Tread Lightly When Bringing an Old Job's Clients to Your New Business

There's a difference between using contacts and stealing clients. Here's how to maintain good relationships all around.
February 17, 2012

In today’s economy, many people have turned to entrepreneurship because it offers better career prospects than a traditional job. The number of minority owned firms, for instance, increased at more than twice the rate of all businesses in the U.S.—to 5.8 million businesses—from 2002 to 2007, according to recently released data from a U.S. Census Bureau survey.

It makes sense for entrepreneurs to tap their past contacts to grow their businesses successfully. However, if you’re reaching out to clients you worked with at a former employer, proceed carefully. A past employer will not be happy if a client departs to work with you. That can spark negative word-of-mouth within an industry, something that no business wants.

However, with a deft approach you can reduce the chances of this happening and maintain a good relationship with your past firm. Here are some tips from Andrea Nierenberg, author of Nonstop Networking and president of The Nierenberg Group, an executive training, recruiting, and consulting firm in New York.

Keep in touch with multiple contacts

While you were employed in a corporate job, chances are you knew several people who worked for the company’s client firms. You probably worked with one person the most, but may also have had some passing contact with their administrative team, folks in other departments involved in their projects, and so on.

Now that you’re on your own, find ways to be helpful to both your main point of contact at those firms and the ancillary folks you knew there. If you come across an article or job lead that may help them, pass it along. People’s roles may have changed since you last worked together, and some folks who were not in a position to hire you a few years ago may now be able to do so. And if some contacts have left to move to another department or other firm, they may become a source of additional business for you.

Keep it legal

Before you formally approach any clients of a past employer, check over the paperwork you signed when you left. If you’ve signed a non-compete agreement, you may not be able to market to customers from a past employer for a certain period of time. When in doubt, ask your lawyer.

Keep in touch, without being heavy handed

Even if you are bound by a noncompete agreement, it probably doesn’t bar you from, for instance sending a holiday card to past clients or e-mailing them an article that you think they’ll find useful. As long as you’re not soliciting business, “There’s no rule saying you can’t send a note saying `I hope you’re doing well,’” says Nierenberg. Taking steps to stay top of mind will make it easier to reconnect when you are free to compete for their business.

Keep it positive

Never say negative things about your former employer if you are trying to bring a client to your new company, even you have legitimate criticisms. You’ll create a more professional impression if you find a way to sell your own merits without pointing out the shortcomings of your former firm. Nierenberg recommends saying something neutral, like: “I know you’re a client of my former firm. I respect the work they do. I’d like to be able to work with you at my new firm.”

Stand your ground

While you want to keep a friendly relationship with your past employer, that doesn’t mean you should always sacrifice your own best interests to do so. Some companies or executives feel like they “own” particular clients and that former employees who go out on their own should never attempt to win those customers’ business. “It’s ridiculous,” says Nierenberg.

If a past employer warns you not to pursue a customer, and there is no legal agreement barring you from doing so, handle it tactfully. For instance, if you worked for an entrepreneur, tell him or her that while you value your relationship, you share the entrepreneurial bug, too, and want to build your own business. You might say, “I know that you wouldn’t want to hold me back from pursuing my dream, also,” she recommends. Your former boss may not like it, but deep down, he or she will probably understand your drive to succeed.

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist specializing in entrepreneurship whose work has appeared in, BNET, Crain’s New York Business, CBS Moneywatch, Good Housekeeping, Inc., Working Mother and many other publications. A former senior editor of Fortune Small Business magazine and editor of its website, she does editorial consulting for online and print publications.

Photo credit: emyerson