Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

How you react when your customer dumps you can mean a future second chance

Breaking up, splitting up, getting dumped — they are all phrases used for when a relationship ends. Most of us have been on either end or both of these scenarios in our lives. The scenario exists in the business world as well, and how a supplier responds when a buyer ends their relationship can actually open the door to a fresh start together — or shut that door permanently.

The reasons a buyer might dump a supplier are somewhat similar to dating:

  • Someone better came along. They weren’t looking, but another vendor came along that provides better service, pricing, quality or all three.
  • Broken trust. The supplier violated the customer’s policy/ethics and the buyer sends the supplier packing. “I know you have a no contact policy, but I just can’t help myself.”
  • Growing apart. Let’s just be friends/it’s not you, it’s me/we’ve grown apart, something that just says we’re just not a good match for each other. Neither is wrong about how they want to do business, but it’s just no longer a fit or never really was.

How a supplier reacts can resemble dating as well:

  • Go psycho. This is where you don’t go quietly and actually make a transition more difficult. Even worse, you attempt to hurt your ex, which eliminates the chance for reconciliation down the road.
  • Assume no blame. Go away quietly and tell everyone that it had nothing to do with you and it was all the customer’s fault.
  • Grow from it. Try to understand, asking what you could have done better to keep the business. Ask if you can check back in six months to share how you have improved your service/ product?

In the last 12 months, I have been through each of those scenarios. In two cases, my suppliers had failed miserably, but they politely stayed in contact, learned from our feedback and asked for another chance. After 12 months, it was granted. One of the suppliers has become one of our largest suppliers and the other one is making tough placements with one of our most difficult customer groups. In both situations we are glad we gave them a second chance and I think they are happy they took this approach to improve. Those are my successes.

On the other hand, we gave one supplier numerous opportunities to improve, but it never made the commitment to seize those opportunities. We had to walk away from a really long relationship, but we just felt taken for granted.

Another case was much worse, and instead of parting as friends that could someday get back together, they will never be a supplier for us again. The company has never taken ownership of its errors and just blames us or another supplier for its own shortcomings.

So here’s my advice. First, always be courting! Don’t forget your current customers while you are chasing new ones. No news is not necessarily good news — are you pushing yourself at this client to be their best supplier? The one they count on in tough times? Or, do you just take it easy because you are established and have been there a long time? Second, learn to say no. Sometimes it is not a good match. Don’t try to change your customer and if you say you are going to meet their needs, make sure you can. It is OK to say “That is not what we do, but I can give two names of someone that does.”

I realize it’s a two-way street and we buyers have our obligations to our suppliers. We should be transparent with you, letting you know what you are doing well and what needs to improve long before we decide to say goodbye. And we should recognize when we might need to keep an open mind and listen — that sometimes we might need to change or adapt because a supplier has a new way of doing things that could actually benefit us.

I will admit that I am the last person to give anyone “dating” advice, but I hope you can use my experience and insight to make your relationships with your customers the best they can be