There is nothing more scary to a business owner than the prospect of losing a major contract or client. Of course all business relationships have to end at some stage, but we get really used to the security of our bigger clients and of course, the thought of them leaving evokes all kinds of fear.
Over the years I've certainly won and lost my share of big clients. We tend to know when things are rocky and we get a few inklings that tell us a client may be thinking about moving on. So if we get these, what should we be doing?
I've got 7 recommendations that I've used to help manage the potential loss of a big client.
1. Deal with facts - don't let your imagination run wild.
We need to stick with the facts here. You might be picking up on weird vibes, that have nothing to do with you. So before your mind goes off in a hundred different directions, stop, take a moment and deal with the facts. What has changed, what are you basing your feelings on, what would it mean if to you if they did leave (both good and bad) etc?
2. Open up the communication channels.
Smaller businesses tend to be hesitant to have hard conversations with bigger clients and we really shouldn't. Talking about money, the future of a contract or a piece of work, issues with a project etc, these are all very normal things to talk about and we should be completely comfortable having these discussions.
Now is the time to talk to your client and check in to see if everything is OK. Ask about the future, see if there is anything they need you to do above and beyond the contracted work you are doing. If there are problems from your end, hopefully you've caught things in time to rebuild the relationship. Show a willingness to lift your game if that is required.
Or if they are moving on for reasons that have nothing to do with you, talk through how this will be handled, time frames, budgets and operational kinds of issues.
3. Don't get personal
If they are planning on leaving, at least now you know. This gives you an opportunity to do something about it and try to secure the work. Often the reason they are ending your relationship is nothing to do with you or your services or products, it's due to some internal issue. Business relationships stop and start all the time. The worst thing you can do is get your nose bent out of shape and take it personally.
Be the professional right the way though and even if the relationship ends, sometimes it doesn't mean it finishes. Their new supplier might be terrible and they could come back to you. I've had this happen on many occasions. But it won't happen if you end the relationship badly.
4. Get busy chasing new business
Of course we should always be in business development mode, but sometimes it's easy to get a little slack when times are good. If you are facing losing one of your bigger clients, you will need to replace that work and now is the time to be looking for new clients. Even if you manage to keep the old client, I'm sure the new work that comes in as a result of being in business development mode will only be a good thing for the business.
5. Learn, learn, learn.
Assuming the client is moving on, we have to be big enough to learn from the experience. What could we have done better? Where did things go wrong? What were the signs that we didn't do anything about? How would we handle things differently next time? Even if it has nothing to do with you, there are always lessons to be learned.
6. Always have a rainy day plan.
I lost a major client a number of years back and it really rattled my business and put us into a tail spin. Not only did we lose a pile of monthly revenue, quite suddenly, we all fell into a state of depression. Now I have a "rainy day plan" that I can implement anytime I suspect there is an issue with a client. It covers the exact business development activity I will undertake as well the internal actions I will take in the event that I lose a particular client. There is something reassuring about having a "rainy day plan" for each and every major client.
7. Prevention is far better than cure.
The best way to avoid losing big clients, or really any clients, is to exceed their expectations. Check in often, but not in a needy way. Ensure they are happy with what you are doing. Become a valued and trusted supplier, with a reputation for professionalism and delivering and your relationships will be incredibly strong. Be open and honest, always act with the highest levels of integrity.
None of us like to lose a big client, be we all will. How we handle this says a lot about the type of business we run. Don't be in denial about it. Be proactive. Be up front. Be prepared.
In many instances I have been able to turn the situation around and I went on to have many years working with the client. In some cases, it didn't end so well, but I maintained my professionalism to the end, even if they didn't and that helped me to build a very positive reputation, which of course helps to attract many more clients in the long run.