The relationship started out as a mutually beneficial romance, but now your client isn't feeling the love. Here's how to avoid a costly separation
You can still remember those early meetings. Like smitten teenagers, you instantly clicked. You talked for hours, swapping stories and sharing dreams. Suddenly you felt energized, open to new possibilities, connected to something larger. So you imagined building your businesses together. And you thought to yourselves: Finally, someone understands me. Now, your partner dreads taking your call. As time passed, you became strangers. That initial thrill faded as your paths diverged. Complacency soon followed. And the setbacks bred regret and suspicion. These days, you're locked in a marriage of convenience. To your partner, you're an expensive reminder of how quickly relationships can sour. Too often, we forget that closing the business is the easy part. In reality, it's the messy job of nurturing relationships—caring, consistency, collaboration, and communication—that separates organizations. Want to keep your relationships profitable and civil over the long term? Avoid lapsing into these eight faults: 1) Not Responsive: You take self-service to a new level. Your IVR is a Kafkaesque maze with every passage leading to voicemail. When customers finally reach a live person, it's a clueless underling who can never find the decision makers. Since the sale, you've almost disappeared. It takes days to get their calls and e-mails returned; something always pops up and takes precedence. The courtship is truly over. Often it's not the arguments that bury relationships; it's the silence and the doubts stoked when partners feel ignored and disrespected. Eventually customers tire of waiting and never being a priority. When you shook hands, you made an implicit agreement: We will be there. They lived up to their end when payment cleared. Now it's your turn. 2) Don't Solve Problems: The solution is down (again). But they're afraid to call you. Maybe you made excuses or pointed fingers in the past. Or you refused to apologize or meet them face to face. You may have even pushed fixes off to another day, urging them to "work around the problems." No, you never do what you say you will. You juke and jive, then cut and run. So much for "underpromise and overdeliver." As owners and managers, we rarely see ourselves as a risk. In reality, we're a leap of faith to our customers. In any joint venture, they have so much to fear: embarrassment, betrayal, failure, and starting over. But you earned their trust because they believed you understood and genuinely cared about their interests. To protect your customers, follow the basics: Draft plans, set expectations, communicate frequently, and always follow through. Mistakes will happen, but your dependability can never be a question mark. 3) Inflexible: Ah, nothing is ever easy with you. Your paperwork would make a bureaucrat blush. When something goes wrong, you're all too quick to point out the fine print. Whether it's pricing or terms, it's always your way, with no alternatives or room for debate. No interaction with you is ever fun; you wear your bottom line for all to see. Customers get tired of jumping through hoops and always hearing "no." These days, they have more options than ever—but they're also stretched thin and run ragged. Capitalize on this reality by becoming the least-hassle partner. Look at the world through their eyes, keeping everything simple and pertinent. Handle all their arrangements yourself, so they need only show up. Be willing to custom-design your solution to their unique situation. Most important, listen to their feedback and act on it. True partners supply more than goods and services; they also act as a refuge, safety net, and confidant. 4) Too Many Unexpecteds: It's one surprise after another. Since they've made the commitment, they've seen a different side of you. Suddenly there are unexpected snags, delays, and costs, and key tasks always seem to fall through the cracks. The terms are in flux; they're nickeled and dimed at every turn. Your customers now use colorful language to describe you. At best, you're considered inconsistent and unreliable. At worst, they call you slippery and unscrupulous. Hell hath no fury like a customer who feels ripped off. And word of mouth can be just as damaging as bad publicity or being served. Rather than bagging the elephant at the risk of losing the mouse, focus on accounts that are within your scope (and customers who hold reasonable expectations). Do your homework and be straightforward and transparent from the beginning. 5) Little Expertise and Influence: You never bring new ideas anymore. Sure, you'll drop off a white paper or hit your talking points. But you quit being curious—asking questions, clarifying, and making observations—long ago. You just assume nothing has changed. Worse, you can't seem to make anything happen. When you wined and dined your customer, you positioned your team as go-getters who "make things happen." Now, they wait while everything is run up and down the chain. Your customers expect you to stay current, to act as a consultant who can provide unbiased advice and direction. Often they view you as an extension of their organization, if not one of their employees. There's just one caveat: They expect you to be better. That means you must answer one question: "Did I make my customer more money today?" To do that, always be thinking critically about the dynamics of their industry, customers, and operation. And make sure you have the resources and authority to move quickly. 6) Always Trying to Sell Something: You dropped in with no advance notice. You wanted to see how things were working and how you could improve, or so you said. But then you launched into that cheesy sales pitch on your latest solution (when you haven't debugged the last one). They sense urgency, even desperation, in your arm twisting. So they grow quiet and look for an opening to politely usher you out. They see right through your shtick: This visit is all about you, not them. People love buying but hate being sold to. They're uncomfortable with making decisions or saying "no" to an old friend. And there's nothing worse than selling under false pretenses. Sure, you may have their best interests at heart. From their side, they see you as just trying to goose your monthly billable. So don't make every contact about selling more. Instead, focus on gathering intelligence and building goodwill until the right time comes along. 7) Don't Make Them Feel Special: Whatever happened to the romance? Long ago, you'd surprise your customers with gifts for no reason. You'd take them out for dinner and shower them with personal attention. You were there when they were at their weakest, always quick with a kind word, quip, and helping hand. Now the only surprises entail unwelcome changes and repairs. And you're always too distracted and hurried to visit with them. No, they're picking up a vibe. Your people aren't doing what you love. They want to be somewhere else. Early on, your customers were drawn to your passion. Now they seem to love your products more than your people do. Over time it's easy to sour on your work and take your relationships and past success for granted. Sure, your customers' $25,000 billable may look like just another spreadsheet row. But it's probably a big investment to them. Show your gratitude by spending the extra time to keep the relationship personal. Always reinforce—over a meal, handwritten note, or small token—that they're on your mind and their business is valued. If you don't, the competition eventually will. Most important, readjust your outlook. While you may be going through the motions, your customers are the collateral damage. Don't sell them out. 8) Try to Be All Things to All People: You wanted to branch out and capitalize on new opportunities. So you invested in the personnel and capabilities—only to discover you were trying to be something you're not. In between, you ignored the core competencies, culture, and service that originally attracted your customers to you. You forgot the fundamentals and became mediocre, or worse, across the board. As years pass, organizations evolve. They shift priorities and take risks that sometimes don't pan out. Whether you're fighting for market share or survival, never turn your attention away from your existing customers. They are your foundation and advocates, the ones who stand by you in good times and bad. And the state of these relationships is the mirror image of your organization's health.