When A Client Leaves: How to Learn from Losing

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By Greg Abel

If there’s a single message that’s been drilled into my head after attending the annual Counselors Academy conference for the past five years, it’s this: all of your clients will eventually leave. 
That’s not a terribly uplifting thought, is it? But recognizing that simple fact will do wonders to drive behavior in order to maintain a successful and profitable business. Anticipating client turnover can help agency leaders focus on important activities such as: 

  • Filling the new business pipeline.
  • Creating systems for debriefing and learning from the end of a client engagement.
  • Avoiding future departures from clients you want to keep. 
  • Giving yourself (and your agency) a break – after all, there’s peace of mind in knowing that the end is inevitable.

That last point doesn’t mean, however, that you should just move on and forget about it when a client leaves – or do everything you can to keep the good ones. To the contrary, client departures serve as a useful time for introspection. When a recent question about how to learn from losing a client was posted on the Counselors Facebook page by my colleague Gina Zuk Gerber, many members replied that they have a defined process in place to gather information and understand what happened and why. 

Many also took the opportunity to share how they work on client retention before it’s too late. Here are some of lessons that agency leaders shared:

Jason Mudd, APR, of Axia Public Relations said his firm has a short questionnaire they send out to a departing client with the following three questions:

  • What went wrong?
  • What could we have done to fix it?
  • How likely is it that you would recommend Axia Public Relations to a friend or colleague?  

Aly Sandhause Saxe, a former agency principal and current CEO of the PR software platform, Iris, said her agency would always first ask the team internally, “what did we learn?” Saxe said the only rule during these postmortem discussions was that no one was allowed to blame the client with answers like, “they were unreasonable,” or “their expectations were unrealistic.” Once those discussions took place, her team then asked the client, “how could we improve?” 

Harrison Wise, of Wise Public Relations provided useful tips for asking questions along the way to avoid surprise client departures.  

“It's rare that the end of a client relationship is ever a surprise,” Wise wrote. “I have found that there are signs along the way. To find these signs, I try to sit with clients and assess the relationship on a quarterly basis and recap what we think is working/not working and avoid these surprises or circumstances from occurring. After presenting analysis of our successes and shortfalls I ask them:

  • Are we meeting your needs/challenges?
  • What's working well?
  • What would you like to see more of from us that you're not already getting?
  • What (new) challenges is your business facing that we can help address?
  • In your opinion or experience, is there anywhere we're falling short of expectations?
  • Are your superiors apprised of the impact we're having? And, if not, how can we better communicate this upward?

“I find that if you engage clients along the way and asses periodically or quarterly, a surprise ending to a relationship is avoidable in many instances,” Wise concluded.

Heather Whaling, CEO of Geben Communication of Columbus, Ohio, recommended reading “The Power of Habit” and said her firm identified its keystone habit, “that no client would leave unhappy.”  From there, Heather shared that her firm “identified what ensures clients stay happy, such as communication and perceived value, etc. And we have steps and triggers under each section that our account managers can reference throughout a client relationship. It has drastically improved client management and ultimately retention.

“When our keystone habit is broken, we have a company-wide debriefing using the habit document as the guide so we can learn what went wrong and how we can improve. Using this as the guide takes a lot of the blame and emotion out and allows us to drill down on what specifically happened.”

Finally, here’s a thought to consider – while postmortems offer insight and learnings, another great idea is a pre-mortem. This is a meeting at the start of a client relationship where everyone on the team can talk about what might go wrong. If you start by figuring out how the relationship could blow up, you’ll likely do a better job heading off the drama before it ever happens.

Greg Abel is president of Baltimore-based Abel Communications and a member of the CAPRSA Executive Committee. He can be reached at greg@abelcommunications.com