A Client Breakup Is Hard: Learn And Move Forward

Back in 1988, during my parent’s breakup, my father told me something that, at the time seemed fatalistic, but in hindsight, has been the single most important piece of advice I’ve ever received about relationships—both personal and professional.

Every relationship is terminal.

In the heat of a painful breakup, we tend to wallow in the impermanence of it all.

No less important in our professional relationships, and perhaps even more emotionally daunting, because when a major client moves on we’re forced to reckon with what it does to our employees, vendors, and other clients.

It can be a mess.

The idea and practice of embracing impermanence helps clarify things.

It allows me to cherish the day-to-day I have with my family and friends, business partners, co-workers, and clients.

It reminds me to be fully present for my family and friends for obvious reasons.

No one gets out alive.

Every Relationship Will End

However, it has a no-less profound effect on how I run my business.

If I know every relationship is going to end, it absolves me of the fear of it actually ending.

The hardest part is not saying or hearing the words, “We’re moving on.”

It’s the build-up and anxiety we create getting to it.

Once we embrace that the end WILL happen, it becomes just a question of when.

By accepting this, it creates options we can take that remove emotion from the equation, and puts us squarely in the framework of strategy.

Strategy, by its very nature, is rational, linear, and actionable.

It may be emotionally tough to implement, but now you have a plan, and no one succeeds by accident.

“We Need to Talk.”

Four of the most bone-chilling, stomach-turning, panic-inducing words in the English language.

Whether it is your significant other, your boss, or your client, you have a clear choice at that moment.

Take it on the chin or roll with the punches.

Either way, the swing is coming and it’s been telegraphed.

Business relationships (like most) may come and go like opportunistic ships in the night.

At some point you’ll part, and need to decide if you’ll keep sailing or literally keel over.

Most of us would never say die, and keep sailing on.

The difficulty lies in how to do that while keeping open lines of communications over an ever increasing client list with growing complexity and nuance.

You can’t be all places at once.

The challenge is how to create a process—a company-wide system—that can keep a client breakup to a minimum, or at the very least, give you choice to be the break-er rather than the break-ee.

More importantly, what can you tell your staff to look out for as warning signs, and get in front of the situation before they start combing LinkedIn for your replacement.

Three Signs a Client Breakup is Imminent 

  • They don’t return your calls. Sound familiar? This is a hard one, as oftentimes people are busy enough where they actually become so myopic to their problems they are generally bad responders. What you should look for is a break in the pattern. Keep notes as to how long it takes for key people to get back to you. If they’re taking a week longer than normal it could be a big project is due, someone is on vacation, or you are on your way out.
  • You talk and they ignore you. If you’re not a priority, you’re not a priority. That makes it easier to ignore you and send you packing.
  • They don’t pay on time. This is a sure sign things have become a problem. On its own, it may have little to do with you. We all have cashflow issues from time to time, but add this to the previous two issues and it makes me believe it’s time for reparative action.

These seem obvious, right?

Anyone with five minutes of experience working with clients could easily agree this isn’t a hard sell.

Yet, we’re often surprised when things go south because we’re NOT PAYING ATTENTION to our clients.

We’re knee-deep in our own crazy, and it’s a matter of mental survival to think “if we perform as agreed, and they pay on time, we’re all good, right?”


I’ve never been in a relationship, personal or otherwise, where I didn’t benefit if the other person felt valued, cherished, and listened to.

If you’re about to get the boot and you see it coming you, can take the punch or, as the Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi said, “Best way to avoid punch, no be there.”

Be Prepared

How do you “no be there” when it lands, you ask?

  • Do your homework up frontDraft a good agreement that is very specific about accountabilities and reporting. It may sound trite, but problems only exist if they are already there. A problem is a situation where there isn’t agreement or consensus on the next step. Relationships go south when agreements aren’t clear. Map it out and agree.
  • Have regular check-ins. I ask my clients one question they most likely haven’t been asked before, “What does my competition have to do to get your business?” I take my clients out to lunch and we get into it. I WANT to know, and more importantly, it’s an alternate way of getting information about your client’s needs, which may not be top of their mind.
  • Be brave. If you sense the wheels are about to fly off the wagon, don’t wait for the donkeys to stop on their own. Engage with your client and get it out on the table. Most of us are uncomfortable with confrontation, but having powerful and positive relationships with others requires fortitude, patience, strength, and courage; courage to open up a potentially uncomfortable dialogue and take the initiative to challenge and change the relationship.

We can address our client’s needs all day, but that’s the game everyone’s trying to play.

Great client service is making sure they are taken care of and their needs are addressed immediately.

Don’t wait until they tell you, “We need to talk.”

image credit: shutterstock

Jon Schickedanz

Jon Schickedanz is a veteran media and technology pro, working to help organizations build successful communications strategy while developing the next generation of untapped, creative talent as founder and president of The Alliance Labs... Now, who's ready for pie?

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