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Leadership Thought #381 – You Can’t Save Every Client

July 9, 2012

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One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn in my line of work is that you can’t save every client.  Despite your good intentions and best efforts, sometimes the formula will not work.  In some cases, you might have to accept the fact that you are not the right fit for a given engagement or client relationship.  In other instances, there is always a reason someone is struggling and until they fully come to grips with this fact and take ownership of their behavior, there is only so much you can do.

If the reason is you aren’t a good fit with the client or needs of the engagement, then be honest with them and yourself and move on gracefully and quickly.  Sometimes we just don’t connect with another person and that’s okay.  Trying to force a connection where one doesn’t exist only leads to unnecessary tension and frustration.  Some relationships just aren’t meant to be.  On the flip side of this situation, once a client trusts you and values the relationship, they may offer you opportunities that aren’t a good fit with your skills and/or abilities and/or time availability.  You need to know when to say, “no thanks” and steer them in a different direction.  If you are not careful you will end up eroding all the goodwill you’ve built up by underperforming on something you shouldn’t be doing in the first place.   In the professional services business never chase money, but instead focus on providing maximum value.

If the reason is the client’s readiness or willingness to change this is a much more complicated issue.  Convincing someone to alter their mindset and behavior is challenging work.  When you are dealing with people who feel time crunched and overcommitted already, they may resist anything they find difficult and additive to an already full plate.  Even when the consequences of not changing are significant, people will still avoid doing things that make them feel further stressed or uncomfortable.   And it’s important to know that there is a significant difference between a person feeling uncomfortable and stressed versus experiencing true pain.  You can live with stress and discomfort for a long time, but real pain must be addressed at some point.

I’ve seen many leaders hold onto employees, clients, product/service lines and outdated business models that aren’t serving them well because they’d rather not confront reality.  There are many reasons for this such as pride, ego, fear, low self-confidence, misguided loyalty, emotional discomfort, family business dynamics, etc.  Unfortunately, when you wait too long, the consequences of inaction are often worse and can be irreversible.  Just like an individual ignoring obvious health signs because they don’t want to deal with the potential reality of what’s happening; leaders often wait until they have no choice but to address the symptoms because they have now become severe or potentially fatal.  Sadly, many of us still forget that the sooner you address something, the higher the probability that you will achieve a better outcome.   If you wait too long, it may be too late.

A harsh reality is that some people can’t be saved by you or from themselves.   Sometimes the best teacher is a failure.  You can care deeply about the individual, work hard, and do your best, but it still may not be good enough.  The important thing is to first assess whether you are part of the problem and not a good advisory fit for the specific situation. Secondly, all you can do is make your client/colleague fully aware of the consequences of inaction, push them to see how their own behaviors are contributing to the situation and help them identify alternative courses of action.  The rest is up to them.