From A Toast To Business To The Business Becoming Toast

imagesFive years ago today. Was it the worst ending of a client relationship? Well, as Matt “Guitar” Murphy once put it to The Blues Brothers, “They’re all pretty bad.” But this one won’t be forgotten.

Five years ago yesterday. A corporate client took our team and their lobbyists to lunch at one of the best restaurants in Michigan as a thank you for a fruitful year of work. Before the high-end lunch entrees arrived, a client executive raised her glass and proposed a toast. “To The Greatest Consultants In The World,” she said initiating a big clinking of glasses and enjoyable afternoon of appreciation.

The very next afternoon, I received a message from the client’s public affairs lead on that project who had been our primary contact. He lived out of state, which is why I figured he didn’t make the lunch. When I returned his call, it became clear why he wasn’t there.

Just one day after being toasted by his colleague as one of The Greatest Consultants In The World, we were being stabbed in the back. Our contract was being terminated at the end of the year – just three weeks later. When I asked “Why,” this Nixonian veteran of behind-the-scenes political work before joining the corporate world wouldn’t give a straight answer. He first said it was because this global corporation was getting a new CEO with new priorities. I responded by saying the previous CEO was just fired five days earlier and was a Michigan public affairs campaign really at the top of the new CEO’s list? He then tried telling me the contract was being ended because of our firm’s performance. I responded by saying that he just had a member of our team speak at a national conference the week before, holding up our campaign as a model. He squirmed to the point where I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. Then he said it should have been me, as the team leader, speaking to that conference. I explained that I was on vacation with my family and he knew that before he scheduled the event. I realized that I wasn’t going to get a real explanation, so I ended the call. I haven’t heard from him since.

We continued to do work for another department in that company for another year. I have my theories, but I never found out exactly what happened or why. How could we be toasted then become toast just a day later? Even in a giant corporation, with left hands and right hands not meeting, it’s tough to comprehend.

Here we are five years later, with a lot more “war stories” to tell. The takeaway? Breaking up is hard to do. But if you’re going to fire someone the next day, it’s better to cancel the lunch plans. And when it comes to the actual breakup, show some respect and just be honest.