Why I'm Glad We Parted Ways With A Client
Updated: Feb 11
People almost never talk about the clients they lose. But we all experience it – and when it happens, it is best to take a good look at why, so you can learn something from the experience.
We parted ways with a client recently. I try never to get too upset when a working relationship does not work out – after all, we all want to work with people we like and trust. If a client doesn’t trust our team, that means that it wasn’t a good fit, and it is best for both parties to move on. But, like always, I did some (ok, maybe a little too much) thinking about why.
This one was pretty perplexing, actually. I got rave reviews about my team from the client. They called and emailed regularly to thank our team for the great work. All of us felt really good about each conversation. From what I was seeing and hearing, I expected the business to grow and stay with us for a long time.
So imagine my surprise to one morning get a terse email terminating the relationship.
But as I looked deeper at what happened, I realized two related things: (1) we had failed to set realistic expectations; and (2) we had WAY over-serviced this client. Because our client contact was so nice, and so enthusiastic and so thankful, our team was super motivated to go above and beyond. (And my pep talks about how all of their great work would result in us doing even more work with the client over time actually made this worse.)
My team members were regularly taking on out of scope projects, consulting with the client on related marketing topics (that we weren’t being tasked with) and taking calls on vacation time just because they wanted to make the client happy. And while they did get positive feedback in the short term, they unwittingly set the relationship on a road to ruin.
Because we responded to every whim, and helped out with all sorts of side projects, the client forgot that we offer a fee-based service – they thought nothing of changing directions, sending the team off on tangents and then abandoning that idea, and asking us to do things that took us away from the main project. And the team, who loved all the positive feedback, was happy to oblige the client’s whims even if it meant the main project was put on the back burner (You see where this is going...)
All of this resulted in a situation where (a) the client had unrealistic expectations of service levels; and (b) the team did not do a great job of setting expectations for specific projects or deliverables. So at the first sign of disagreement, the client freaked out.
In the end, I learned three things:
1) Be specific – and diligent – about staying within the scope of the engagement.
It is easy to think that doing lots of extra work will win you points and a longer/bigger engagement. But other business people will actually respect – and value – your work more if you insist on being paid fairly for it.
2) Make sure you emphasize executing the current project flawlessly, even more than you emphasize the new business/new revenue opportunity coming in the future.
As business owners, we are always looking for opportunity, but the folks in the trenches need to know that the work they are doing right now is valuable and important to the company’s growth so that they focus on execution. This will help avoid all the extra work that can distract them from their goals.
3) Always check in on the client’s expectations.
You may think it should be clear to the client that adding something to the project might delay it or change what it looks like, but you should always be 100 percent sure you’ve discussed that explicitly. And as the business owner, make sure it is you – or someone else very senior – who is doing that.
In the end, I do not think this particular client was a great fit for a company, for many reasons. But I’m also very aware of how we, as a team, can potentially identify tough fits sooner, and decide how we want to handle them – whether that means changing the team members working on the account; finishing up a project and parting ways; or having a serious discussion with the client before it goes awry.
For my part, I should have seen what was happening earlier and made some corrections. And thanks to this experience, I believe we’ll be better at that in the future.