When a business relationship sours – and why firing yourself might be the solution

Recently I had an unpleasant situation with a relationship with a new supplier going from bad to worse. 

It was a perfect storm… where everything you do goes wrong despite your best efforts to make sure everything is right.  And the harder you try, the worse things get.  Nothing goes according to plan, and you’re constantly fixing things that normally wouldn’t happen. You’re following the same processes you’ve used time and again that have always worked.  Your customer is following your advice and doing what they should be (i.e. they’re not doing anything intentionally to stuff things up for you).

And yet, you find yourself constantly apologising and fixing things. Spending more time and resources managing a new customer relationship that’s costing both you and your customer more over time.

And this happens through no one’s fault.

It’s frustrating. Trying to live up to your brand and core values, praying to whatever deity you believe in that things will settle down, trying to show your best side to your new customer while at the same time you know that if the roles were reversed you’d be questioning what’s going on (and the choice you made to work with this person).

Thankfully these situations are rare if you’re good at what you do.

You have to make a choice

When things aren’t going to plan with your customer (perfect storm or not), you as the supplier must make a decision.  Do you…

  1. Blame the customer.  They’re the problem and you pass all extra costs onto them, justifying the additional costs any way you can.
  2. Accept the problem is with what you are doing (or not doing).  You put things right, reassuring the customer you know what you’re doing, learn from what happened so it never happens again, and hope things settle down.
  3. Accept it’s just life and sometimes (hopefully not too often) these things happen. You keep talking with the customer and come to an agreement together about what will happen – i.e. you share the problems with the customer (not the same as passing the problems to the customer) to find common ground. Even if that includes parting ways.

My new supplier decided on option one and fired me (and also tried to bill me for their decision). 

In my case, since changing IT suppliers late in 2018, we faced problem after problem.  In total, I lost almost 30 hours of my time over five months dealing with the continual problems.  Thirty hours I never had in the first place.  On top of that time lost, the problems that didn’t stop coming meant I couldn’t work as efficiently as normal so the work I did get done was done much slower than normal.

The irony they never understood was I chose to change to them to help save me time and money with my IT, and they ended up costing me more time and money than had I not changed. 

I persevered and dealt with each mishap as they arose and kept an open dialogue with the new supplier all the time focussing on a better future.  Initially, at least, my supplier did the same and a middle ground was found. 

But that changed when my new supplier told me they were firing me.  In their opinion, firing me was supposed to be advantageous to my new provider to start with their transition – not that they would know because they never asked me.

While the experience was upsetting, it provided me with two valuable insights:

  1. If they are willing to fire me without talking with me first then I am better off without them so the sooner we part ways the better; and
  2. Being fired by a supplier made me realise what a customer might feel like if I fired them – justified or not.  It would suck.  As someone who takes his responsibility to look after business owners seriously – from start to stop, regardless of whether things work out or not – customers who no longer need my help must be treated with the same level of attention, respect and care as when they showed up looking for help. 

Having now seen how not to fire a customer, and being reminded of what that feels like, it’s my responsibility to find a better way.

A better way to treat customers you no longer want

Just as with everything in life, there are always at least two solutions to any problem. So there are at least two ways to end a relationship with a customer.  One we already know – you can fire them (nicely or not so nicely – that’s up to you).

Or you can reverse it completely and instead of firing the customer, fire yourself.  Tell them what is going to happen so they know what to expect, and give them some flexibility around the timing (e.g. offer to help if they need more time to find a replacement for you and ask them to let you know how much more time they will need).  That way they feel like they’re in control.

Why firing a customer hurts them (and you)

When you fire a customer, what you’re saying to your customer is “you’re not good enough and I don’t want you around me anymore”.

Hearing that hurts – especially if you’re the one on the receiving end of this and you feel you did everything possible to make it work. 

Rightly or wrongly, hurt customers may lash out. They might take to social media and bad mouth your business; they will tell anyone who will listen of their bad experiences; they certainly won’t be recommending your business to anyone they meet; and they may involve lawyers if money is involved (which will cost you more money, time and stress).

Why take the risk?

Aren’t you supposed to be the expert at what you do and helping your customers?  Why can’t you do that for the entire relationship?  Most business owners make the effort at the beginning and during but not so much at the end – especially if things aren’t working out well. 

Why firing yourself is better for your customer (and you)

If you accept you’re the professional and you care about your customers, then own that responsibility. If things aren’t working out, fire your own ass instead of your customers’.

A customer will never expect a supplier to fire themselves, so it disarms them almost entirely.  By firing yourself, customers can’t feel like you are blaming them.

And just because you’re not firing them (and therefore not blaming them), it doesn’t mean I’m telling you to take all the blame yourself.  Sometimes there is no blame.  Sometimes it’s just life.  Sometimes you grow apart. Sometimes things just don’t work out.  And sometimes it’s just better for everyone if you shake hands, agree it’s not working, and part ways for a better future.

By firing yourself, you might be surprised at what happens.  You might save yourself thousands in legal fees.  You might use the time you’d spend disputing with your customer and instead get more customers and do more work.  Your ex-customer might actually surprise you and recommend you to other potential customers because of the way you handled your separation. 

When a relationship between you and your customer is no longer working and can’t be salvaged, cut your losses and move on. And enable your customer to move on too!  Do everyone a favour and fire yourself instead!

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