It may not rank up there with being dumped by the love of your life, but losing a client or important customer can be painful. You might be left second-guessing yourself, wondering where things went wrong and if you could have done anything differently. Of course, when losing a client, you may also be too panicked to even consider taking your client's departure personally. You may be worried about the massive loss of income to your bank account.
That said, if you stay in business long enough, you may one day experience your biggest client leaving you. It happens all the time, even to wildly successful companies. Just in the last year alone, Chik-fil-A dropped its advertising firm, after 22 years of doing business together, to go with another marketing company. Express Scripts Holding Co. saw its stock plummet after its biggest client, health insurer Anthem, threatened to leave them. And cloud-based HR software provider Zenefits lost its biggest client Jet, an e-commerce company.
So rather than second-guess yourself in the future, you might want to be on the alert now for any signs that you might be on the brink of losing a client.
Big clients often leave clues that they're thinking of heading toward the exits. And if your radar is attuned to those hints, you might be able to do something about it—or at least scramble to find some new big clients to replace that possible loss of revenue. What are some of the red flags that your biggest client is about to depart? There are several to be on the lookout for.
1. Your client is spending less time with you.
This may be one of the most common, ominous sign that trouble could be coming.
Lisa Gerber owns Big Leap Creative, a digital marketing and communications firm in Sandpoint, Idaho. She says she just learned this month that her largest client won't be renewing in 2017.
"I wasn't totally surprised," Gerber says. "The biggest sign was lack of client engagement."
—Maren Hogan, CEO, Red Branch Media
Gerber says that the client often seemed to not have the time to work on marketing. While her company naturally did the heavy lifting, clients have to be able to do their part—but this one rarely did, she says. But despite Gerber sensing this was coming, it was still hard to accept.
"When I first received the news, I panicked," she says. "Then I felt inadequate. Now, I feel like this is the kick in the pants to go out and find work I'm excited about. To do things I haven't been doing with my business because I've been complacent and haven't felt the need to do [them]."
2. Your client's industry is in crisis mode.
As Jellyvision's senior vice president of customer services, Helen Calvin spends much of her time on the phone with the company's most important clients. (Jellyvision, contrary to popular belief, does not sell jelly or anything to do with seeing better; it is an employee benefits communication technology company.)
Calvin points out that every once in awhile, an industry gets roughed up. "Think of the auto industry in 2008, the oil industry in the past few years… That large-scale drama can have a huge ripple effect on other industries related to the troubled industry, and even on smaller players," she says.
Calvin suggests that if you do have an important client in an industry in flux, this may not be the time to take your relationship for granted.
"Send a little extra TLC their way—and make it as easy as possible for them to make your case to their higher-ups even when the you-know-what is hitting the fan," Calvin suggests.
3. Your client's leadership is changing.
Maybe your client's CEO or CFO has stepped down, or perhaps somebody else is out the door.
Either way, "a change to the top brass can have a troubling trickle-down effect," Calvin says. "So pay attention to high-level changes and read those annual shareholder reports; they're going to have big implications for what's coming."
4. Your client is criticizing you.
This may be a fairly obvious sign, but if the gripes have been coming in slowly, you may not notice anything is truly amiss right away.
"If you've been doing a great job for your client for months or even years, and they immediately start demanding more detailed reports [and giving] directions on how to do certain things, they're likely getting ready to make a move," says Maren Hogan, CEO of Red Branch Media, a marketing firm in Omaha, Nebraska.
If this is the case, Hogan suggests taking a lot of screenshots and compiling hard analytics to show what you have done. However she concedes that in many cases, there's likely nothing you can do by this point. A competitor may have reeled in your client, and it may be that whomever you're working for is looking for a graceful way out. For your soon-to-be ex-client that way out could be suggesting you haven't been living up to expectations.
5. You have solved your client's biggest problem.
Huh? Doing your job can mean getting the ol' heave-ho?
Yep. After all, you fixed the problem. Your client may conclude that he or she doesn't need you any longer.
"Seems unfair that the result of you solving a client's biggest problem could make them feel you're not needed anymore… but it happens all the time," Calvin says.
She suggests pointing out—preferably early on, before you solve the big problem—all of the other ways you can help your client. With any luck, long before your client prepares to give you an amicable send-off, your message will resonate.
Read more articles on customer engagement.