The 4 most important best practices for handling client cancellations
By Brian Casey
“We love working with you, but we just don’t have the budget to continue,” is the business equivalent of getting dumped because you’re not marriage material.
As a content trainer at IMPACT, I coach clients on creating content that helps them make money. In my role as a content trainer, I got dumped.
Part of working for an agency is a natural and expected level of client turnover, but that doesn’t detract from the feeling you get when a client leaves.
When I saw my first client cancellation notice come through, my heart dropped.
I had really started to hit my groove. On a weekly basis, I was finding unique and creative ways to deliver value with every client call. The growth in writing quality and the strategic focus of every article was starting to show consistently.
Then with one simple Slack message my momentum and confidence came to a halt. And this wasn’t coming to a slow gradual stop at a red light. It felt more similar to getting whiplash after slamming on the brakes on a highway.
I was flooded with feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and failure.
First, some background
I came to IMPACT from another inbound marketing agency where I established myself and was creating big picture strategies for our largest clients. My coworkers knew they could count on me to drive value for clients. Upper management leaned on me for several projects with key clients.
I was even given a job title of growth strategist — a job that had not existed prior to that moment. (In this role I worked across all of our accounts at a high level to make sure our approach was going to generate traffic, leads and sales.)
I came to IMPACT in August of 2019, and even though it was a new role I was ready to hit the ground running. Like any great company, there was an on-boarding and training period where I wasn’t working with clients or handling a large workload.
At times my will to want to dive in headfirst battled the prevailing logic of taking time to be trained properly to do my job well.
I’ve coached a top 25 college Ultimate Frisbee team for eight years and one of the big things that I teach my team is the concept of “everybody rows.”
Imagine you’re on a boat and everybody has a paddle. If one person chooses not to paddle, everybody else has to do a little bit more to make up for it. When everybody rows, teams move more quickly and hit goals faster.
In the time of my on-boarding and ramp-up at IMPACT, it didn’t feel like I was doing much paddling. At my core, it bothered me to think I wasn’t providing value to my team. I was eager to help offload some work from other consultants and handle a full client load.
It wasn’t long after that, however, I got my first couple of clients. At the time our content consulting program was still evolving, and I didn’t have as much experience as coworkers. In spite of it all, I was hell bent on being a great consultant and partner to my clients.
Fast forward two months, and we’re paddling right along.
One of my first clients was producing high-quality content consistently, learning the SEO ropes and our calls were great. Their content strategy was becoming focused and sales-driven and driving relevant traffic. They’d even made the decision to move forward with hiring a full-time writer based on the work we’d done.
We were doing all of the right things, working together to hit business goals, and forming a great relationship.
Then I got that Slack message with the cancellation notice out of nowhere.
I reread the email a couple of times, thinking that it had to be a mistake. All signs were pointing to positive trends, our calls had a great rapport, and we were just starting to get some momentum.
Questions started racing through my mind. What did I do wrong? Are you even good at this whole content consulting thing?
I was three months into my content consulting career and I’d already failed.
Processing the information
The way that my brain is wired, I need to understand the why behind everything.
It’s tough for me to do something without understanding the motivation behind it. In my mind, I really just didn’t understand the situation that I found myself in. Sometimes you have a feeling that a client relationship isn’t going as well as it should be. This just wasn’t that type of situation.
In the cancellation note, the client also let me know that they absolutely loved working with me. They’d grown so much in our short time together that they were ready to “graduate” from consulting. They felt good about taking what they’d learned and continuing the momentum on their own.
At the surface, this seems like positive feedback. It would be easy to pat myself on the back for a job well done. Still, as I sat there processing all of this, I found myself having to push myself to dig deeper to focus on what I could improve.
The reality of the situation for me — and anybody who works with clients, really — is to have a critical level of self-awareness.
Without this, you’ll miss out on opportunities to learn, develop, and grow in your role.
Lessons learned from this experience
Lesson #1: See beyond the surface-level niceties and look at the facts
Fact: The client fired us.
Fact: The client had the money for this initiative when they signed.
Fact: If the value of what I was delivering was high enough, money would be found to continue consulting.
People are generally nice. Saying something to help minimize the blow of bad news is natural human nature. Digging past the surface allows you to think analytically about the truths behind an action. Focusing on the facts will allow any business owner, consultant or salesperson to learn from a difficult situation like getting fired.
Lesson #2 Every interaction is an opportunity to show value
Everybody has a busy schedule and competing priorities on a daily basis. In fact, I typically have no less than twenty meetings per week. But if I don’t go into every call with the intention of creating so much value that a client needs what I’m offering, I’ve missed an opportunity.
Beyond that, it’s not just a missed opportunity. It’s a failure of the responsibility that I have as a partner to bring my best to the table every single time.
There is no room for off-days where my consulting calls are good, but not great. Being mindful and approaching each client interaction with attention and focus on the present is what clients deserve.
Lesson #3: Always choose candor over comfort
As much as I’d like to be, I’m never going to be right all of the time. Regardless of what you do in life, if you don’t know what you could be doing better, it’ll never improve.It’s easy when dealing with clients to avoid difficult conversations.
Being liked is a basic human instinct. But clients hire us at IMPACT to push them to grow and learn. And sometimes that means having difficult conversations and forcing that growth.
Lesson #4: Tie everything back to goals
Clients always have important KPIs or goals that are written down and agreed on every year. First, any business must understand the goals of their clients. But then everything that you do as a consultant or partner needs to be driving towards those stated goals.
Our content coaching curriculum goes over dozens of valuable topics. But in a vacuum, they’re valuable, but potentially not relevant. That is unless you can make them relevant.
A common goal for content consulting clients is to create content that makes money. Framing each call by tying it back to the goal allows the client to see how what we learned will help create money-making content. Value without relevance isn’t valuable.
Finally, realize that you failed, but not a failure
Losing a client sucks. For most of us though, it’s also a pretty unavoidable reality. When a client relationship ends, it’s human nature to second guess yourself. The trick is to use the moments of doubt and failure to fuel your desire to improve in your role.
Lean into those feelings you get when you don’t meet expectations, because without them you’ll have no motivation to be a better version of yourself.
Acknowledge where you might have gone wrong. Sit for a moment in the disappointment you’re feeling. Then take inventory of how you can do it better the next time, and start implementing that new approach right away.
Wondering where to begin?