When you spend all day trying to build and strengthen relationships, you don’t want to think about when and how they will someday, somehow, inevitably end. But when they do, it’s hard not to let the postmortem occupy your thoughts, especially when a longtime client does exactly what you shouldn’t do if you ever have to fire your firm.
Recently, a 12-year client ended a relationship with us in a way we did not expect or deserve. This was a client that, once legally able, joined us after a multi-year track record with us at our previous firm. Much of our work with this client focused on serving as direct communications counsel to the CEO. This client, because of the strength of our relationship and a mutual feeling of trust, donated a portion of our professional time to the community where it is headquartered to help raise awareness for the business and living opportunities there. This is a client that also entrusted us to work closely with its Board of Directors on some of its most sensitive matters.
At no point in the 12 years of working together did anyone working for this client provide any constructive feedback about our performance. We never heard “We’d like you to do this differently” or “We’d like more of that instead.” At no point was any dissatisfaction about work product communicated whatsoever. When we would suggest new ideas, we were often met by budget concerns, but that didn’t deter us from trying to add as much value as the client would allow us to provide.
In fact, after our contract was terminated and we were informed there would be a search process, we were told that it was because “we’re examining all of our outside contracts.” It was reassuring when we were hired soon after that for project work, which yielded results. Then, when an RFP was issued and I called the CEO asking if there is a change mandate and, if so, should we even take the time to complete the process, I was strongly encouraged to submit a proposal. So, after 12 years of working together, I gathered our team, critically evaluated our performance and re-pitched the business in a written proposal.
We didn’t even get an interview.
A few weeks later, I received a voicemail from the in-house marketing person. It said that they had hired another firm, one from a city even farther away from the client than where we are located. It said that they were particularly impressed by that firm’s research capabilities. “Research?” I thought. “Research?” There was nothing in the RFP about research. 12 years of working together and the need for research never even came up in conversation. We have a terrific relationship with an outstanding market research company with particular experience in this client’s sector. If only they had asked we could have told them, but, for some reason, they didn’t even want to know.
12 years was reduced to a voicemail. Well, that and an email “making sure” I got the voicemail.
I don’t know what happened on the client’s end of this story. I likely never will. Probably, they grew dissatisfied with our work, but didn’t have the guts to tell us. Why? Was I going to yell at them? Argue? Swear? Cry? Sue? How bad would it have been?
Or maybe they just thought the grass would be greener someplace else. So why couldn’t we talk about it? What’s so scary about a tough conversation?
As the old song says, breaking up is hard to do. But after a long, successful relationship, do it from the top and don’t do it with a voicemail. Show some class and some stones. Have a real conversation, answer questions, clear the air and then, both sides can move on.