agency of record to this day.
That’s a heartwarming story, but for most of us these days, customer relationships have the life span of a Hollywood marriage, or, worse, a series of one-night stands. You don’t have to be an organizational psychologist or a clairvoyant to see the signs. Sometimes, the break up is mutual, and sometimes it might even be your initiative. But when it happens -- and it will -- it’s important to bounce back quickly. Thankfully, unlike romantic breakups, which can be emotional and protracted, business breakups are cleaner and offer a few key lessons to learn:
Remember it’s probably not about you.
Being dumped by a lover is painful because it’s a reminder that something about you personally fell short of meeting expectations. That’s not the case in business: When you’re let go, the first thing to do is to feel the pain but remind yourself that the breakup was likely precipitated by many reasons -- the needs of the organization, the dips of the economy, etc. -- and that it usually does not mean that you yourself are at fault. Often, it’s much more about personalities or budget constraints than it is about results.
When you get the dreaded call or email, your first instinct may be to respond with a long and angry rant, reminding the other party of all the great things you’ve done for them. Resist the urge. Instead, wish them the best of luck. And mean it: I can’t tell you how many times a former client re-emerged, years later, sometimes working for a different company, to offer new business. Often, these business exes would note how grateful they were by the way I handled being let go. No drama, it turns out, is a good principle in business and personal relationships alike.
Learn from your breakups.
When a former boyfriend or girlfriend splits, the advice you usually get is to forget all about them and start anew. In business, that’s not solid advice. When a breakup happens, ask yourself why it did. Be brutally honest, and learn from the experience. Is it possible that this specific assignment wasn’t really your sweet spot? Can it be that you gravitate to the wrong kind of client? Should you be dealing with a different level of person at the organization, say, the CEO instead of the CMO? Sweat the small stuff, and tweak accordingly; these breakups will teach you more about your business than any other experience.
Reconsider your core propositions.
If you keep getting frustrated about being let go, ask yourself if you’re offering your clients the right relationship model. Are you built for long commitments? Or would you do better with short and thunderous engagements? And which would your clients appreciate? Throughout the years, I’ve come to realize that while some clients need long-term commitments, others appreciate quick and laser-focused assignments, and that, if we build the breakup into our contract -- agreeing, say, that our relationship is only for a few months -- there’ll be no need for hurt feelings.
Even if you make and sell products to customers, the same lessons still apply.
After all these years, I admit to still feeling the sting, the kick in the stomach, the loss of sleep, when the relationship ends. But, contrary to conventional wisdom, I believe that taking it personally in business is not a sign of weakness and immaturity. Instead, it shows we care deeply, are committed to mutual success, are constantly learning and evolving, and are very much alive. The ones that don’t take it personally are the ones we all need to worry about.