Look, I don’t profess to be a relationship counselor. If you come to me seeking sage domestic advice to help you patch things up at home, I get a little uncomfortable.
What I am good at though, is picking up on the signs of a client relationship that’s about to blow up in your face. When you think about it, many of the signals that point to a breakup in the business world mirror those in our personal lives, so think of this piece as one long metaphor if you must.
Even if the relationship is souring right in front of your face, it often takes the benefit of hindsight to see that things were trending south for quite some time. That’s because our favorite clients are often the ones who blindside us when they terminate their contracts. If this has happened to you, it’s probably due in part to lax client review procedures and fractured communication on both sides. No one wants to admit that the honeymoon phase is over, so red flags are overlooked.
Believe it or not, a client that’s peppering you with questions (and even some complaints!) on a consistent basis is exhibiting healthy relationship behavior. When those questions and pieces of feedback stop, it’s not because the client is 100% satisfied with your service. They’ve actually become disengaged, and that can be tough to recover from.
The BIG Signs
Now, your client isn’t going to come right out and say, “we’re no longer motivated to make this relationship work” (at least not right away). We’re all human, and conflict is icky. What they’ll do instead is constantly reschedule meetings and calls, only grant you facetime with less essential staff and gradually decrease the number of billable hours that actually get used every month. This is the business equivalent of the “I think I’m just gonna take it easy this weekend” text, repeated until you take the hint.
But because you value your relationship with this client so much, you probably won’t take the hint. So they’re compelled to resort to more overt tactics. Have you experienced the WTF moment of a normally chipper client souring their tone at a meeting? Or getting irritated at the smallest mistake that could be corrected in five minutes? If you find yourself doing more work putting out fires than getting ahead on projects, then your client is probably wishing they were seeing other people.
Since this is business we’re talking about, you know things can get pretty passive aggressive. If you sense something is up with your client, train your ears to interpret cries for help. There are subtle ones, like a deep exhale before answering a question, or sentences that start with “I would have expected…” or “As I’ve mentioned before…” Maybe your client will put all of the burden on you to recommend a solution, metaphorically throwing up their hands in defeat (“You’re the expert. Why don’t you tell us?”).
The Recovery Phase and Future Growth
As painful as it is to be on the receiving end of this, all is not lost. Demonstrate your value by listening to what’s really being said and responding with honesty. If you’re confused as to why you’re not growing your relationship up the chain within their organization, ask what expectations are not being met, then clearly lay out a plan that will either reset goals or get you back on track to meet current ones.
Of course, the best way to keep a client relationship humming along, is to not let it drift in the first place. The more trusted allies you make, the better your chances of weathering storms like turnover, acquisition and other inevitabilities of your clients’ worlds that are out of your control. Don’t wait until it’s too late to salvage your relationship. Be proactive from the beginning so you can recognize the negative signs and come together to hash it out.