Nine Warning Signs Your Client Relationship Is Unhealthy

A CEO I was working with noticed that year after year, they were doing slightly less business with a major client. The partner in charge of the account, however, insisted confidently that all was well and that he had a great relationship with the client.

So the CEO visited the client and met with their CEO to review the relationship. Was the CEO satisfied with the quality of the work? Absolutely. Had they been responsive to needs of the CEO’s company? Yes. Did they have high quality team members on the account? Yes. But…when my client asked about the relationship partner who was running the account, the CEO paused. Finally, he shared that the relationship partner was not the right person to lead the relationship. While technically competent, the CEO described him as complacent and not in tune with their new strategy and culture. And, his inability to listen well had aggravated several of their top executives.

Clients rarely sit you down to share their dissatisfactions with your relationship. More often, they simply vote with their feet and slowly give additional business to your competitors. Or, one day you discover they are asking for proposals from other firms to do your work. In my client’s case, they were lucky they discovered the problem when they did.

Within six months of installing a new partner to run the account, the negative revenue trend was reversed.

Here are nine warning signs your relationship may be in danger:

1. You seem to be the last to learn about your client’s new strategies and initiatives. In a healthy relationship, your client should be sharing their priorities and plans with you early on—even consulting with you when they are at the earliest stages of planning. If you’re learning about them at the same time everyone else is, this could indicate that your relevance is decreasing and there is not a deep level of trust.

2. Your revenue from the client is shrinking. There may be many reasons, which have nothing to do with the quality of your relationship, for why this is happening–for example, the client may be having a severe financial crisis, or the previous year there may have been an unusually high demand for your services (e.g., due to a major transaction). However, relationships tend to either move forward or backwards—they rarely remain the same. If your revenue is consistently shrinking, this should be an eye-opener for you and a trigger to do a very thorough review of the relationship.

3. Your client is micro-managing you. If your client is watching your every move, insisting on frequent checks of your work, and allowing you little autonomy, there is a lack of trust. Without deep trust in you and your ability to deliver, you’ll struggle to grow the relationship and build the broader network of executive relationships that is so essential to growing a client account.

4. You’re starting to see your competitors more often. When you start learning, by accident, that your client is utilizing your competitors for new projects, this could be a sign that your influence and clout are waning. The same is true if new competitors, who you’ve never seen before at the client, start showing up on the scene.

5. The relationship manager or account leader consistently says everything is always going well and never asks for help. If this is the message you are being sold, caveat emptor. First, things are never always going well in a client relationship. And second, an account leader can almost always use help—colleagues who are subject matter experts, investment resources, training, ideas for new ways to add value to the relationship, and so on.

6. Your relationship is highly dependent on one executive. It’s great to have a trusted advisor relationship with one key executive. But without a broader set of relationships within the client’s organization, if that person leaves or changes roles and longer needs your services, you may be sunk.

7. You have no trusted advisor relationships–no one at the client seems to really want to have a relationship with you. If you have no strong relationships with any individual executives at a client, then you will always be a vendor who can be cut at any time. And, you will often be asked to compete in cutthroat RFPs for every piece of new work.

8. The relationship consistently consumes more time and resources than you expected. If the relationship is always tilted in favor of the client, and you find you are always giving and giving and never reaping sufficient financial rewards (e.g., your profitability and total profit is poor), then something is amiss.

9. You are unhappy and frustrated with the relationship. If you are not happy in the relationship, it’s hard to give your all and be enthusiastic about serving the client. It doesn’t necessarily mean the account is about to collapse, but it will eventually if your own attitude and feelings don’t change. You need to analyze why you’re dissatisfied and what the issues are that need to be addressed.

In some cases, there may be offsetting factors that blunt some of these negative indicators—for example, if the client is a leader in its industry and working for them yields you other important benefits. Nonetheless, if two or three of these factors are present, it’s time to investigate further.

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