How to Lose a Client

All businesses lose clients.

A wise old account manager introduced me to the adage “the day you get a client is the day you start losing that client.”  The adage doesn’t mean that you should enjoy the process, but it does encourage you to learn from it at the very least.

During last summer’s silly season, I wrote a column about accounts I’ve lost for ridiculous reasons.  However, today I’d like to address the topic more seriously from the perspective of how to lose the business.  By that, I don’t mean what to do get your firm fired (you can figure that out for yourself), but rather how to come out of a client loss wiser, more prepared and even more confident than before.


Some breakups cause more damage than others

Step 1: Don’t Take it Personally–Especially if it’s Personal

Small firms relish the person-to-person nature of their business.  That goes double for the solopreneurs, freelancers, consultants and one-man-bands out there.  As a result, losing a client sometimes seems more like betrayal than a simple business decision.  A word to the wise: Benedict Arnold died in 1801.

Let me share with you my favorite joke: my psychiatrist told me that I take things too personally.  [pause]  So I hit him.  [sfx: rimshot]

Yes, sometimes personalities clash and make working together too difficult for the client.  Yes, sometimes marketing firms say dumb shit.  Sometimes truly terrible people on either side make an assignment unpleasant to a toxic degree.

Ultimately, personality differences provide little insight.  What can you learn from “the marketing director hated my thinking?”  Not much.  Maybe you can conclude that your firm shouldn’t try to work with that person again.

Personality differences rarely end business relationships on their own.  Somewhere along the line, a missed deadline, a misunderstood request or some other breakdown merely brought personality clashes to the surface.  To blame a business loss on a hard-to-predict personality conflict instead of a potentially foreseeable process issue prevents the firm from fixing the real issue.

Step 2: Write It Up

Wrap up your project by writing up a review of what your firm did, what worked well and what didn’t (or, as an alternative, what the firm did, what was awesome and what sucked; you’re on your own time, so use your own words).  This task accomplishes many things:

  • A handover document for your client.  Even if the project disintegrated in a John Woo-like bloodbath, show a little class by accounting for what work was completed, what wasn’t and what factors prevented completion.  Quite possibly, that client may never hire you again, but leaving on a a high note may impress other people at that client who may hire your firm at a later date.  Time heals all wounds, as they say.
  • Cheering yourself up.  Even if your firm holds the client 100% responsible for a loss, you may feel that you have failed.  Perhaps you have.  However, writing down what your firm did–everything your firm did–may remind you that accomplished a lot, even under difficult circumstances.
  • Add to your firm’s overall accomplishments.  Whether you have a firm with a new business credentials deck or simply work as a freelancer with a resume, you need to keep tabs on accomplishments.    These write-ups give you a shortlist of projects your firm can use going forward to illustrate expertise.
  • Taking stock.  Lastly, every firm needs to go through the hard work of self-improvement.  On a personal note, I recently got a new perspective on how hard this can be after watching my eight-year-old daughter go through a new experiment by the New York City Board of Education: student-led conferences.  I watched my child struggle to evaluate her performance.  Although her performance has improved markedly throughout third grade and her teacher offered substantial encouragement, I could see that she genuinely wondered whether she could have done better.  When your firm loses an account, you can write about the experience in the heat of the moment.  Later, when you cool off, you can review what you wrote and put it in the context of other losses.  This exercise helps you see patterns and identify areas for improvement.

Mind you, this write-up need only take a few minutes.  You’re not writing a novel, but rather taking notes.  Style doesn’t count.  Facts do.

Step 3: Think fresh, not reconstituted

I’m tempted to quote the esteemed philosopher Taylor Swift and say “Shake it Off,” but frankly Ms. Swift terrifies me.  Ever notice she always looks airbrushed, even on live TV?  ANYWAY, the oft-spurned singer has a point: move on.

Business often make the mistake of trying to fix the last client loss with the next client relationship.  Say, for instance, your firm lost a client because she felt your team didn’t communicate clearly enough.  You might direct your team to over-communicate to the next client, even though your typical communication style might work fine with him.  Every new client relationship gives your firm a chance to start with a clean slate.  Take advantage of that chance.  Use your experiences–good and bad–to help you ask the right questions at the beginning of a relationship.

I reiterate: your firm will lose a client sooner or later.  It’s up to you whether to make it a learning experience or a total loss.

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