A few weeks ago, I received an email from a long-term client for whom our company had recently been performing services. It was not a good email. She was done—done with our company, our expertise, our people, and done paying us.
I was crushed. We had been told that things were going well. It was difficult for me to digest and I needed to do some major reflection to figure out where we had gone off track. We had communicated well, been responsive, performed the requested work, checked to ensure we were meeting expectations during and after the work was completed ... so how did we get to this point?
After some thought, I discovered there are two major things to ponder: not every relationship is healthy, and something can be learned from every interaction.
Not every relationship will be a good fit, despite your best efforts. Some factors to consider are margin, volume, in-house technical ability, and vibe. If your client does not fit in with the unique values your company is built on, then there is bound to be friction.
So what happens when it’s not a fit? One option is to fire your client. Take a look at all your clients through the lenses of profitability and ease of doing business, decide which ones are the bottom 20 percent, and replace them with new partners that mesh with your company’s value propositions. You will be able to increase profitability without working any harder, and you can serve more people in a way that is appreciated. Admitting that you aren’t the best fit for a particular customer—and introducing them to another provider—may save face and your reputation. It’s a hard decision to make, but it’s one that will best serve your business and your sanity. This is also a good opportunity to develop corporate partnerships in areas in which you are not strong. Simply being the company that reaches outside itself to fill a need doesn’t mean you have to quit doing business altogether.
On the other hand, your client may fire you. Not living up to expectations is usually the fastest way to find yourself in this camp. Setting expectations early and managing communications throughout a project or service scope can help, but remember: at the end of the day, you need to do what you committed to doing, even if you end up breaking even financially or taking a loss on the project. Otherwise, the end result may be less work and a damaged reputation. Everybody talks, and you want to ensure they’re talking about you in a positive way.
Once you find yourself in dire straits with a client—and we all will at one point or another in our lives—take the time to assess the relationship. Do you want to keep this client? Is this client a key relationship or important for maintaining other relationships? Are you able to meet their needs without changing your mission, vision, or values? Is there mutual respect for each other?
One solution may be to replace your account manager with someone else on the team who can meet their needs in a way that mends the relationship—as long as it’s a good fit for both the client and your company. This change of personnel or attitude may clear the air and create a good fit once again. The problem may be you, not your company, and you may be the ideal person to handle a different client account.
At the end of the day, if you decide a relationship is not healthy, you need to make a decision and be honest with yourself and your client. Providing poor service is worse than releasing your client to someone who will meet their business needs and make them happy.
No matter which path you choose, there is always a lesson to learn. When I got fired by my client, I was hurt personally and began to doubt my team. That led to me being emotional about my client’s expectations, then doubtful of my ability to perform. After spending much time contemplating the situation, I settled on peace. I could have asked better questions and set expectations more clearly up front. My client moved the finish line and was not transparent with her goals. My team did great work, but we made assumptions, too.
Going forward, I am going to replace this client with more desirable work, ensure continued training for my team members (and myself!) on our project management process, and my client is going to find someone who can meet their needs easily and more consistently. There is pain with growth, and the single most important thing I learned is that I need to grow and not continue to make the same mistakes. Fail forward and continue to find clients whom you can serve well, and vice versa.