Dealing With a Client Shake-Up

Don't get left out in the cold when one of your corporate customers experiences a major company shift. There are ways to keep your business intact.

By Cliff Ennico

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It happens to all of us at one time or another: You have a big corporate client that accounts for a sizeable chunk of your income. You know everybody there, and they love your work. One day you walk into their corporate offices and find out the company has "reorganized." The people you once knew are no longer there, and the people who replaced them are total strangers who came in from another division, or another company. Not only do these new folks not know you, but it seems as if they've each got a brother-in-law that does what you do and would love to get business from them.

It's no secret that life in corporate America isn't as secure and stable as it once was. Most large corporations are reorganizing on average once every six months, throwing their employees into turmoil and disrupting the company's established relationship with outside suppliers and contractors. When a reorganization happens, you have to scramble to preserve the relationship and keep the money flowing into your business. So how do you do it?

Event Marketing Strategies, a Columbus, Ohio, firm that helps big companies promote their products and services at state and county fairs, festivals, concerts and other live events throughout the United States, is a master at managing the changing corporate landscape. "Most of our clients are large corporations," says company president Jeff Milgrom, "so keeping on top of reorganizations and personnel changes within our clients is mission critical for us."

First of all, Milgrom stresses that it's important never to alienate anyone, and he means anyone, within the corporate structure. These days, today's administrative assistant may well be tomorrow's senior vice president, and he or she will remember the outside contractors who treated them poorly. It also helps to cultivate friends at different levels in the client's organization who can provide you information on an informal basis when changes are brewing. I would add that a few strategically timed dinners and gifts for the right people can pay huge dividends.

Milgrom feels it's important to "do such a good job on each project that people at all levels of the company know that you add value." Besides the primary contact person at the company, Milgrom always tries to work very closely with people one level up, and one level down, from that person. "This safeguards you to some degree," says Milgrom, "because if your primary contact leaves the company for any reason, chances are at least one of these other two people will still be around, and you want them to know the type of work you do."

When a company reorganizes, a lot of the new people don't understand or appreciate the work you've done for the company in the past. When Event Marketing Strategies finishes a job for a corporate client, they make sure that each client employee who worked on the event receives an album with all the relevant documents, photos, press clippings and other mementos of the event. Making sure that everyone gets a copy of this binder ensures that if someone leaves the company, there's one left floating around in the company somewhere that will give the new team players a chance to see what Milgrom's firm has contributed. "And we always keep a copy of the binder for ourselves, so we can remind them if we have to," adds Milgrom.

Milgrom says corporate changes come in three basic varieties and feels it's important to have a strategy in place to deal with each of them:

1. When the personnel stays in place, but the client's budget changes: After the terrorist attacks in 2001, a lot of Milgrom's clients cut back on their national advertising budgets but were still interested in regional or local events, especially in places where their key accounts were located. "Our focus on 'grass roots' marketing in places like Tucson and Milwaukee really gave us an edge over our competition," recalls Milgrom.

2. When the goals and objectives of a client change. You have to be willing to listen hard and get a lot of information from your client when this happens, advises Milgrom, and make sure you anticipate the client's fallback or "B" plans as well as their current "A" plan.

3. When the client is acquired, or downsizes its staff. "These are definitely the toughest," according to Milgrom, "because initially all the people are confused and scared, they get very conservative, and nobody's willing to step up and be bold or creative." In such a situation, Milgrom suggests you keep your ears to the ground and wait until someone is willing to step up just enough to launch a creative new initiative.

Cliff Ennico is host of the PBS TV series MoneyHuntand a leading expert on managing growing companies. His advice for small businesses regularly appears on the "Protecting Your Business" channel on Small Business Television Network. E-mail him at This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. Copyright 2003 Clifford R. Ennico. Distributed by Creators Syndicate Inc.

Cliff Ennico

Cliff Ennico is a syndicated columnist and author of several books on small business, including Small Business Survival Guide and The eBay Business Answer Book. This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state.

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