Why we need to sometimes cut ties with clients – Part 5

Avatar photo Colette Ballou - 25th Juil, 2022

This is an addendum to the four-part series examining when to part ways with a client. The series developed as a part of the reflection in creating our internal training program called Consulting Academy, which trains our colleagues to become consultants using Harvard Business School’s Case Study methodology. One of the modules focuses on nurturing client relationships: what it takes to develop and maintain them, detecting when they are deteriorating, how to address issues constructively, and ultimately repair the relationship so that it’s stronger than ever—or end the relationship responsibly and with grace.

I felt we should turn tables on ourselves, and examine a time when we were fired.

When A Client Fires You

It’s only fair to follow the previous four-part series examining when to part ways with a client with a story about what happens when we get fired.  I’ll make it short.

Recently, a client we really liked fired us. We were heartbroken: during the pandemic, we’d worked with them to help mitigate their falling revenues and our fees, and when they emerged stronger than ever, our client contact thanked the entire team for being so supportive and credited us with a hand in their success. Since then, I’d stepped in to counsel them on matters around their European operations, and the relationship was bringing out the best in us, as we were able to perform for them tactically as well as on a strategic level. Not to mention, I had known the client contact for a long time, and was someone I felt warmly about and admired.

So when I was asked for a call, I assumed it was to discuss their further European expansion. I was dismayed to find that we were being fired, and the instinct to protest or find any way to halt this process was overwhelming. But we had let them down. And rule number one for us in these cases is to listen—just as you’d listen to a good friend. This wasn’t a battle to be won, it was a chance, at the end, to let them be heard and to acknowledge how they’d been made to feel.

There was no winning this client back, so I listened, and took responsibility for what was ours. I made no excuses. When the time was right, when they knew they had been heard, I gently turned the conversation to issues that I knew were going to trip them up in the future and coached them on how to interview new agencies to make sure they found the right one; I also offered to make an introduction to an agency I thought would be a great fit, and they accepted.

I share this for balance and to illustrate that in any instance of boundary-setting—and on whichever side—the only appropriate response is accountability and respect. Some cases, such as this one, may call for a mea culpa; accountability will serve you in gauging to what extent something is your responsibility, and owning it. 

Despite our best efforts, this will happen from time to time—the best we can do is learn from it in a way that enhances our culture and relationships. Because that, always, is the goal: being a better agency for our clients.

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