When Client Relationships Falter

This post is a bit delayed, but after reading (and contributing one teensy bit) to Erin Sagan’s post on Getting More Clients, it got me thinking about that old adage about how much easier it is to gain new work from existing clients than it is to develop a whole new relationship. You should definitely check out Erin’s piece, because getting new clients is a really important part of sustaining a business – whether you’re a solo practitioner or an agency.

But what happens when your formerly fantastic relationship with an existing client starts to sour? What are some strategies for handling this uncomfortable situation?

Relationships Are Constantly Evolving & Changing

This is true in life, so why would it not be true with your clients? Sometimes there are obvious reasons why a client relationship turns, and sometimes it feels like it is out of the blue. In our experience, some of the more common reasons for relationship stress include:

  • you’re dealing with a new person at the client and you just don’t mesh well
  • there have been major reorganizations within the client’s company
  • there have been major negative developments in the client’s industry that are impacting their sales and general outlook
  • your client has been ordered to cut their budget for the coming year
  • the CEO has suddenly taken an interest in your area of expertise and your contact is on edge
  • there has been some type of issue between you and the client – perhaps an unexpectedly high invoice, a slower than expected performance period, etc.
  • you’ve not been giving them the level of attention they’d grown accustomed to receiving

Change is to be expected. Nothing in business remains completely static. If you’re doing a good job of communicating regularly with your clients, you should be able to pick up on subtle clues that perhaps all is not well. And sometimes, you will just get blindsided.

Signs of Trouble

If you’re lucky, your client will flat out tell you that they are unhappy or dissatisfied, and why. Unfortunately, most clients (and people) are just not that direct. Here are some possible signs that your client is less happy:

  • radio silence – they used to get back to you quickly and now it takes forever, if at all (this can also be a result of outside factors, so you’ll need to dig on this one)
  • disengagement – your monthly call used to be lively, with you both actively participating, but now they don’t say much or ask questions – or worse, they stop scheduling meetings or calls with you all together (see radio silence)
  • intense invoice scrutiny – suddenly you are being asked about every invoice and why you billed what you billed, did it really take that long to do X, etc.
  • the word budget creeps into the conversation more frequently, as in “well, I’m not sure what our budget is going to be for next year…”
  • citing other sources – when the questions come along with a citation of another source who does what you do (or thinks they can)

What To Do About It

Sometimes, unfortunately there is nothing you can do to reverse this type of tide. But, most times there are things that you can do. You might not be able to save every faltering client relationship, but sometimes you can.

  • Ask the client what’s up. Seems simple, right? It is amazing to me how many people just won’t do this. Not asking a question you don’t want the answer to, does not change that answer. If you think things are going south, ask. Give yourself a fighting chance to salvage the relationship.
  • Pay attention. When your spidey sense starts tingling, pay very close attention to what the client is most fixated on. Lots of talk about budget or ROI or a particular competitor? Addressing what is keeping them up at night might just help you get back on their A List.
  • Take a hard look in the mirror. Have you been giving them your best effort? Could you be working better for them? Is it time to reevaluate the role you are playing for your client? Maybe you started out providing one type of service and have expanded in a haphazard way into others. Take a step back and look at the total of what you’re doing for the client – could you do it better or more efficiently? Are you truly the best provider for all the services they want?
  • Know when to say no. Sometimes clients want things that just are not good for us or our businesses. Don’t be afraid to say no. Saying yes to something that is a bad fit or a money loser for you is rarely a good idea. Know your strengths and sell them.
  • Be sensitive. This could apply to their personal situation (if you have that type of relationship with them) and/or their professional or industry situation. Company just laid off a bunch of people? Probably not the best time to raise your rates or pitch expensive new work. Client going through a tough personal issue, do what you can to make their work life easier.
  •  Be prepared for it to end. Most client relationships eventually end. They end for lots of different reasons, some positive and some negative. If you’re very lucky, you will have lots of clients who work with you for many years. But not all clients are cut from that cloth. Remember it usually is not personal.

If It Can’t Be Saved

If the relationship cannot be saved or morphed into a favorable new arrangement, be sure when it ends to leave on the most positive note possible. Again, this sounds like “Duh” advice, but I am always amazed at how often other providers leave clients high and dry. Do everything you can to make a transition to another agency or an internal team as smooth as possible. You never know when a client might need you again. Leaving on positive terms keeps that possibility alive. We have had clients leave for various reasons over the years and quite a few of them end up coming back. Why? Because we made it easy on them when they needed to walk away. Did it suck losing the business? You bet it did! But choosing to be gracious and professional in a difficult time has definitely paid dividends.

What about you? How do you handle these kinds of situations? Share your thoughts, insights and stories with us in the comments!

 

Comments

  1. I have said goodbye to many clients over the years – sometimes because I wanted to… but mostly for some of the reasons you mention. Not one can say anything bad about the way we handed things over, and a good number have come back in time having had their “fling” with another agency.
    I am staggered at the attitude I often (far too often in truth) see when picking up a new account. Analytics accounts that clients don’t have access to, AdWords accounts in the agency name, and more.
    I always have all accounts in the client’s name – and I tell them from day one that this is for their own protection… after all, I could win the lottery tomorrow!

    • Neptune Moon says:

      Steve:

      I would say that sadly, much more often than not when we take over an account the first thing we need to do is engage in a little trust therapy with the client after the way their previous provider left things. I shouldn’t be surprised by it any more, having seen it for so long, but it does still surprise me.

      I totally agree with you too about the client controlling access to their accounts. We operate the same way.

      Thanks for chiming in!

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